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Unprecedented Montana Legislature opens Monday, during a pandemic

Freshman Rep. Marvin Weatherwax, Jr., D-Browning, looks up at the results of a roll call vote on Rep. Peppers’ bill to streamline missing persons reports, which passed its first vote 100-0 on Jan. 18, 2019. Weatherwax joined the Legislature after watching his dad serve on a tribal council. (Shaylee Ragar/UM Legislative News Service file photo)

HELENA — Under normal circumstances, the top storyline on the 2021 Montana Legislature would be Republicans in control of the Senate, House and governorship for the first time in 16 years, with a glidepath to enact conservative policy.

That’s still a story – but looming above it all is the COVID-19 pandemic, which will shape not only policy but also the very operations of the Legislature, with many lawmakers, staffers and members of the public unwilling to even enter the Capitol.

To deal with this reality, the Legislature is preparing to allow any of its members, and the public, to take part remotely, via the Internet.

“Anybody that does not feel comfortable either being in the committee room or on the floor chambers can participate just as they have before, and be able to participate remotely, through Zoom,” said Senate President Mark Blasdel, R-Kalispell. “We’re working with our staff to make everything as adaptable as possible.”

Lawmakers usually are sworn-in the first day, en masse, in a packed House chambers at the Capitol.

Blasdel said this year, on opening day Monday, some lawmakers will be in the House chambers for the swearing-in, but others will be scattered throughout the Capitol, or even at home, taking part via the Internet.

But one thing majority Republicans won’t be doing is requiring lawmakers or, apparently, the public, to wear face masks while attending the session at the Capitol. It’s also unclear how social-distancing may be enforced in the usually crowded hallways of a legislative session.

Democrats, who are in the minority, have blasted Republicans for not wearing or requiring masks or spelling out a clear plan on how social-distancing will be achieved during the 2021 session. The lack of a plan or regulations is putting lawmakers and the public at risk, Democrats say.

“Our concern is for communities all across the state that can be impacted by bad behavior at the Capitol,” said House Minority Leader Kim Abbott, D-Helena. “We need a clear plan that’s safe. … I think we have a lot of work to do and I think we have to do it quickly.”

Abbot said Democratic members who attend in-person will be wearing masks and observing public-health protocols.

Blasdel said all Republican senators wanted to attend the session in person and opposed mask requirements, saying it should be left to the individual to decide.

But Republicans, who control a 67-33 majority in the House and 31-19 margin in the Senate, are creating a COVID-19 Response Panel of legislative leaders. It will meet the first week and periodically, to decide what actions may need to be taken to respond to any health concerns during the session.

“We’re going to have to adjust as we go,” Blasdel told MTN News.

As for policy, Republicans say they’re eager to work with a Republican governor – Greg Gianforte, who will be sworn in Monday – to enact policies they say will help re-open the pandemic-battered economy and make things easier for business.

Gianforte is expected to issue new COVID-19 guidelines next week, and leading Republicans say they’ll be helping Gianforte enact his “Montana Comeback Plan,” a policy guide he put out last summer, during the campaign.

The Comeback Plan is 12 pages long, packed with dozens of initiatives that include economic, social, education and tax policy changes.

When asked what Republicans plan more specifically to focus on, they say they want to change the attitude and stance of state agencies toward business, such as environmental regulations or other regulatory approaches.

“I think just adding a layer of predictability – if you go in and you file this, if you check these boxes, that this is the time frame it should be done in, for that process to move forward,” Blasdel said.

He also said that Republicans want to emphasize protection and expansion of personal freedoms – of speech, religion, or the right to bear arms, for example.

“I hope we show that we can lead and legislate and lead the state of Montana on a path toward more growth and economic freedom for the years to come,” Blasdel said.

But lawmakers also must tackle the state budget, which, because of the pandemic, won’t have much revenue for new initiatives.

Gianforte himself has said not to expect any grand, sweeping proposals – but, rather, incremental changes to help improve the state’s economic path.

“I’ve played a lot of football, and I think you win games with three- to five-yard plays,” he told MTN News. “And we’re going to run a set of plays here in this first legislative session that are directionally correct, that helps Montanans start to prosper again. And then we’re going to huddle up, move the chains and run some more plays.”

Gianforte also met personally with Democratic legislative leaders, who said they may find areas of agreement with the new governor, on items such as expanding Internet access into rural and suburban Montana and beefing up trades and technical education.

But Democrats say they still fear possible attempts by Republicans to dismantle or undo policies that Democrats installed in recent years, such as expanding Medicaid coverage for low-income Montanans.

“We hope that we can partner with them to deliver for communities,” Abbot said. “But we’re going to be there to hold them accountable to governing in a responsible way.”