Montana legislators kick off 2021 session

‘Mandate’ was the word of the day for GOP

By: - January 5, 2021 3:00 am

Lawmakers clap for House Speaker Wylie Galt (seated) as he is sworn in. (Arren Kimbel-Sannit/The Daily Montanan)

HELENA — A new cohort of Montana legislators assumed office Monday with a bolstered Republican majority promising to enact a slate of bold — though at this point, somewhat vague — conservative policies.

“Mandate” was the word of the day. With increased majorities in both chambers, a governorship and a host of other statewide offices in their control, Republicans like newly elected House Speaker Wylie Galt repeatedly referenced the overwhelming vote of confidence they received in November. 

Galt addresses the media at a press conference following the first floor session of the year. (Arren Kimbel-Sannit/The Daily Montanan)

“I look forward to working closely with the Senate and Governor Gianforte to fulfill the conservative mandate that voters have sent us to Helena to achieve,” Galt, of Martinsdale, said in a prepared statement after Monday’s floor session adjourned.

In the shadow of Monday’s proceedings was, of course, the COVID-19 pandemic, which has killed nearly 1,000 Montanans as of Jan. 4. 

While they made the historic step of allowing for hybrid online and in-person legislative participation, lawmakers began the session without adopting additional preventative measures like a mask mandate — something even other Republican-controlled legislatures have warmed to. The Legislature plans to hire a contact tracer and create a testing regime for lawmakers, but that’s still in the works. 

Rep. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, was one of a handful of Republicans who wore a mask throughout the day, even as 100 lawmakers sat inches from each other on the House floor. He explained that ultimately, the Legislature is only subject to whichever rules it passes. 

“That being said, I’d rather not die,” he said. 

While the Capitol now has newfangled temperature scanners installed at the front door, no staff were manning them by mid-morning. Several of the new touchless hand sanitizer dispensers around the building were empty. 

Members of the Helena Solidarity Network and other groups encouraged those entering the Capitol to wear masks. (Arren Kimbel-Sannit/The Daily Montanan)

Outside, two small groups of activists flanked the Capitol — on one side, members of the Helena Solidarity Network, the Helena Nurses Association and others held signs imploring those entering the Capitol to wear masks. 

On the other, people waved Trump 2020 flags, sported MAGA-branded swag and talked up their support for the outgoing president. 

One protestor paced the halls of the Capitol with a large sign reading “Masks Spread Fear.”

“Montana is a diverse state with a lot of differing views on a lot of those different matters, that’s why the leadership helped pass … rules that allow each member to participate based on their own individual decisions,” said Senate President Mark Blasdel, R-Kalispell. 

For at least the first two weeks of the session, committee staff such as researchers, analysts and attorneys will participate in committees remotely, according to an email to presiding officers from Legislative Services Division head Susan Byorth Fox. 

“These are unprecedented times with much uncertainty,” Fox and Legal Services Director Todd Everts wrote in the email. “Many decisions this session will be made as the need arises, including how committees are staffed. After the second week of the session, we will reevaluate the situation and modify as needed.”

The letter also requests that lawmakers wear masks and keep social distance when meeting with committee staff. 

Rep. Kim Abbott of Helena, the House Democratic leader, said the legislature could certainly be safer, though she allowed that she wasn’t surprised to see most of her Republican colleagues without masks.

“We heard the Speaker pledge to make the building a safe workplace today, and we plan on working with him to hold him to that pledge,” she said. 

Family members and supporters of the new class of lawmakers looked on — largely maskless — from the House gallery on Monday, Jan. 4. (Arren Kimbel-Sannit/The Daily Montanan)

While Galt said ensuring safety was a top priority, concern about the virus was largely secondary among the Republicans to ebullience over their substantial mandate.

He and his colleagues in legislative leadership, free from the limitations of a Democratic governor for the first time in almost two decades, announced a series of priorities to guide the session, including passing a budget with no tax increases, providing tax relief to businesses and rolling back regulations. 

“The opportunity for meaningful change is finally here,” said House Majority Leader Sue Vinton, R-Billings. 

Govs. Steve Bullock and Brian Schweitzer before him were the proximate cause of much division among Republicans, with moderates defecting year after year to pass budgets and other key legislation with their Democratic colleagues. With compromise no longer necessary, Galt and Senate President Mark Blasdel said they now seek to heal the intra-party divisions that existed in previous sessions and make those meaningful changes. 

But it became clear fairly early on that some Republicans are more willing to accept this spirit of togetherness than others. Rep. Mark Noland of Big Fork briefly held up a vote to temporarily adopt the chamber’s 2019 rules when he made a substitute motion to adopt House rules from 2017, a vote that ultimately failed 42-58. 

Last session, a bitter debate resulted in a new set of House rules — modeled after prescriptions from the Senate — that removed the Speaker’s unilateral authority to make committee assignments and made it somewhat easier to “blast” a bill to the floor if it gets caught up in committees. For the most part, Democrats and bipartisan-minded Republicans supported the changes, but the fight left some feelings of ill will among the party’s most conservative members.

“We do not need to go and mirror what they do in the Senate,” said Rep. Brad Tschida, R-Missoula, who as the majority leader last session opposed the 2019 rules. “If we elect people to lead, why do we not let them lead?”

Galt, who would have seen his power grow — at least until 2021 rules are adopted — if Noland’s motion passed, was among the Republicans to vote no. Democrats, led by Abbott, also opposed the substitute motion.

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Arren Kimbel-Sannit
Arren Kimbel-Sannit

Arren Kimbel-Sannit is an Arizona-bred journalist who has covered politics, policy and power building at every level of government. Before getting his dose of northern exposure, Arren worked as a reporter in all manner of Arizona newsrooms, for the Dallas Morning News and for POLITICO in Washington, D.C. He has a special interest in how land-use decisions affect working-class people, which he displayed through reporting on the epidemic of pedestrian deaths in the U.S. for the Los Angeles Times and PBS Newshour. He's also covered housing, agriculture, the Trump presidency and more.