Montana State Capitol as seen from Helena's south hills. Credit: John S. Adams / MTFP

When the 67th Legislature began on Jan. 4, Speaker of the House Wylie Galt, R-Martinsdale, called it the “most accessible session in history.” Indeed, COVID-19 adaptations allowing both legislators and the public to participate remotely are changing the way lawmakers do business.

For the first time in the state’s history, the public has the opportunity to testify remotely via Zoom, meaning interested people don’t have to travel to Helena if they want to speak before a committee. Streamed Senate and House hearings are also available, in addition to the more than 20 committee meetings that happen each week.

Legislative Services Executive Director Susan Fox points out that everything is subject to change, but she said everyone seems to be doing well with the transition, despite a steep learning curve. “As far as I can tell, everybody’s been working real hard to make it work,” she said.

In an effort to encourage robust participation during the legislative session, Montana Free Press has assembled a guide to engaging with the Legislature.  

IF YOU WANT TO WATCH OR LISTEN TO PROCEEDINGS:

The proceedings of all committees will be streamed live. You can tune in online to any committee, Senate or House hearing and select a video or audio-only format.  

You can also watch recorded proceedings by using the calendar at the left of the screen and selecting the day of a given hearing. Recordings are typically available shortly after a hearing has ended.

As in the past, you can also watch proceedings on your television via Montana Public Affairs Network, or MPAN, which provides daily coverage of the Senate and House floor sessions as well as several committee meetings. It’s distributed to cable television subscribers in many communities in Montana. The specific TV channel you need to tune in to to watch MPAN can be found on channel 191 on Charter Spectrum cable. More information on watching MPAN is available here, and here.

IF YOU WANT TO FIND OUT WHO YOUR LAWMAKERS ARE:

You can look up your legislator by using the map or plugging in your address here.

IF YOU WANT TO CONTACT A LEGISLATOR:

This is the 2021 legislative roster, which includes lawmakers’ phone numbers and email addresses. Some lawmakers also list a personal email address, while others list only their @mtleg.gov email address.

You can also call (406) 444-4800 and leave a message, and it will be delivered to the legislator you select.

IF YOU WANT TO READ OR TRACK A BILL:

This page allows you to find a specific bill or bill draft according to its bill number and/or primary sponsor. House bills have an “HB” preface and Senate bills start with “SB.” Similarly, an “HR” is a House Resolution and an “SR” is a Senate Resolution.

Once you’ve located the bill you’re interested in, you can look up its text, follow its progress, see how many votes it’s garnered and keep tabs on its scheduled hearings.

The Legislative Automated Workflow System, or LAWS, is a platform that acts as a clearinghouse for bills and bill drafts. It’s a little clunky, but there are some instructional videos that can help you learn your way around. These videos include everything from the basics of navigating LAWS to more in-depth guidance on creating preference lists so you can be alerted when a selected bill (or several) comes up for a hearing.

IF YOU WANT TO SUBMIT ONLINE COMMENTS TO LEGISLATORS ON A SPECIFIC COMMITTEE: 

This is one of two forms you can use to submit an online comment to a specific legislator or committee.

IF YOU WANT TO TESTIFY REMOTELY BEFORE A COMMITTEE: 

This form allows you to register to testify before a committee on Zoom, send your comments and upload documents for the committee’s consideration. If you would like to testify, you must register by 12 p.m. the day prior to the hearing. It’s important to note that not everyone who registers to testify will necessarily have the opportunity, particularly on bills that draw considerable public interest.

If you register to testify, you’ll receive email confirmation and a Zoom link. A remote committee coordinator will facilitate the remote testimony the day of the hearing.

Individual committee chairs decide how they want to direct public testimony, and divvy it up between in-person and online participation. Therefore, you’re advised to leave a brief comment stating your position on the registration form in the event that you’re unable to testify via Zoom.

As of Jan. 11, lawmakers were still working out whether people testifying remotely would appear via video or audio feeds.

Phone testimony is also an option if you do not have Zoom. You must also register for that option by noon the day prior to the hearing.

IF YOU WANT TO TESTIFY IN PERSON AT THE CAPITOL: 

This process is similar to years past, with the exception that committee rooms are set up to accommodate social distancing. In general, mask use has been “highly recommended” at the Capitol by the Legislature’s COVID-19 panel, but its adoption is inconsistent.

Particularly in smaller committee rooms, space constraints can mean that the public is invited to watch committee proceedings on a screen in the hallway and may be allowed, one at a time, to enter the room and speak during the time reserved for public testimony.

IF YOU WANT TO VIEW THE SESSION CALENDAR: 

This link includes the calendar for the 67th Legislature, including breaks and important deadlines. The Legislature is set to meet for 90 days, the last of which is scheduled for April 28.

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Billings native Amanda Eggert covers environmental issues for MTFP. Amanda is a graduate of the University of Montana School of Journalism who has written for Outside magazine and Outlaw Partners. At Outlaw Partners she led coverage for the biweekly newspaper Explore Big Sky. Contact Amanda at aeggert@montanafreepress.org.