As lawmakers meet to cultivate Montana’s next crop of laws this winter, there are more ideas flying around the Capitol than any single person can possibly keep track of. As is a longstanding tradition at the Legislature, they range the gamut from wise to bonkers — some of them trivial measures and others bills that, if enacted, would realign the trajectory of Montana’s future.

With 392 bills introduced as of Jan. 11 and hundreds more on the way, the Montana Free Press newsroom is hard at work trying to make sense of this year’s legislative process. The same is true of the other journalists staffing the state press corps, the legions of lobbyists who work the Capitol halls, even lawmakers themselves — not to mention Montanans watching the show from elsewhere in the state.

Which is where MTFP’s Capitol Tracker, a digital guide we’re relaunching today for the 2023 session, comes in. The tracker, an update to legislative guides we published in 2021 and 2019, aims to make comprehensive data on the quantifiable aspects of this year’s Montana Legislature readily available to our readers.

Here’s a look at what all is detailed in the guide:

BILLS

Each and every bill, resolution, and constitutional amendment introduced at the 2023 Legislature has its own page in the guide. You can see a listing of all those measures in a single place on the guide’s all bills page. The guide also lets you search for specific bills either by their number or by words included in their bill title.

As the session proceeds, MTFP’s reporting staff will curate a list of this year’s key bills and their current status. As of Jan. 11 that listing includes only House Bill 2, the state’s primary budget measure, but the list will expand in the coming weeks.

A portion of the MTFP 2023 Capitol Tracker bill page for House Bill 1, the feed bill that allocates money for the Legislature’s operations.

Bill pages (e.g., the page for House Bill 1) include the following information:

  • Where the bill is at in the Legislative process
  • The bill’s sponsor and their political party
  • Links to the bill’s full text
  • Links to fiscal and legal notes, as applicable (Legal notes, which flag bills that could risk a court challenge, aren’t published on the official Legislative website. We’ll be obtaining them via public records requests.)
  • Procedural actions, including votes taken on the bill

Note that while drafts of un-introduced bills are sometimes the subject of public discussion and news coverage, we’ve excluded them from the guide for the sake of brevity. If you want to review those measures, many of which won’t be formally considered by the Legislature, they’re listed on the official legislative website.

LAWMAKERS

Each of Montana’s 100 representatives and 50 senators has a page on the guide. You can access those either by looking up membership of the House or Senate, or by searching for individual lawmakers by name.

If you’re unsure which specific lawmakers represent you in the Legislature, you can look up your House and Senate district by entering your address.

A portion of the MTFP 2023 Capitol Tracker bill page for Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls.

Lawmaker pages (e.g., the page for Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick) include the following information:

  • Length of service in the Legislature and 2023 leadership roles, if any
  • Phone and email contact information
  • Bills sponsored this year
  • Votes on MTFP-identified key bills
  • Floor vote statistics, including how often the lawmaker is voting with most Republicans and with most Democrats

CALENDAR

The guide’s calendar page lists upcoming committee hearings, the discussions that give members of the Montana public their primary opportunity to weigh in on the legislative process. Hearing listings are organized by committee, and include links to bill pages with additional information.

A portion of the MTFP 2023 Capitol Tracker calendar page, listing upcoming bill hearings before legislative committees.

SUMMARIZING THE ACTION

The guide’s recap page summarizes bill actions taken each day of the session so far, providing a way to assess the sum total of the quantifiable work being done in Helena at a glance.

A portion of the MTFP 2023 Capitol Tracker recap page, detailing procedural actions taken by the Legislature so far this year.

PARTICIPATING IN THE SESSION

The guide’s participation page provides an FAQ-style reference for readers who are looking to monitor or weigh in at the session.

BEHIND THE SCENES

The information in the guide is gathered from a variety of public sources including the Montana secretary of state’s election result database, the official legislative roster and, most importantly, the Legislature’s official bill database, the Legislative Automated Workflow System, or LAWS. While we’ve updated the Capitol Tracker daily during past sessions, we’ve now set up an automated system that checks LAWS for new bill status information and updates the guide accordingly multiple times per hour.

We expect to adjust the guide’s contents and, time permitting, expand it over the course of the legislative session. We’d appreciate bug reports, questions and suggestions if you have them — send those to Deputy Editor Eric Dietrich at edietrich@montanafreepress.org.  

Additionally, if you’re someone who’s interested in the technology that powers the Capitol Tracker, which is built entirely with open source software, our code is available here.

Lastly, like all of the work we do at Montana Free Press, producing projects like this takes no small amount of time, expertise and tenacity. As a nonprofit news outlet, we rely on reader support to make work like this possible. If you’re finding what we’re doing here useful, please give some consideration to doing what you can to support us, perhaps by spreading the word about our work, passing along a note of encouragement, or chipping in a few bucks to help us pay our bills.

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Eric DietrichDeputy Editor

Eric came to journalism in a roundabout way after studying engineering at Montana State University in Bozeman (credit, or blame, for his career direction rests with the campus's student newspaper, the Exponent). He has worked as a professional journalist in Montana since 2013, with stints at the Great Falls Tribune, Bozeman Daily Chronicle, and Solutions Journalism Network before joining the Montana Free Press newsroom in Helena full time in 2019.