Sen. Cary Smith, top, and Rep. Derek Skees, lower left, preside over the Joint Rules Committee on Monday, December 7, 2020. Credit: Screenshot from Montana Public Affairs Network livestream

HELENA — Lawmakers who sit on the House and Senate rules committees convened virtually and at the state Capitol this week to debate how the upcoming legislative session should operate as COVID-19 continues to spread across the state.

After presiding over spirited and often heated discussions about several measures, including mask requirements and allowing lawmakers to participate virtually, newly appointed leadership said the Joint Rules Committee will reconvene on Wednesday, Dec. 16, to take action on the proposed amendments. 

“We’re trying to be as fair as possible,” said Senate Majority Leader Cary Smith, R-Billings. “We are really trying hard to accommodate everyone. And no matter what we do, there are going to be people who aren’t going to be happy.” 

One proposal would create a COVID-19 Response Panel comprising the mostly Republican legislative leadership. The group would be responsible for deciding when lawmakers can work virtually and how the public can participate in legislative proceedings, among other duties. The widely discussed proposal, brought by Republican Sen. Jason Ellsworth of Hamilton, was criticized by some lawmakers who said it would divert responsibilities away from the Joint Rules Committee itself, which represents both chambers.

“The Rules Committee is the body that is tasked with determining the structure and procedure for the session, and we should have done that today,” said Sen. JP Pomnichowski, D-Bozeman. “We know largely what we need to do this session. We don’t need a separate body.” 

“My body has my own mask system. I exhale what my body doesn’t want. When you have a mask on, it holds it in. It holds it in, so you can re-breathe that negative that your body just put out.”

Rep. Barry Usher, R-Billings

Democrats proposed multiple amendments in line with the latest public health guidance, which would enable virtual participation and require adherence to health precautions by legislators and staff who appear in person, including social distancing and temperature checks. Several Republicans spoke against those amendments, sometimes referencing inaccurate theories about masks and herd immunity in their arguments. 

“My body has my own mask system. I exhale what my body doesn’t want. When you have a mask on, it holds it in. It holds it in, so you can re-breathe that negative that your body just put out,” said Rep. Barry Usher, R-Billings.

The latest guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says masks help prevent the spread of illness by blocking the droplets that are emitted when people speak and breathe. They have not been found to cause increased contamination for the wearer.

Local public health officials in Lewis and Clark County have strongly recommended that the upcoming session be held virtually. If lawmakers and staff must be present, those officials said, diligent protocols should be implemented to prevent the spread of the virus through airborne droplets and close contact between people. 

The tension between lawmakers and the range of viewpoints represented is one reason leadership decided to delay any executive action, Smith said, reiterating that there will be more time next Wednesday to debate the proposed changes and offer new amendments.

“I know there’s a real desire to say, ‘Can’t you guys just make up your minds to what you’re going to do,’ but that’s a difficult thing because we’re not to that point,” Smith said. “Imagine trying to get 150 people to agree on something, or at least something we can live with.”

Democratic lawmakers also voiced strong opposition to the brief and sole public comment period during Monday’s Joint Rules Committee meeting, which they said took place before proposed changes were thoroughly introduced or understood. A motion to add an additional public comment period after lawmakers debated failed along partisan lines, with Democrats voting in favor and Republicans voting against.

Smith repeatedly said the public will have additional opportunities to comment on Wednesday, and before the full House and Senate votes to take up the proposed rule changes when the session formally begins in January. Public comment can also be submitted online.

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Mara covers Montana’s social welfare, criminal justice and legal systems. She also tracks policy and social issues that affect LGBTQ+ people. Prior to joining Montana Free Press, Mara worked at Slate and WNYC, where she focused on radio and podcasts. She got her start in audio journalism as an intern at Montana Public Radio. Contact Mara at msilvers@montanafreepress.org, 406-465-3386 ext. 3, and follow her on Twitter.