State Sen. Fred Thomas, pictured here in January 2020: “We’re under an emergency scenario in this state, where we have to deal with things and do things.” Credit: Freddy Monares / UM Legislative News Service

HELENA — Republican lawmakers from the Joint Senate and House Rules Committee met Thursday in an unusual effort to propose changes to legislative rules before the 2021 session. 

Democratic lawmakers boycotted the meeting, insisting that it was illegitimate and that discussing rule changes can wait until November, when the rules committee normally convenes.

Republican lawmakers said the committee was within its right to meet, and the urgency warranted, given the circumstances created by the COVID-19 pandemic. Typically, the rules committee meets before the beginning of the legislative session but after elections in November.

“We’re under an emergency scenario in this state, where we have to deal with things and do things,” said Sen. Fred Thomas, R-Stevensville. “We want [the] public, the Legislature, the candidates for the Legislature, everybody, to know how it might work,” he said, referring to the upcoming session. 

One of the amendments discussed Thursday involved whether legislators could be polled remotely, a question Thomas said is relevant given the possibility of a legislative session where many lawmakers may need to work from home.

Mike Meloy, an attorney for the Democrats on the committee, submitted a letter explaining the minority party’s opposition to the meeting. 

“The power of the legislature may not be exercised in the absence of a special or regular session properly convened. And, it certainly cannot be exercised by a standing committee acting during an interim,” Meloy stated in the letter sent to Republican lawmakers on Wednesday.

“Should you hold an illegitimate meeting of the Joint Rules Committee tomorrow, any action taken will have no legal force or effect and any such effort will be challenged in court,” the letter said. 

The committee, which did not have a quorum of lawmakers from both the House and Senate, did not take action on any proposed amendments. Rather, legislative rule changes were debated with the intention to deliver the proposals to all members of the Legislature and reconvene on Thursday of next week. 

Among the items under discussion is an amendment that would let lawmakers pass joint resolutions between legislative sessions. Democrats say that rule change would lay the groundwork to allow Republicans to overturn Gov. Steve Bullock’s March declaration of emergency, which authorized Bullock to implement a series of executive orders, including one granting Montana counties the ability to conduct mail-in voting before the election.

“The reason this is happening now is because Republicans are looking to sow confusion and undermine the state’s response to this unprecedented public health crisis and, frankly, the November election,” said House Minority Leader Rep. Casey Schreiner, D-Great Falls, in a call with reporters before the meeting. 

Republican lawmakers did not reference revoking the governor’s emergency declaration during Thursday’s meeting. After the proceeding concluded, however, Thomas said that polling lawmakers on that issue could be within their power.  

“We could next week bring in a resolution to pass and propose to the full body that would close the emergency off,” Thomas said, referring to the emergency order. “But that’s not the plan at this point in time at all.”

Even if the rules committee were to approve that proposal next week, its prospects and impact would be unclear, in part because of the legal challenges Democrats are threatening. Without calling for a special session, Democrats say, any action the rules committee takes at this point is unauthorized.

“Holding this meeting is a move without precedent and without legitimacy,” said Rep. Kim Abbott, who called in to the meeting during the public comment portion. “Any action you took here today will not go unchallenged.”

Thomas and legislative staff attorneys said that revised amendments will be mailed to all lawmakers in the coming days, and that lawmakers are invited to submit comments until Wednesday, the day before the committee plans to reconvene.

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Silvers returns to her home state from producing Slate’s daily news podcast What Next. Before that she worked as a producer and reporter in the WNYC/Gothamist newsroom at New York Public Radio. Her work has been featured on NPRThe United States of Anxiety, The Takeaway, Nancy, and Montana Public Radio. Contact Mara at msilvers@montanafreepress.org and follow her on Twitter.