Citizens learn how to have a voice at Legislature

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The biggest questions from the audience at last Friday’s “Citizenship 101” workshop in Paradise were “How can we know what bills are proposed, which ones affect us, and when and how to comment on them” when there are thousands on the docket?

Several veterans of the process presented perspectives and tools useful for navigating the complicated process of citizen engagement in the short, complicated flurry of activity that is the 2019 Montana Legislative Session.

Jacob Foster, Public Lands Field Organizer for Montana Wilderness Association, presented an overview of the process of bills moving through the legislature. He explained a piece of legislation can be introduced in either the House or the Senate and is then referred to a committee deemed appropriate by leaders of those bodies. The committees can take testimony and debate the bill, and vote to either “kill” the bill, recommend it to the full body (House or Senate) for debate and vote, or do nothing, which can effectively stop the bill’s progress. If a bill is voted against by a committee, there is a process, called a “blast” by which a vote by the full body can bring it out of committee anyway for consideration. The choice of committee the bill is sent to is a political decision that can be made to favor the leader’s own preferences, pro or con, on the bill.

Citizens can find these bills, the committees to which they are referred, and schedules for their consideration at mt.leg.gov. However, it can be very difficult and time consuming. Plus, titles of legislation do not necessarily make their content obvious, and in fact can be written to deliberately obscure their intent and mislead potential proponents or opponents.

Many citizens find it useful to join organizations that focus on issues they care about. Many times, these organizations dedicate staff to following relevant legislation closely, and letting their members or mailing lists know about the bills and when it is timely to comment on them. Some people set aside an afternoon a week to read this information and call, email, or write their legislators to express their opinions or pass on information the legislator might find useful for making a decision. Some of these organizations also pay a staff person to personally connect with legislators at the capitol, called “lobbying.”

Retired Montana legislator Jim Elliott offered his experience that busy legislators tend to focus mostly on input from their own constituents and not on comments from people outside their districts. They are also available between legislative sessions for face-to-face meetings and deeper discussions of issues.

Sanders County Commissioner Carol Brooker said the commissioners receive a legislative packet every week highlighting bills related to many county topics of interest. They review this packet on Mondays and send their comments as to how they feel the county would be affected to Reps. Bob Brown and Denley Loge and Sen. Jennifer Fielder. Brooker said they could send notifications of these topics to Sanders County residents if they are interested.

NEXT WEEK: Dr. Gregory Hanson discusses Medicaid expansion options.

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