GOP lawmakers reject effort to require masks around staff

HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Republican leaders in Montana’s Legislature refused Thursday to require lawmakers to wear masks while meeting with legislative staffers in their offices to discuss bill drafts, amendments or other issues.

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.

House Majority Leader Sue Vinton, R-Billings, said lawmakers have the ability to uphold an agreement. Abbott's motion was rejected on a 6-2 party line vote.

Senate Minority Leader Jill Cohenour, D-East Helena, proposed offering paid sick leave for temporary session staff who get COVID-19 or are quarantined due to 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.