A few dozen of the 721 bills that passed the Montana Legislature this year grabbed the public’s rapt attention — hot-button social issue bills and big-dollar spending measures that prompted headlines and drew, in some cases, thousands of public comments as lawmakers wrangled over their fates.

Most of the state’s new laws, however, took far quieter paths en route to the hallowed chapters of Montana Code Annotated.

A tally of public comments produced by legislative staff, reflecting web and phone messages sent to lawmakers through the Legislature’s information services desk, indicates there were more than 127,000 individual comments on the 1,313 bills that were considered over the course of the 2021 session. The lion’s share of those comments, two-thirds, dealt with only 50 high-profile measures.

The top-of-mind issues for the session included bills stemming from feisty debates over COVID-19 vaccines, labor law and gun rights. House Bill 702, for example, intended to protect unvaccinated Montanans from discrimination, received 8,155 comments, nearly all supportive. House Bill 251, the session’s highest-profile right-to-work bill before its defeat on the House floor, drew 4,140 comments, most opposed. The main state budget bill, the $12-billion-dollar House Bill 2, also drew a fair amount of input, 1,829 comments. 

Those numbers are an imperfect way to measure the significance of specific bills. For one thing, they don’t include in-person testimony by citizens or lobbyists, nor comments passed from constituents to their representatives independently of the legislative IT system. Additionally, the volume of public comments isn’t necessarily a direct proxy for other ways of defining legislative significance, such as budget impact or a bill’s long-term effect on Montana’s future.

Even so, the comment data does provide a quick-and-dirty look at one of the Capitol’s fundamental dynamics: that the high-profile legislation that’s top-of-mind for everyday Montanans is by no means the entirety, or even a majority, of the work lawmakers do on their behalf.

“Most of what we focus on in public are the high-profile bills, the social issue bills. And that represents such a little part of what we do,” Rep. Alice Buckley, D-Bozeman, said in an interview.

Rep. Frank Garner, a Republican lawmaker from Kalispell, echoed the sentiment. A high-school civics view of the Legislature, he noted, really doesn’t take into account the volume of material lawmakers have to contend with.  

Even though topic-focused legislative committees serve as a first round of review for proposed bills, Garner estimated that lawmakers cast as many as 1,000 floor votes over the course of the four-month session  and receive as many as several hundred messages a week from the public. Montana lawmakers, he added, generally don’t have dedicated staffers to help them sort through the deluge.

“Most people aren’t fully prepared for it,” Garner said. “The volume of work. Just the sheer amount of reading and studying and research that goes into being a citizen legislator.” 

Journalists, lobbyists and the public are also often overwhelmed by session’s volume, giving lower-profile bills, beneficial or otherwise, space to move through the Legislature without widespread attention. The Montana Free Press newsroom, for example, referenced only 158 bills in its written coverage of the session (MTFP charted the status of every bill in its online Capitol Tracker guide).

The Capitol’s power players are routinely accused of slipping significant legislation, or legislation that’s significant to special interests, beneath the radar. But a close examination of the low-profile bills indicates that many, if not most, are in fact nuts-and-bolts governance like tweaks to weed control districts, infrastructure project allocations or memorial highway designations.

Additionally, many of those measures pass with broad bipartisan support. Of the 721 bills endorsed by both chambers of the 2021 Legislature, 61% passed with no more than 20 “no” votes between the House and Senate. Of the 419 bills that passed while receiving fewer than five comments, 76% did.

Garner, a four-term lawmaker, said much of the Legislature’s work involves “blue-collar bills” — workman-like measures that are essential to the operation of the state, but typically make their way through the process without fanfare.

For example, Garner was most often in the news this session for the work he did carrying one of the session’s heftiest bills, House Bill 632, which allocates more than $2 billion in federal stimulus relief money. That bill, which put hundreds of millions of dollars into water projects, state buildings and broadband connectivity, was so big lawmakers informally referred to it as the “beast” bill. (The “beast,” however, received relatively little interest from the public — 227 comments, compared to 2,477 on House Bill 102, which allows permitless concealed firearm carry in much of the state).

Garner, though, sponsored a dozen bills this year, successfully shepherding all but one through the Legislature. One of his lower-profile bills, House Bill 232, is a one-page measure that makes the personal information of Montana Lottery players private unless they explicitly authorize its release. He introduced it, Garner said, at the request of a constituent who was concerned about protecting lottery winners from people who try to take advantage of them. The bill received 16 public comments and passed the Legislature with only four “no” votes between the House and Senate. Gov. Greg Gianforte signed it into law March 31. 

On the other side of the aisle, where she was on the losing side of most of the session’s high-profile votes, Democrat Buckley said that despite serving as a first-term representative in the Legislature’s minority party she was able to make headway on issues she cared about by focusing on nuts-and-bolts bills.

Buckley sponsored six bills, three of which passed the Legislature. One of her measures, House Bill 310, made a one-line change to state law that guarantees sexual assault victims the right to information on the status of rape kits they’ve provided to law enforcement. To her surprise, she said, it didn’t receive any resistance from majority Republicans. The bill passed the Legislature unanimously and was signed into law April 14.

Buckley also brought a bill that allows political candidates to spend campaign money on childcare. It passed the Legislature narrowly and as of May 7 was awaiting the governor’s signature.

“Despite the rancor and the broad social agenda that conservatives pushed through, we were still able to pass a lot of good common-sense bills that made government work for the people of Montana,” Buckley said. “And that’s a cool thing.”

“Government, in its best form,” she added, “should be rather tedious and practical, and hopefully common-sense.”

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Eric Dietrich is a journalist and data designer and the founder of the Long Streets economic reporting project. His reporting focuses broadly on Montana’s governance and economic opportunity, with particular focus on the state budget and tax policy. He also contributes data reporting across the MTFP newsroom. Before joining the MTFP staff in 2019, he worked for the Great Falls Tribune, Bozeman Daily Chronicle, and Solutions Journalism Network and also earned an engineering degree from Montana State University. Contact Eric at edietrich@montanafreepress.org, 406-465-3386 ext. 2, and follow him on Twitter.