For 33 years, Susan Byorth Fox had a front-row seat to what she’s called the “beauty and chaos” of the Montana Legislature, where she earned a reputation as an even-handed professional who’s shepherded the state’s Legislative Services Division through several major transitions, including last year’s pandemic-spurred launch of a remote participation platform that allowed lawmakers and members of the public to take part in Capitol proceedings remotely. As executive director since 2006, she also oversaw two major overhauls to the online database that houses bill drafts and legislative voting records and the expansion of a partnership with Montana PBS that allows Montanans from all over the state to view legislative proceedings on TV.
Until her May 27 retirement, Fox managed a staff of more than 60 permanent employees who perform many of the day-to-day activities that allow the state Legislature to function: drafting bills for lawmakers, preparing research to inform legislators’ policy proposals, conducting legal reviews of proposed bills, and managing information technology staff and projects so lawmakers can conduct their business and the public can stay apprised of what their elected officials are working on at the Capitol.
Legislative Services Division Executive Director Susan Fox
“The budget people don’t understand the policy people, and the policy people don’t understand the budget.”
The Legislative Services Division, formerly the Legislative Council, has been an explicitly nonpartisan office since 1957. Prior to the creation of the Legislative Council, companies or lawmakers themselves paid lawyers to draft bills, which made it easier for powerful interests like the Anaconda Copper Mining Company to exert influence at the Legislature. Like her predecessors, Fox remained a devoted nonpartisan in the decidedly partisan Capitol — no small feat according to political observers who’ve seen her in action.
“I think it’s a well-respected agency led by a well-respected leader in Susan,” former Lee Enterprises State Bureau Chief (and current Montana Free Press Board President) Chuck Johnson told MTFP. “I couldn’t begin to tell you where she stands politically. She plays it neutrally, right down the middle.”
MTFP spoke with Fox the week after her retirement to get her insights on nonpartisanship, what it takes to help a complex organization like the Legislature run smoothly, and how Montana politics have changed since she took an assistant bills coordinator position in 1989 and “caught the bug.” She also offered some words of wisdom to her successor, Jerry Howe, who previously worked for the Utah Legislature as a policy analyst and manager. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
MTFP: From a 30,000-foot level, what’s the biggest change you’ve seen at the Legislature since you started?
Susan Byorth Fox: The introduction of legislative term limits at the state level has coincided with an increasingly partisan environment at the national level to change how the Legislature functions.
The Legislature is built on relationships, and when you cut off the top every two years, those relationships across the aisle — and even within each caucus — are harder to develop. Legislators tend to stay in their lanes more now.
MTFP: How were you able to stay so rigorously nonpartisan in a highly partisan environment? Did you ever find it difficult to draft bills that you found to be personally unpalatable?
Fox: My brothers and sisters are always curious about how I stayed so nonpartisan as well. Not everyone can, but for me, it was about the process. At Legislative Services, we think that people make much better decisions if they’re well informed. We try to bring both — or multiple — sides of an issue to the fore, and we support the process that way. We’re somewhat similar to journalists in that regard.
Yeah, there were some bills that I didn’t like to draft, but I was just the problem solver for legislators. They’re the elected officials who are representing their constituents. And presenting lawmakers with policy options is very satisfying. Bill drafting is like doing a Sudoku or a crossword: it’s about putting the right pieces in the right places to get legislators what they want. Sometimes they’ll have a solution but they haven’t defined the problem, so you can help them define the problem and the solution will play out a bit differently.
MTFP: Do you expect to take a position on certain issues or proposals now that you’re no longer in an explicitly nonpartisan role?
Fox: I suspect I will, but I really want to step back from politics for a little bit. I have a lot of family and house projects I’d like to do, and I’d like to stretch my brain in other ways. Helena has such a beautiful art community, and I’m sure classes or other opportunities to develop my creativity will present themselves.
MTFP: Is there anything in particular about working at the Capitol that you’ll miss?
Fox: I’ll miss the people the most. I’ve been so lucky to get to work with so many people over the years: Legislative Services staff, government employees, lobbyists, lawmakers. I’ve known some legislators for their whole legislative careers, going back to the 1990s. For that I feel really blessed.
MTFP: Is there anything about lawmakers, the Legislature or the lawmaking process you wish was more widely known or appreciated?
Fox: Legislators make a small wage and work long hours, sometimes 16-hour days. Many of them actually lose money while they’re at the Capitol, so they’re clearly not in it for the money. They’re in it because they’re passionate about public service and working on issues they feel strongly about. I also think it takes a lot of strength to state your position publicly and say, ‘This is what I believe.’ I don’t think everybody is ready or willing or able to do that.
Also, the Legislature is unique in that there aren’t many jobs where you get to know people from all around the state — north, east, south, west, rural, urban — and make decisions all day long in areas where you might not have a lot of expertise. It comes as a surprise to some that most of the issues lawmakers work on, a good 70% or 75%, aren’t really partisan. It’s the day-to-day business of taking care of the people of Montana.
MTFP: What advice do you have for your successor?
Fox: Every day is different, every session is different and every committee is different. They all take their own character. You just have to roll with the punches and be open to change. I do hope my successor will bring new energy and a new way of looking at the world, because things change so quickly now. Adaptability and flexibility will be the key to success.
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