As the 2021 legislative session voted sine die on Thursday, April 29th, the 67th legislative session of the Montana Legislature came to a close. To say the session was unique would be an understatement, from the beginning to the end, this session was unlike anything anyone had experienced. I’m sure it is impossible to recap the session in one article, so I plan on doing several, including digging deeper into some of the issues brought before us this time.
Up until a couple of weeks before the session began there was a general feeling among the staff that we would be doing almost all the work by Zoom with only the committee chairs probably being physically at the Capitol. When the realization hit them that we were going to be there in person they had a short time to prepare, and they went to work. Not only did they have to get everything in place for the legislators that planned to be there, but they also still had a lot to do to get the technology in place that would allow those who chose to stay away so that they could participate. Since this had never been done in Montana before, you can imagine the glitches we experienced during the first couple of weeks of the session.
Not only did the staff believe we were not coming but some of the leadership of the city of Helena voiced their opinion that they did not want us there either. They believed that all the legislators and lobbyists would bring all their Covid-19 problems to Helena and a huge outbreak would occur. Social distancing and masks were all a fact of life and Lewis and Clark county was locked down tight. To complicate matters, a minority of the Legislators refused to wear masks and social distancing on the House floor would be impossible.
While there were a few cases of Covid-19 in the legislature, none was traced to having come from contact with fellow legislators. There was one case where a lobbyist had close contact with a few legislators, and they were quarantined until testing negative. The feared outbreak never materialized.
In addition to Zoom we also used Microsoft Teams to communicate with staff and other legislators and that proved to be quite effective. Staff members were not in the committees until late in the session as they were incredibly careful about getting the disease. There is no way we could do our work in less than 90 days if the staff was not available, so we were glad to see them being cautious.
Another big change was that there weren’t any evening gatherings for meals and interaction between legislators as has been the case for my previous three sessions. That was missed because it was a great opportunity to meet the new members and interact with members of the other party, an act that helped in previous sessions since we got to know each other personally.
I know I’m adding quite a bit of information that may appear to have little to do with legislation but I thought it to be important so you can see how the staff got us ready to do our job. The technology proved to be critical since there was a few legislators that never showed up in person after the swearing in ceremony.