Susan Byorth Fox retired from a 33-year career with Legislative Services on May 27. A self-described researcher at heart, she said she "caught the bug" in 1989 when she took an assistant bills coordinator position with the Montana Senate. In 2006 she became the Legislative Services Division's executive director. Credit: Montana Legislature

State lawmakers are in Helena this week for the first-ever Legislative Week, a five-day series of training sessions, interim committee meetings, and social events aimed at fostering “cross-pollination” among legislators, according to the Legislature’s website. Legislative Week is born of a study resulting from the 2019 session’s Senate Bill 310, which seeks to gauge the potential of holding annual legislative sessions, rather than the current biennial session schedule.

Susan Fox, executive director of the nonpartisan Legislative Services Division, joined Montana Free Press editor-in-chief John S. Adams for a Montana Lowdown podcast discussion about what she expects ⁠— and does not expect ⁠— to take place during Legislative Week.

Fox also reflects on her 30 years of experience working in Legislative Services, noting an increase in partisanship, and declining opportunities for new legislators to grow into leadership positions. 

“[Legislators] don’t have time to mature like they used to,” she tells Adams. “And I remember in the past, leaders … would slowly work their way up to committee chairmanship, and then they might, in another session or two, become a whip, and then become a leader. But they don’t have time to do that now — you just have to get in and start [leading].”

Fox also says she’s seen a lack of understanding between those legislators tasked with drafting the state’s budget and those who develop policies, a dynamic that helped lead to the passage of Senate Bill 310. 

“Budget and policy are kind of two different tracks,” Fox says. “And [legislators] really feel like it’s disjointed. The budget people don’t understand the policy people, and the policy people don’t understand the budget.”

The SB 310 study explores the prospect of annual sessions with alternating focuses on the state budget and policy-related law. 

Fox’s conversation with Adams is featured on this week’s Montana Lowdown Podcast, a production of Montana Free Press.

Alex McKenzie has worked with a diverse array of start-ups and nonprofit organizations. He is a former record producer and music journalist, has additional experience working in agriculture and food security, and previously operated his own dairy business. He lives in southwest Montana. Follow him on Twitter.