HELENA — The week before the start of a Montana legislative session is always a busy time. This year, with new precautions due to COVID-19, there’s more work than ever to prepare.
“A little special attention this year; we’re doing things differently,” said Brad Murfitt, who has served as the Montana House’s sergeant-at-arms for three sessions.
The 2021 session will start on Monday, Jan. 4. This week, staff have been going through the Montana State Capitol’s committee rooms – cleaning and sanitizing them and reorganizing the seating so lawmakers will be distanced.
Room 102, a large room on the Capitol’s first floor, always hosts the influential House Appropriations Committee.
“Usually there’s around 22 to 24 committee members, two staffers and a clerk, and so that would be about 27 people,” Murfitt said. “Now that we’re trying to do social distancing, we have about 18 to 20, max, in the room.”
This week, the Legislative Services Division announced they had reached a decision, along with the House Speaker and Senate President, to have some committee staff work remotely for the first two weeks of the session. Executive director Susan Fox said the change would give committee chairs time to figure out the best way forward.
Fox said many of the staff members will be working from their offices in the Capitol and that, with support from leadership, they were asking legislators who interacted with them to wear masks and maintain distance.
It’s not clear yet how many legislators will be taking part in the session remotely. The committee rooms and House chamber are being outfitted with TVs so those who choose not to be at the Capitol in person can join over Zoom.
Murfitt said they will clean committee rooms after each meeting – including between a morning meeting and an afternoon meeting. He said, at night, they’ll spray all the rooms with a disinfectant.
Even the microphones legislators and the public use will have disposable covers, changed every time someone new speaks. Murfitt estimated they’ll go through about 26,700 covers during the session.
Ordinarily, most committee rooms have several dozen seats for people who want to testify on bills. With staff spreading out the lawmakers’ seats for distancing, most of those seats won’t be available.
Senate President Mark Blasdel, a Republican from Kalispell, said they may have to stagger who is allowed for a bill hearing. He also noted they plan to allow people to testify in writing or over Zoom, if they register the day before. The “MT Have Your Say” option is currently listed as “coming soon” on the Legislature’s website.
“So that the public has as many ways to participate – more than they’ve ever had before, but they get to do it based on their own health care decisions, on how they want to participate,” he said.
But House Minority Leader Kim Abbott, a Democrat from Helena, remained concerned not everyone will have equal access.
“There are people that for a variety of reasons will not be able to enter that building if it’s not a safe place,” she said. “And that is a problem for the democratic process.”
Murfitt said the current setup in the Capitol is a baseline, and over the first few days of the session, leadership and committee chairs will have their say in how to modify it.
“This first week will be trial and error for a lot of it, to see what we can do and how many people are actually going to be in the meetings,” he said.
Lawmakers will be officially sworn in Monday afternoon. Typically, they take the oath of office in a single large group, but Blasdel said they will have other options this year.