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Elected by their geographic peers, 150 citizen legislators representing every slice of the state gather in Helena every two years to make laws. Each session lasts 90 working days, long enough for the Capitol complex to develop a distinct, if temporary, social ecosystem of its own within the capital city, a self-contained society swirling with veteran and freshman lawmakers, lobbyists, journalists, temporary employees and average citizens with agendas to advocate and bones to pick.
At first glance, the buzz of activity appears random and chaotic. But soon an order becomes apparent, set to a schedule that repeats every day.
In the morning, after Capitol staff fill all the coffee carafes in the building, legislators convene at 8 a.m. for committee meetings. It’s here that the finer points of bills are hashed out, and the public is welcome to contribute to the conversation. Lunch is usually served by various interest groups in the rotunda before the 100 members of the House of Representatives and the 50 members of the Senate meet in their respective chambers to debate and vote on which bills should become law. Then more committee meetings fill out the rest of the day. In between the formal meetings, informal meetings crowd the hallways.
When the workday is over, the energy of democracy spills out into Helena. Most lawmakers rent temporary housing for the session, boarding with other legislators or, less frequently, with their families. On weekends, many drive long roads back to their hometowns.
This year’s session is scheduled to conclude on May 5. By then, the laws of the land will have been codified for the next 21 months. Legislators will return to their normal lives, until their communities once again decide who to send to the Capitol to conduct the people’s business in 2025.
The state Capitol is illuminated under a blue sky in Helena on Thursday, Jan. 26. Construction on the core of the Capitol building was completed in 1902, with flanking additions completed in 1912. Credit: Samuel Wilson / Bozeman Daily Chronicle
A line of people testifying against Senate Bill 99, which bans gender-affirming care for transgender minors, spills out from the Old Supreme Court Chamber in the Capitol during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Friday, Jan. 27. The hearing for the bill, sponsored by Sen. John Fuller, R-Kalispell, was among the first contentious meetings of the session. An amended version of the bill was passed by the committee four days later. Credit: Samuel Wilson / Bozeman Daily Chronicle
Rep. Zack Wirth, R-Wolf Creek, votes against a bill during a House of Representatives floor session on Friday, Jan. 27. Every afternoon at 1 p.m., the House and Senate chambers gather to discuss and vote on bills. Credit: Samuel Wilson / Bozeman Daily Chronicle
Dr. Al Olszewski, right, a former Montana legislator, chats with Sen. Steve Hinebauch, R-Wibaux (at left), Rep. Braxton Mitchell, R-Columbia Falls, and Rep. Tanner Smith, R-Lakeside, after giving testimony at a committee hearing in the Capitol on Friday, Jan. 27. Credit: Samuel Wilson / Bozeman Daily Chronicle
People wearing matching yellow scarves gather in front of the Capitol in heavy snow before a rally organized by the Montana Family Foundation advocating school choice on Friday, Jan. 27. The rally was one of many at statehouses across the country as part of the National School Choice Week, and was attended by several legislators and Elsie Arntzen, Montana’s superintendent of public instruction. Credit: Samuel Wilson / Bozeman Daily Chronicle
Troy Zeeman, a sergeant-at-arms staff member for the House of Representatives, prepares a batch of coffee for the House in a small room in the Capitol on Friday, Jan. 27. Zeeman reports that on the busiest days, he and his colleagues will make up to 40 gallons of coffee for legislators in the House. Credit: Samuel Wilson / Bozeman Daily Chronicle
The Montana House of Representatives meets during a floor session on Thursday, Jan. 26. The number of constituents represented by each House member varies from approximately 9,200 to nearly 18,000. Credit: Samuel Wilson / Bozeman Daily Chronicle
A digital board displays the votes of state senators on the third and final reading of Senate Bill 154 during a Senate floor session on Thursday, Jan. 26. The bill creates an act stating that the Montana Constitution’s right to individual privacy does not protect access to abortion care. Credit: Samuel Wilson / Bozeman Daily Chronicle
Reams of colorful paper printed with bills to be distributed to legislators are organized on shelves in an office in the Capitol on Thursday, Jan. 26. As of Feb. 1, 699 bills had been introduced. Credit: Samuel Wilson / Bozeman Daily Chronicle
Gov. Greg Gianforte gives his State of the State address on Wednesday, Jan. 25. During the biennial address, the governor speaks to a joint session of both houses of the Legislature. It was Gianforte’s second State of the State, and he took the opportunity to emphasize his opposition to abortion and his budget priorities, which include tax cuts and health care investments. Credit: Samuel Wilson / Bozeman Daily Chronicle
Bob Gilbert, a long-time lobbyist and former Montana legislator, holds court in a hallway with his wife, Dee Gilbert, and Bonner Armstrong, assistant Sergeant-at-Arms for the Senate, outside the Senate chamber on Thursday, Jan. 26. Gilbert long ago adopted the strategy of letting lawmakers come to him, setting up his “office” on the same bench seat every day. “This my 38th year up here, 28 years lobbying,” Gilbert said. “You do something you like, and you enjoy it, so you just stay and do it.” Credit: Samuel Wilson / Bozeman Daily Chronicle
From right: Micki Young, Misty Mitchell, and Bridget Coulter, members of the Passages culinary arts program for women offenders, plate a tray of fried Brussels sprouts with aioli and other hors d’oeuvres before serving them to legislators and Capitol staff in the Capitol rotunda on Thursday, Jan. 26. The program offers food service training and employment support for incarcerated individuals within 24 months of their release eligibility as part of a pre-apprenticeship with the Montana Department of Labor and Industry. Credit: Samuel Wilson / Bozeman Daily Chronicle
Rep. Emma Kerr-Carpenter, D-Billings, and her husband, Dan Cohn, take their 10-month-old baby, Asa, to bed, after a day working at the Capitol, as her parents, Kathy and Colin Kerr-Carpenter, finish dishes in the house they are renting for the session on Thursday, Jan. 26. “It’s been interesting,” Kerr-Carpenter said of having an infant with her during her third session as a legislator. “The only way it would have worked is to have my family here.” Credit: Samuel Wilson / Bozeman Daily Chronicle
Tom Kuglin, left, deputy editor for the Lee Newspapers State Bureau, and Jonathon Ambarian, a senior political reporter with the Montana Television Network, watch a television displaying a live House floor session from an office for media in the basement of the Capitol on Friday, Jan. 27. The corps of journalists working in the Capitol includes seasoned veterans and University of Montana students. Credit: Samuel Wilson / Bozeman Daily Chronicle
A Capitol staff member monitors the door of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee hearing on Friday, Jan. 27. Committees serve as work groups for legislators to discuss the details of a bill and hear from constituents, lobbyists and subject matter experts before they decide whether to advance it to the full chamber for a vote. Credit: Samuel Wilson / Bozeman Daily Chronicle
Samuel Wilson is a photographer for the Bozeman Daily Chronicle and Report for America. He graduated from the University of Montana's School of Journalism in 2013.
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