When the Montana Legislature gaveled in two years ago, COVID-19 served as a major disruptor that added a layer of stickiness to an already complex — and occasionally opaque — process. But the pandemic also facilitated technological adaptations that let Montanans say their piece to the legislators shaping state law on their behalf without making the winter drive to Helena.
Members of the public with telephone service or a stable internet connection will again be able to testify before House and Senate committees remotely in 2023.
Here’s MTFP’s guide to participating with the 2023 Montana Legislature, whether you’re engaging from afar or making an in-person appearance.
HOW DO I WATCH THE LEGISLATURE?
Select the “Watch and Listen” tab on the leg.mt.gov landing page to access video or audio feeds of legislative meetings, including committees that review bills by subject area and the floor sessions where proposals are debated by the full House and Senate. Recordings of past proceedings are also available if you use the calendar on the left of the screen to select the day of that hearing. Those recordings are typically available shortly after a hearing has ended.
The Montana Public Affairs Network, or MPAN, also provides televised coverage of House and Senate floor proceedings as well as some committee meetings. More information about watching legislative action on your television can be found at montanapbs.org/mpan. If you’re a Charter Spectrum customer, channel 191 will help you locate the MPAN broadcast channel.
HOW DO I READ A BILL OR TRACK ITS PROGRESS?
You can look up bills on the Legislature’s official bill-tracking system, or use MTFP’s Capitol Tracker guide at montanafreepress.org/capitol-tracker to track down a bill’s text, monitor its progress or peruse vote results. The Capitol Tracker guide will also include a list of the measures MTFP reporters have identified as the session’s most notable proposals for quick reference.
Both the official system and the MTFP Capitol Tracker include links to proposed bill texts, as well as supporting materials such as fiscal notes.
Note that the list of proposed bills is somewhat sparse as of early January — lawmakers can introduce new bills until the end of March.
HOW DO I COMMENT ON A BILL?
Successful bills must pass through at least two committees, one each in the House and Senate (bills can start in either chamber). Committees hold public hearings that give the bill sponsor, proponents and opponents a chance to speak about the bill. Those hearings are the primary opportunity the public has to weigh in on the legislative process. If you wish to submit comments to an entire committee considering a particular piece of legislation, there’s an online portal for that: leg.mt.gov/public-testimony.
You can, of course, also weigh in on a bill by contacting lawmakers by phone or email, or even by heading to the Capitol to track them down in the halls in person. You can also use leg.mt.gov/web-messaging to message a lawmaker outside of the public testimony process, which can be useful if a bill has already made it out of committee.
HOW DO I TESTIFY IN PERSON?
First, figure out which committee is debating the bill you’re interested in by pulling up the bill info on MTFP’s Capitol Tracker. Then consult the standing committee page on the Legislative website to learn when and where that committee typically meets. The day of the hearing, you can register to speak on a sign-in sheet that the committee secretary will circulate. If you don’t get your name on the sign-in sheet at the meeting’s start, politely get the chair’s attention when the bill you’re interested in comes up for public comment.
The committee chair will expect you to say and spell your name before you offer a comment so it can be accurately reflected in the record.
IS THERE A DRESS CODE AT THE CAPITOL?
While there’s no dress code for members of the public, legislative staff suggest that visitors treat legislative proceedings with the same respect and decorum expected in a courtroom. Most lawmakers, legislative staff, reporters and lobbyists wear some version of a business suit as their de facto Capitol attire.
HOW DO I TESTIFY BEFORE A COMMITTEE REMOTELY?
The Legislature’s remote participation portal is at leg.mt.gov/session/have-your-say. You can register there to testify remotely and upload comments on bills the Legislature is debating. Note that you’ll have to register by 5 p.m. the business day before a given bill is scheduled for a committee hearing.
Legislative staff will be available to distribute Zoom links, provide dial-in numbers and wrangle public testimony.
Even if you’re planning to testify in person, it’s still a good idea to upload your written comments. Committees occasionally run out of time to hear everyone’s testimony, especially on bills that generate lots of public interest.
HOW DO I FIND OR CONTACT MY LAWMAKER?
The Legislature’s official roster is leg.mt.gov/legislator-information. MTFP’s Capitol Tracker also includes contact information for most lawmakers. You can use the tracker’s “Your District” or “Find a Lawmaker” features to learn who your elected officials are, which committees they’re assigned to and which bills they’ve sponsored.
The 2023 Capitol Tracker, an update to interactive legislative guides we published in 2021 and 2019, aims to make comprehensive data on the quantifiable aspects of this year’s Legislature readily available to our readers. It includes scads of information on lawmakers, bills and votes.
CAN I CONTACT LAWMAKERS VIA PHONE?
Yes. Call 406-444-4800 and you’ll be guided through the process to leave a message for one or more lawmakers. You can also pull up their phone number on the Capitol Tracker’s lawmaker pages or the state’s legislative roster.
WHERE CAN I VIEW THE LEGISLATIVE CALENDAR?
The legislative calendar is subject to change, and it’s not uncommon for lawmakers to schedule a Saturday session or two as big deadlines approach, but the draft calendar is still a helpful guide. In addition to offering a general sense of how far into the 90-day session lawmakers are, the calendar highlights key dates such as holidays, the bill draft request deadline, and the cut-off date for a bill to be transmitted from one chamber of the Legislature to the other.
The Capitol Tracker app also includes a calendar page that lists the bills scheduled for committee hearings each day, and the daily House and Senate agendas can be found on the leg.mt.gov/session page.
HOW ELSE CAN I STAY ON TOP OF THE LEGISLATURE’S PROCEEDINGS?
Montana Free Press will cover the session extensively with stories published at montanafreepress.org and shared through our daily and weekly email newsletters. New this session, MTFP investigative political reporter Arren Kimbal-Sannit will also produce a biweekly newsletter, Capitolized, where political wonks can garner an insider’s view of proceedings at the Capitol. Additionally, the Session podcast, which MTFP produces in partnership with Montana Public Radio and Yellowstone Public Radio, will be back with legislative content every Monday.
Other outlets including Lee newspapers, MTN News, the Associated Press, Daily Montanan, Kaiser Health News and the University of Montana’s Legislative News Service will also have journalists cruising Capitol hallways this session to keep Montanans informed.
ANYTHING ELSE I SHOULD KNOW?
If you have a question about something we’ve missed here, give us a shout at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Otherwise, go forth and be civic!
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