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After meeting, Senate committees now say public can testify over Zoom
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After meeting, Senate committees now say public can testify over Zoom

67th Montana Legislative session

A scene from the opening day of the 67th Montana legislative session at the State Capitol on Monday.

After a meeting of Senate committee chairs Tuesday morning, all Senate committees will allow for remote testimony, said Kyle Schmauch, a spokesman for the Senate Republican caucus.

Schmauch said that in the meeting that wrapped up around 11:30 a.m., the chairs settled on all allowing for members of the public to testify over platforms like Zoom.

Earlier in the morning, the Senate Judiciary committee's chairman said he would not allow testimony from members of the public outside the building over remote platforms like Zoom during the legislative session.

Sen. Keith Regier, a Kalispell Republican, previously said the Senate Judiciary Committee would not allow the public to testify over Zoom but would take written submitted comments, which the committee has done in non-pandemic sessions too.

Under rules passed Monday just after the Legislature convened, the 67th session will be held under a hybrid model that allows lawmakers to participate remotely.

Most Republicans, who hold 98 of the 150 seats in the House and Senate, plan to come to the state Capitol every day, while Democrats have said some in their caucuses will take part over platforms like Zoom.

On the opening day of the session, the hallways of the building were less full than they would have been in a non-pandemic year. But still groups of people not wearing masks and huddled together filled doorways and narrow passageways. About a quarter of House Republicans wore masks on the floor as they were sworn in, while about 70% of Senate Republicans did. All Democrats in the building were masked.

"For 130 years, people have been coming to this building to testify on bills. They rode their horse, their old Model T, but they came here physically to the Capitol. And I've decided not to accept Zoom testimony from witnesses outside of the building here," Regier said before the committee chairs met.

Sen. Bryce Bennett, a Democrat from Missoula who objected to the proposal, said while distancing measures might be possible in a separate room or large meeting space, just accessing the Capitol could put the public at risk.

"It's nice and well to say that there is social distancing in this room, people can wear masks in this room. But to get up to this room, as we all know, you have to come through crowded hallways, you have to run into a whole bunch of folks," Bennett said. "And for a lot of people, especially those in vulnerable conditions, that's a real challenge. And I just don't want to silence the voices of anyone here in Montana."

People who want to testify over Zoom must register by noon the day before the bill hearing. The legislative website lists bills that will be heard over the upcoming three days. People can also submit comments through the website.

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