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Residents get a lesson in citizenship

 

February 14, 2019



Margaret Mead’s very famous quote promotes active, informed citizenry: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, organized citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” Keeping this in mind was at the heart of the presentation, Citizenship 101: Montana’s 2019 Legislature that was held last Friday at the Paradise Center.

Twenty citizens from around Sanders County came to fine-tune their knowledge of how Montana’s Legislature works. This presentation is one of many around the state to promote active engagement in Montana’s laws and budgets that effect all of us. In Paradise, Jacob Foster of the Montana Wilderness Association displayed information of how bills are presented, the path they take when moving through both the House and the Senate, and effective points of citizen involvement. Those in attendance were well versed in the process, yet lively discussion was had with their questions of details and processes during this concentrated time of legislative action.

Montana is one of four states that hold their legislative session biannually, the others being Nevada, North Dakota and Texas. The origins of this practice were several, but among the most agreed upon was that it would promote citizen legislation and not be driven by long-term politicians. Citizens could continue with their primary work, if they could arrange to get away for blocks of time every other year. It was also meant to prevent quick, reactive political decisions because there would need to be thoughtfulness and foresightedness to create policy and budgets for two years. Lastly, many western state legislatures were set up in relatively vast states before the ease of modern travel.

A Montana session convenes for only 90 days. Texas meets 140 days in the regular session plus 30 days in special sessions; Nevada meets for 120; and, North Dakota meets for 80 days. There’s a lot that gets pushed into these sessions. How is a citizen to keep up to date and stay involved?

Recapping the process Foster reviewed, bills are assigned to a budgetary committee based at the discretion of the House Speaker or President of the Senate. Most bills can be initiated in either chamber, but there are some which must come from one or the other. For example, all taxation bills must be initiated in the House of Representatives. A bill must pass through the assigned committee before it is given its second reading, following a vote on the floor of the chamber that initiated the bill. If the bill passes there, it is then assigned to a committee in the other chamber to pass through a similar process. If bills in both chambers are not exactly alike, it then proceeds to a joint committee to possibly make compromises to the bill and then it will be returned for a final vote in both chambers. If the bill passes both chambers, it then goes to the desk of the Governor where he must sign or veto within 10 days.

Over 3,000 bills are expected to be proposed in both the House and the Senate this year. How does an interested citizen keep track of it all? Montana has set up several terrific sites for looking up bills of interest. The primary on-line source is https://leg.mt.gov/. Here you can look up committees, specific bills, and our legislators with an email contact link. Many representatives are also on social media, and a link can be found next to their listing. Chose this email or FB messaging format for short messages about specific bills and whether you wish for them to vote for or against that bill. Including concise, to-the-point reasoning, will help support your case.

Written letters are slower in arriving but provide a forum for thoughtful discourse to your feelings or justifications. The Capitol Switchboard can be phoned by dialing (406) 444-4800 and provides the quickest, but less personal way to contact a representative about a bill of interest. This is good if that bill is in a critical stage of a vote and time is of the essence. The switchboard operators are available weekdays from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.

After this concentrated lesson, Foster continued with bills that effect public lands in Sanders County and county residents were given the floor to discuss bills they wanted to see supported. Dr. Greg Hanson, Clark Fork Valley Hospital, presented his opinion that the passing of Medicaid expansion would increase the vitality of our communities and the management and funding of the hospital. County Commissioner Carol Brooker shared her concerns related to bills that fund our county’s infrastructure, roads and voting laws. Jim Elliott discussed the process of legislative action and gave advice about how to effectively interact with representatives. Lastly, Ron Rude shared his experiences with public education systems serving as a past Plains School Superintendent.

Politics seem to infiltrate our lives these days and it can feel overwhelming; we might just want to throw in the towel. Here in Montana, we are a relatively small, closely connected state and citizen voices can be heard. It would be something if citizens united on both sides of the aisle to engage and speak out for Sanders County issues that concern us all – health care, Medicaid expansion, fishing, hunting, public land management, public education, social services, Veterans affairs, and our county’s infrastructure. We don’t have to all agree but let’s try to speak out when it matters most.

The Legislature is slated to have a break March 3 through 6, which could provide time for anyone to sit down and talk to representatives. The session is scheduled to end May 1.

Until then, keep close tabs on the bills that interest you and provide your input.

 

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