Montana lawmakers haggle over mask rules in staff offices

January 15, 2021 GMT

HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Republican leaders in Montana’s Legislature rejected an effort Thursday to make stronger an agreement that lawmakers will wear masks while meeting with legislative staffers in their offices to discuss bill drafts, amendments or other issues, saying it wasn’t needed.

The Legislature’s COVID-19 response panel met for a second time to discuss rules to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 at the state Capitol.

It is highly recommended, but not required, that lawmakers wear masks at the Capitol.

House Minority Leader Kim Abbott, D-Helena, proposed a mandate instead of an agreement that lawmakers will wear masks in legislative staff offices. She said she’s heard anecdotal reports that it’s not always happening and wanted the rules to be clear.


The panel chair, Senate President Pro Tem Jason Ellsworth, R-Hamilton, called Abbott’s proposed change in terms “wordsmithing,” and argued that a mandate or an agreement are the same thing. “They’ve agreed to do this,” he said.

Abbott’s motion was rejected on a 6-2 party line vote.

“Regardless of the word used, legislators are required to wear masks in staff areas, and they know and understand that,” said Kyle Schmauch, the communications director for the Senate Republicans.

Senate Minority Leader Jill Cohenour, D-East Helena, proposed offering paid sick leave for temporary session staff who get COVID-19 or are quarantined because of exposure to the respiratory virus, who would otherwise not qualify for that benefit.

Ellsworth questioned whether the legislature had money to pay for the proposal and asked legislative staff to find out if there might be money available.

Cohenour withdrew her motion.

The panel’s next meeting date has not been set.