Statewide student lobbyist position dissolved

One voice representing students at the Montana Legislature will go unheard this spring, as Montana Associated Students (MAS) has decided not to rehire its student lobbyist position.

Montana Associated Students is the association of student governments from the eleven campuses of the Montana University System. The student lobbyist that is hired by MAS, according to MSU Student Body President Kiah Abbey, “would have served as a lobbyist for all the campuses and essentially served as a student voice for the university system.”

Traditionally, MSU, University of Montana and MSU-Billings have hired their own student lobbyists to represent their university’s interest each legislative session. During the session, student lobbyists work closely with the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education and representatives from each campus to support system initiatives and long-range building plans. The 2011 session was the first time a MAS lobbyist was hired.

Last June, MAS hired former MSU Student Body President Blake Bjornson as the student lobbyist for the upcoming 2013 session. According to Bjornson, “the MAS lobbyist usually does more in terms of representing the affiliate campuses who don’t have the money to hire [a lobbyist] individually.”

On Sept. 24, Bjornson resigned from the position, leaving it vacant.

Bjornson said he chose to resign because he “wasn’t able to dedicate the time that he needed to the position.”

After Bjornson’s resignation, Abbey said there was a lot of conversation in MAS about what to do with the position. UM and MSU proposed that instead of hiring one MAS lobbyist, they hire one for each side of the system, and individual schools would then not hire their own lobbyists.

According to UM Student Body President Zach Brown, this outcome “would have strengthened and consolidated the student voice” and “strengthened the voice of the affiliate institutions around the state, giving them a more equal voice on the issues [at the session].”

However, Brown said, “we could not quite reach consensus on this outcome — one school was insistent upon hiring their own lobbyist.” 

Because of their unique position in the university system, having a different student demographic than MSU and UM, and a larger student population than the other affiliate schools, MSUB felt that, according to Student Body President Isaiah Garrison, their own student lobbyist was too important to give up. “We were not happy with the decision to hire two lobbyists and not give the other universities any opportunity to hire their own lobbyist,” he said.

After further discussion within MAS, the two proposed lobbyist positions were opened but few applications were received. Since then, the position has dissolved and MAS has moved forward without a lobbyist.

Brown said UM was “a little bit disappointed at the outcome of this process.” Because of the multiple individual school lobbyists throughout the system, Brown said that in the past “the student lobbying team has been a bit nebulous and arguably ineffective at times because of fractured messaging and student lobbyists coming with their own agenda.” Brown said that he hoped the vacant position would create an opportunity for a better system where the voices were unified.

“The really nice thing about having a MAS lobbyist,” Abbey noted, “is that the larger schools can have a subsidized legislative representation for the smaller schools, and the smaller schools provide really interesting stories that the legislators often prefer.”

MSUB’s Garrison echoed this sentiment, saying “I am worried about the smaller schools in the system who cannot afford to hire their own lobbyists.”

“Where we are now…actually puts the two flagship Universities, MSU and UM, in more of a power seat, since we can both afford to hire our own lobbyists,” Brown said. “In my opinion, the losers here were the affiliates — this was an opportunity lost for them, and one school’s agenda left them behind.”

Nevertheless, MSU student lobbyist Dani Clark and professional lobbyist Tracy Ellig are confident about student representation at this spring’s legislature. According to Clark, “The other student lobbyists and I understand that we are not representing our own universities specifically, but that we are representing the Montana University System and will work together to do so.”

Ellig added that from what he has observed, the lobbyists are “making a concentrated effort to communicate and plan with their peers on other campuses.” “I’m impressed and looking forward to working with them as a team,” he said.