HELENA — A Montana lawmaker’s decision to block residents from testifying before a Senate committee via videoconferencing didn’t last very long Tuesday before the chairs of all Senate committees decided to allow such testimony during the coronavirus pandemic.
State Sen. Keith Regier, a Kalispell Republican, said Tuesday morning the Senate Judiciary Committee would not allow the public to testify over Zoom, but that the committee would take submitted written comments, which the committee has done before in non-pandemic sessions.
“For 130 years, people have been coming to this building to testify on bills. They rode their horse, their old Model T, but they came here physically to the Capitol. And I’ve decided not to accept Zoom testimony from witnesses outside of the building here,” Regier said.
A short time later, Senate committee leaders, including Regier, met and decided to allow remote testimony before all committees after lawmakers understood that people would be required to register the day before the hearing if they wished to testify remotely, said Kyle Schmauch, a spokesperson for the Senate Republican caucus.
The Legislative session is being held under a hybrid model that allows lawmakers to participate remotely to limit the spread of COVID-19. The Legislative Services Division created a webpage where people can register to testify remotely or upload written testimony on bills.
Most Republicans, who hold 98 of the 150 seats in the House and Senate, plan to come to the state Capitol daily, while Democrats have said some in their caucuses will participate virtually. Many Republican lawmakers are not wearing masks.
Regier initially said people could come to the Capitol and testify via video from a separate room if they did not want to appear in the committee room. The committee in previous sessions has heard passionate testimony on bills about abortion, the death penalty and aid-in-dying.
Sen. Bryce Bennett, a Democrat from Missoula who objected to the proposal, said distancing measures might be possible in a separate room or large meeting space but accessing the Capitol to get there could put the public at risk.
“It’s nice and well to say that there is social distancing in this room, people can wear masks in this room. But to get up to this room, as we all know, you have to come through crowded hallways, you have to run into a whole bunch of folks,” Bennett said. “And for a lot of people, especially those in vulnerable conditions, that’s a real challenge. And I just don’t want to silence the voices of anyone here in Montana.”
Editor’s Note: This story was first published on Jan. 5, 2021. It was updated on Jan. 6, 2021, to make clear that fellow senators did not overturn Sen. Keith Regier’s decision to disallow remote testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, which he chairs. He joined in the decision.
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