MISSOULA, Mont. — The 67th Montana legislative session starts in 18 days, and after hours of hearings and public comment Wednesday, the session will move forward in person with an option for virtual participation but without COVID-19 measures proposed by Democratic lawmakers.
The Joint House and Senate Rules Committee voted against holding the session remotely, against delaying the session until vaccines are readily available and against requiring weekly COVID-19 rapid tests -- all Democratic proposals in the committee.
They approved a measure from Republican state Sen. Jason Ellsworth that will create a COVID-19 panel made up of leadership to consider any rules or responses related to the virus, which also allows for remote participation. Democrats opposed it, comparing it to kicking a can down the road instead of being proactive.
Several people spoke out against an in-person session during the public comment period, from the CEO of the Montana Nurses Association to a Billings doctor interviewed by NBC Nightly News earlier this year who came out of retirement to help with COVID-19, both in New York and in Montana.
“I have seen the suffering this virus has caused,” said Dr. Kris Spanjian. “As our leaders, it is important that you model respect for others by following the public health guidelines. This is respect for small business owners, respect for educators and school children and respect for our health care workers and first responders. Please do not be so self-absorbed in this issue.”
Others making public comment, including a Helena teacher, asked lawmakers to at least wear masks while in session, something many GOP leaders have not done at the state Capitol this fall.
“I would like to comment to lawmakers that there’s really no reason why you can’t wear a mask either or adapt to online,” Katy Wright, the elementary teacher, said. “You are examples for our young children. Our children watch what you do.”
Republicans and Democrats drew party lines in the sand early on, debating the outcomes of holding the session in person. Ellsworth acknowledged that members will possibly get sick but cited the effectiveness of holding the session in person, including that the Helena Chamber of Commerce has said the local economy relies on it.
“People are suffering, and that’s a fact,” Ellsworth said. “Us being here will allow us to get some good legislation through with a responsible governor that will sign that legislation, and it will benefit businesses, which will benefit people.”
A Democratic state senator from Belgrade, Pat Flowers, called it common sense and human decency to put safeguards in place to protect businesses, lawmakers and the host city of Helena, where many officials have recommended holding the session remotely, including the county health officer. Flowers said there’s clear evidence of failed experiments in other states’ legislatures where there have been outbreaks and deaths, most recently in New Hampshire, where the Speaker of the House died from COVID-19.
“We're going to get people sick or just, no question about it, some people may die as a result of this action, let's be very clear about that,” Flowers said. “Now, I hope you're all prepared to take that on as responsibility when you vote on this. There are no safeguards with this. It’s inexcusable, it's an irresponsible act.”
Republican Rep. Derek Skees made a point to say procedures related to COVID-19 are coming, they’re just not written in the rules.
“There is a strong plan from the Republican Party. This plan is going to deal with making sure we're safe in the session. I'm just tired of this narrative trying to beat us up and drag us in the mud because we don't want to put stuff in our rules,” Skees said.
One Democratic state senator told NBC Montana they haven’t seen any of those policy proposals.
The full legislature will have to vote on what was passed when it convenes Jan. 4, when more amendments could be added.