HELENA — Montana’s 2021 Legislature kicked off here Monday, in-person and, for some, remotely – but lawmakers and their well-wishers still packed portions of the Capitol for opening ceremonies, and most Republicans did not wear face masks.
The unprecedented session, held in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, will be a mix of in-person meetings and remote participation, as lawmakers begin work on the state budget and hundreds of bills.
Republicans, who control substantial majorities in both the Senate and House, said voters gave them a mandate to carry out new Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte’s business-friendly agenda, to reopen an economy battered by the pandemic.
Gianforte, a Bozeman businessman and former congressman, was sworn in at the Capitol at a limited-attendance ceremony in the governor’s conference room Monday morning. He said Montanans have been asked to make many sacrifices the past year, because of COVID-19, and that his inauguration was no different.
“There are no large crowds at the Capitol; there are no celebrations,” he said of the event. “It’s important to me to do what you have had to do, to do things differently than we had before.”
Yet three hours later in the Capitol, most of the 100 House members attended their swearing-in ceremony at the House chamber, sitting side-by-side, with a mostly packed gallery and many spectators not wearing face-masks.
All Democrats who attended wore face-masks; most Republican House members did not.
It was the same in the Senate – although about half of the body’s 19 Democrats chose to attend the swearing-in remotely, via the Internet, and were not in the chamber.
Still, Republican leaders insisted they are committed to conducting the session safely.
“It is my priority to ensure a safe and healthy working environment for all in the Capitol building this session,” said House Speaker Wylie Galt, R-Martinsdale. “That includes virtual participation for legislators and constituents. This will be the most accessible legislative session in history.”
Democrats, for their part, said they’re eager to get to work on issues that they believe are important to citizens of the state.
“Our caucus is ready to build on our investment in infrastructure, to protect our gains in access to health care and to make sure that we’re investing in public education,” said House Minority Leader Kim Abbott, D-Helena. “These are things that Montana families need to thrive and survive across the state, and we hope that you’ll join us.”
Republicans hold a 67-33 majority in the House and a 31-19 margin in the Senate.
At the Capitol’s rear entrance, which is often used by legislators, several Helena residents picketed Monday morning, imploring lawmakers to wear face-masks to prevent the spread of Covid-19.
“Real men wear masks,” one of their signs said.
In front of the Capitol, Trump supporters gathered for their own rally Monday, waving Trump flags and wielding signs with conservative slogans. Organizers of the event, on Facebook, also criticized moderate Republicans for undermining conservative goals.
Back inside the Capitol, conservatives lost a skirmish on the House floor over the current session rules.
Conservatives tried to enact temporary House rules that they said would give conservative, Republican leadership a clear, efficient hand to enact the will of GOP voters. Those rules would replace, for now, 2019 rules that had given moderates and Democrats more power to influence actions by GOP House leaders.
Rep. Brad Tschida, R-Missoula and part of the conservative bloc, said the 2019 rules tied the hands of GOP leaders to run the House effectively.
“I for one do not want to face the people back home who told me please do as we asked you – please enforce rules that are going to free up the people of the state of Montana and allow them to exercise personal responsibility and personal freedoms which have been denied to them in the last 10 months,” he said.
But the motion to enact the temporary rules was defeated 42-58, with all Democrats and some Republicans opposed. The House then voted 82-18 to re-adopt the 2019 rules, while House members attempt to work out a new set of rules for the 2021 session.
The session’s schedule is fairly light this opening week, as committees hold organizational meetings to familiarize themselves with technology that will allow people to take part remotely.
But Gianforte is scheduled to unveil his proposed changes to the state budget on Thursday, after which House-Senate budget panels will start examining the state’s 2022-23 biennial budget.