Legislative Roundup – Week 1
First Week of 67th Legislative Session Sees New Governor, COVID-19 Plans and Gun Bills
By Austin Amestoy
Legislative News Service U of M School of Journalism
Gov. Gianforte Offer COVID Plans as First Legislator Tests Positive
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 late Thursday.
Presumptive Chair of the COVID-19 panel, Jason Ellsworth, R-Hamilton, announced in a press release Thursday 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 Rep. 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.
During his first press conference Tuesday, Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte outlined his strategy for addressing the coronavirus pandemic in Montana.
About 30 people attended the ceremony in the gover- nor’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.
He also clarified vaccine distribution priorities for Montana, saying that Montanans older than 70 and those age 16–69 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 Friday morning.
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. Suits can still be filed for “gross negligence” or “willful and wanton misconduct” in handling COVID-19 guidelines.