Montana State Capitol File

Two people talk at the bottom of the stairs on the bottom floor of the Montana State Capitol on Feb. 10, 2021, in Helena.

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Concerns over COVID-19 at the state Capitol have kept some local lawmakers in Bozeman during the first half of the legislative session.

They have participated from their homes, attending committee hearings via video, voting virtually and talking with their colleagues on the phone and on video calls.

Some local lawmakers cited the fact that many lawmakers choose not to wear masks during floor sessions or committee hearings as part of the reason they steered clear of the Capitol.

Even lawmakers and lobbyists who have traveled to Helena said they spent much of their time away from the Capitol, only going in for specific committee hearings or to catch a lawmaker or two in the hallway.

Sen. JP Pomnichowski, D-Bozeman, spent just one week attending the session in person before returning to Bozeman.

“It was a decision I made when I learned that there would be no enforcement of masks or distancing or other safety measures in the capitol,” Pomnichowski said.

Rep. Kelly Kortum, D-Bozeman, who was elected to his first term in November, also went to Helena at the beginning of the session before returning to Bozeman to attend virtually.

Kortum was sworn into office in early January and spent the following day attending committee hearings. The small rooms allowed for little spacing, Kortum said, and several members were not wearing masks. He soon began attending virtually.

Sen. Chris Pope, D-Bozeman, has also largely stayed at home, only going up to Helena to attend a few committee hearings when he felt making his point in-person was crucial.

He stayed away from floor sessions, citing the large number of senators who didn’t wear face masks. After receiving his second dose of the vaccine, Pope said he might be in Helena more often during the latter half of the session.

“I haven’t yet sat in my Senate seat,” he said.

Lobbyist John MacDonald, who was hired by the city of Bozeman, said he went into the session intending to stay away from the Capitol as much as possible.

The problem, MacDonald said, was that working virtually didn’t allow for much of the in-person interactions with lawmakers and other colleagues lobbyists often rely on.

“When I started the session my goal was to limit my time up there and only go there when I felt it was absolutely necessary, and the reality is I found it to be necessary a lot more than I thought I would,” MacDonald said.

He ended up testing positive for COVID-19 in early February and is fairly certain he caught it in the Capitol.

He stayed home with mild symptoms for a while, but he said at home or at the Capitol, connecting with area lawmakers and city officials hasn’t been hampered by the pandemic.

“We’re a pretty tight bunch,” Pope said of Bozeman’s Democratic lawmakers, who he said have talked regularly during the session. “I don’t feel like we were diminished in our ability ... because we weren’t all sitting around. The reality is, I’ve been to Helena, once you get there it’s challenging to get a group of people together like that.”

Pomnichowski said the virtual hearings haven’t impacted floor sessions or committee hearings too much but have taken a toll on the personal relationships legislators form.

As a new legislator, Kortum said he has little relationship with lawmakers on the other side of the aisle. Pope, who is new to the Senate after serving a few terms in the House, said the same.

“The person-to-person interactions are a very important part of the Legislature, and I know I would have a better relationship with people on the other side of the aisle if I were there shaking hands and getting beers after session and everything,” Kortum said.

Some of those colleagues on the other side of the aisle have questioned the motives of lawmakers attending virtually.

Rep. Jane Gillette, R-Bozeman, told the Helena Independent Record last week she hoped those appearing remotely were doing so out of health and safety concerns rather than out of convenience.

The Chronicle couldn’t reach Gillette directly for comment.

Rep. Jennifer Carlson, R-Manhattan, has been attending the legislative session in person and said she has been pleased with the way the pandemic is being handled in the Capitol — largely through personal responsibility rather than through rules.

She said her colleagues who are participating remotely aren’t getting the same experience she is because they can’t reach out to other lawmakers in the hallway to ask questions or have an informal conversation.

Carlson said there are also nonverbal cues in committee rooms and on the House floor that might be difficult for virtual participants to pick up.

“Everybody’s input is valuable whether you agree or not, but when people just disappear off the Zoom after the meeting, it can be hard to ask the questions you have or truly understand their perspective,” Carlson said. “I think those people are missing out and their constituents aren’t being represented well.”

Bozeman Mayor Cyndy Andrus, who testified virtually during this session and previously did so in person, said being able to put a face to an issue in a committee hearing room is important.

Testifying via Zoom isn’t the same, Andrus said

“While it’s convenient ... I’m not sure that it serves the public or the committee in the best way,” she said. “They’re just hearing your voice and I think there’s something missing when you’re not able to see the committee and interact with them.”

Andrus and others noted that the option to testify virtually has some benefits, including making it easier for people who live far from Helena to have their say.

Pomnichowski said she hopes some of the COVID-19 related measures continue in future sessions.

“I think it’s a great thing that we’re able to embrace the technology and people can dial in and testify on bills from wherever they are,” Pomnichowski said. “Government is supposed to be of the people, and so if someone can dial in and testify on a bill, tell us why it’s good or bad, I think that’s a great feature and I think it’s one we should continue even after we come out of the pandemic.”

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Nora Shelly can be reached at nshelly@dailychronicle.com or 406-582-2607.

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