HELENA — A bill to reduce COVID-19 liability for Montana businesses and the first meeting of the Legislature’s COVID-19 panel came during the first week of the session, a day after Republican leadership confirmed the first known positive test for the virus in a legislator on Jan. 7.

Presumptive chairman of the COVID-19 panel, Jason Ellsworth, R-Hamilton, announced in a press release Jan. 7 that Rep. David Bedey, R-Hamilton, tested positive for the virus and was quarantining away from the Capitol.

According to the release, Bedey came into contact with the virus outside the Capitol before the session began.

“We’re already reaching out and notifying those who have recently been in close contact with Representative Bedey and are telling them to quarantine,” Ellsworth said.

Bedey worked in the Capitol throughout the week, including in meetings of the Montana House Appropriations Committee, and wore a mask.

The announcement came during a week of COVID-19-related announcements from the Legislature and the Governor’s office.

During his first press conference Jan. 5, Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte outlined his strategy for addressing the coronavirus pandemic in Montana.

About 30 people attended the ceremony in the governor’s reception room. All were masked and in assigned seats, though attendees were not distanced.

The governor expressed faith in the ability of a COVID-19 vaccine and increased testing to slow the pandemic in Montana. “I’m confident Montanans will make our comeback,” Gianforte said.

Gianforte also announced his intention to reverse the statewide mask mandate imposed by the Bullock administration once certain criteria are met. “To combat the virus, I believe providing incentives and promoting personal responsibility are more effective than imposing impractical mandates,” Gianforte said.

The governor said he will repeal the mask mandate once a COVID-19 vaccine is distributed to “the most vulnerable,” and once legislation is passed to protect businesses and schools from lawsuits. Gianforte did not offer a specific date for a repeal of the mask mandate.

He also clarified vaccine distribution priorities for Montana, saying that Montanans older than 70 and those age 16 to 69 with “specific underlying health conditions” will be first in line for a shot.

The legislation to protect businesses that the governor requested got its first hearing in the Senate Business, Labor and Economic Affairs Committee Jan. 8.

Senate Bill 65, carried by Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls, would prevent individuals from suing businesses for contracting COVID-19 so long as those businesses were following local or state health guidelines. Lawsuits can still be filed for “gross negligence” or “willful and wanton misconduct” in handling COVID-19 guidelines.

“If we want to open up our state, we need to give clear guidance as to what will lead to liability and what will not,” Fitzpatrick said.

The bill would also prohibit lawsuits against healthcare workers for COVID-19 injury and death in patients under their care and protect businesses that make personal protective equipment, like masks, and sanitization supplies available from lawsuits.

Gianforte endorsed the bill in a press release Jan. 8 that clarified SB 65 as meeting the requirements for civil protections he listed as a prerequisite to lifting the statewide mask mandate.

Shortly after SB 65’s first hearing, a group of Republican and Democratic leadership met for the first time publicly as the Legislative COVID-19 Panel and reviewed Capitol’s pandemic rules.

Panel Chairman Jason Ellsworth, R-Hamilton, opened the meeting with an acknowledgement of Rep. Bedey’s positive test, but insisted Republicans “are taking this virus seriously.” “No one — no legislator, no member of the public — has to be in this building if they don’t want to be and don’t choose to do so,” Ellsworth said.

House Minority Leader Kim Abbott, D-Helena, and Senate Minority Leader Jill Cohenour, D-East Helena, raised concerns about the health of legislative staff and transparency in reporting legislators’ positive test results by name, which is not required under the rules.

“I don’t know how members of the public can make decisions about their own health if they don’t know what’s happening in our building,” Cohenour said.

Republicans and Democrats on the panel agreed a dedicated contract tracer for the Capitol is necessary, and Suan Fox, executive director of the Legislative Services Division, confirmed that staff is working on fulfilling that request.

The committee also heard remote public testimony from Montanans over Zoom, many of whom offered scathing indictments of the Legislature’s failure to enforce public health guidelines.

Whitefish resident Joan Vetter Ehrenberg, audibly emotional, condemned the panel’s current rules as “unconscionable.”

“Don’t risk yourselves and this community and this state to a greater outbreak and more deaths, because those deaths will be on your hands,” she said.

Democratic leaders said they planned on drafting amendments to panel rules to bring to their next meeting.

Gianforte sworn in as governor

Judge Mary Jane McCalla Knisely swore in Montana’s former Republican U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte as governor of Montana in a private ceremony on Jan. 4. Gianforte placed his hand on a Bible held by his wife, Susan, and recited the oath of office, officially making him the first Republican governor of Montana in 16 years.

In his inaugural address, Gianforte touted his “Montana Comeback Plan,” which he campaigned on, outlining four key principles that he said will drive his decision making during his governorship: economic growth, fiscal responsibility, governmental reform and protecting Montanans’ “way of life.”

“Today marks a new beginning for Montanans across our state,” Gianforte said. “The possibilities are vast and our potential is as boundless as our skies.”

Gianforte’s four guiding principles indicate the governor plans to take advantage of a solidly Republican-controlled legislature and governorship — the first occurrence of a “trifecta” in 16 years.

His economic priorities include lowering business taxes and creating new jobs, as well as cutting taxes for Montanans. Gianforte also seeks to reform state government, though he did not specify in what way. His fourth principle — “protecting Montanans’ way of life” — he said involves fighting crime and drug addiction, protecting families and preserving public lands.

Kristen Juras was sworn in as lieutenant governor just before Gianforte took the oath.

Representatives and senators sworn in; Leadership lists priorities

Members of the Montana House of Representatives and Senate took the oath of office in simultaneous ceremonies at the Montana Capitol Jan. 4, marking the start of the 67th Montana legislative session.

With Gov. Greg Gianforte’s inauguration just hours earlier, the balance of political power in Helena shifted solidly toward the Republican party after the statewide election in November saw a wave of conservative victories up and down the ballot — though policy goals for each party show some overlap.

Republicans now control a 67-seat majority in the 100-member House of Representatives and 31 seats in the 50-member Senate.

Republican Representatives in the House chose Rep. Wylie Galt, R-Martinsdale, as Speaker of the House.

“To the Democrat members, your voices will be heard and respected. That is a Montana tradition,” Galt said during his first address as Speaker.

House Minority Leader Kim Abbott, D-Helena, said in her opening speech that House Democrats would hold the Republican majority accountable in upholding their duty to Montana’s voters.

Republicans selected Sen. Mark Blasdel, R-Kalispell, as president of the Senate, while Democrats chose Sen. Jill Cohenour, D-East Helena, as Senate minority leader.

“Senate Democrats are prepared to tackle the challenges ahead, and we encourage our colleagues to join us in moving the state forward, not backward,” Cohenour said.

Leadership from both parties outlined policy goals in separate press conferences, and while there are some stark differences in the platforms, there are also some commonalities. Both parties seek tax breaks for Montanans, the preservation of public education funding and an increase in good-paying jobs.

House Majority Leader Sue Vinton, R-Billings, touted the “conservative mandate” Montana voters gave the Republican Party following its 2020 election victories and said the party is unified, despite being “as diverse as the citizens we represent.”

Other Republican policy goals include passing a balanced budget with no tax increases, limiting government intrusion of personal freedoms and stabilizing Montana’s healthcare system.

Democratic leadership worked to strike a hopeful chord while listing their policy goals, which include increasing the minimum wage, protecting Montana’s Medicaid Expansion program, and investing in career and technical education.

“In Montana, we have a long history of coming together with our colleagues to build a conservative budget that doesn’t spend more than we take in and is prepared for the unexpected,” Cohenour said.

Legislators of both parties now begin the work to pass a balanced budget, their only mandate through the Montana State Constitution.

Proposed bill would eliminate statewide concealed carry restrictions in banks, college campuses

One of the first committee hearings of the 67th Montana Legislature featured the debut of a bill that would alter Montana’s firearm rules and regulations, including allowing concealed carry almost anywhere.

Rep. Seth Berglee, R-Joliet, presented House Bill 102 to the House Judiciary Committee Jan. 5, which would allow the concealed carry of firearms without a permit everywhere open carry is allowed. If Montanans wished to carry a concealed firearm inside restricted places, like the state Capitol or a bar, they would have to have a permit.

The bill would also allow concealed firearms to be carried inside banks and on state college campuses, specifically prohibiting Montana University System schools and the Board of Regents from restricting the ability of students to possess and carry guns on campus.

“The idea behind this bill is to expand law abiding citizens’ ability to carry a concealed firearm in the areas of Montana where they might not be allowed to now,” Berglee said.

In its current form, the bill maintains some restrictions on carrying concealed firearms in detention facilities, past screening checkpoints in airports, in federal buildings, on military bases and on the private property of an owner who expressly prohibits it.

Ten members of the public appeared in person to lend their support for the bill, while eight of nine opponents testified via Zoom, a process that included several connection issues and accidental breaches of decorum as the committee worked through the wrinkles of its first hybrid hearing.

Newly sworn-in Attorney General Austin Knudsen, who spoke in support of the bill, recalled the fear he felt as a law student on campus at the University of Montana in Missoula when he first heard news of the Virginia Tech shooting. The 2007 attack at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University left 32 dead and wounded 17 others.

“I was very, very concerned for my safety and my family’s safety after that, because I had to go to class that day,” Knudsen said. “I was absolutely terrified by what I found — that I was not able to carry (a firearm.)”

But Kevin McRae, deputy commissioner of the Montana University System, said the bill would decrease safety on Montana college campuses and increase accidental gun injury.

“We believe that the Montana experience reflects national data, which proves that campuses are very safe places,” McRae said.

One argument surfaced again and again in the testimony of the bill’s supporters: the only people carrying firearms in gun-free zones are criminals, and HB 102 would expand means of self-defense to Montanans.

“Our citizens are our government—they are our boss,” said Cascade County Sheriff Jesse Slaughter, who supported the bill. “They have the right to protect and defend themselves, and there shouldn’t be places where they can’t do that.”

However, the bill also includes a section allowing private individuals who prohibit firearms on their property to be sued for violating constitutional rights, a point that proved controversial with supporters and detractors alike.

Brian Thompson spoke in favor of HB 102 on behalf of the Montana County Attorneys’ Association, but proposed amendments to include courtrooms on the list of places where concealed carry is prohibited and to remove the ability for citizens to sue property owners who restrict guns on their private property.

John MacDonald, representing the City of Missoula and appearing as the only member of the public to testify against the bill in person, said the amendments proposed by Thompson would alleviate the city’s primary concerns with the bill.

HB 102 sponsor Rep. Berglee noted the bill will likely be amended before it reaches the full House.

Gianforte unveils budget proposal with tax cuts, teacher pay incentives

Gianforte unveiled a proposed two-year state budget Jan. 7 that would cut taxes for individuals and businesses and cut $100 million in spending from his predecessor’s final budget proposal.

“After a decade of out-of-control spending increases, this budget brings fiscal responsibility back to state government, while providing essential services,” Gianforte said at a press conference at the Montana Capitol.

Gianforte’s budget focused on reducing spending and taxes, but added some new spending too, including $2.5 million to help local school boards increase starting teacher pay and a $1 million investment into trades education.

Gianforte said the $100 million in reduced spending over the next two years came from cutting back proposed spending increases from the outgoing Bullock administration’s final budget proposal released in November 2020.

“We’ve done exactly what we promised in the ‘Comeback Plan’—we held the line on new spending,” the governor said.

During a question-and-answer with the press, Gianforte said he’ll be proposing legislation to redirect funds from Montana’s recently passed initiative to legalize recreational marijuana, which included a 20% tax, into addiction recovery and economic development funds, a departure from the initiative’s original promise of revenue streams for “conservation programs, substance abuse treatment, veterans’ services, healthcare costs, and localities where marijuana is sold.”

The governor’s Budget Director Kurt Alme joined Gianforte in presenting the budget, which, in its current form, does not include any state appropriations for COVID-19-related programs like vaccine distribution or financial aid to businesses. Alme said they’re still waiting on direction from the U.S. Capitol on how to spend recently passed federal aid.

“We hope there will be sufficient federal funding to meet our COVID-related needs,” Alme said.

At the start of the conference, Gianforte for a second time denounced the attack on the U.S. Capitol by Trump supporters. Mobs stormed inside the Capitol rotunda and the floors of both chambers of Congress as U.S. legislators were set to vote to certify Joe Biden as the next president of the United States.

“Yesterday was a sad, tragic day for America,” Gianforte said. “When I was inaugurated on Monday, I asked you to join me in praying for our state and our country. We need it now more than ever.”

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Austin Amestoy is a reporter with the UM Legislative News Service, a partnership of the University of Montana School of Journalism, the Montana Newspaper Association, the Montana Broadcasters Association and the Greater Montana Fo