Connecting to the Capitol

The 63rd Montana State Legislature is now in session, and local politicians from around the state have convened in Helena to make decisions for the entire state. The session began on Jan. 7 and will continue until April 27. The Legislature’s primary goal is to make laws for the state and to hold the newly-elected governor, Steve Bullock, accountable for his actions, just as Congress functions on the federal level. The Legislature is divided into two houses — the House of Representatives and the Senate — and meets every two years for 90 days. When a state legislator believes a certain law should be introduced, he or she writes a draft of the bill which is then assigned to a committee within either the House of Representatives or Senate, depending on the legislator’s house.  For example, if a senator believes a new law relating to roads and transportation is needed, it would likely be referred to the Highways and Transportation Committee in the senate. That committee revises the bill before presenting it before the Senate. After an initial reading, the bill is amended upon recommendation of the Senate body. The bill is read and revised a total of three times before debates and voting occur. In this example, if the bill passes by a simple majority of 26 senators, it would be moved to the House of Representatives where this process would be repeated with three readings and revisions, debates and final voting, where a majority vote of 51 representatives is needed. If the bill is passed in both houses, it is given to the governor who can either sign the bill into law or use his power of veto. If vetoed, the Legislature can override it with a vote of two-thirds in both houses (34 senators and 67 representatives).

MSU Representation

Whether or not students are actively engaged in or following the legislative process this season, their interests are nevertheless being represented in Helena. MSU, Montana Associated Students (MAS) and the Board of Regents each have a list of objectives they consider important and want communicated to the lobbyists. To achieve these objectives, MSU employs Tracy Ellig to serve as its professional lobbyist and its primary liaison on legislative matters.
Additionally, ASMSU-hired student lobbyist Dani Clark lobbies for ASMSU while working with other lobbyists from UM and MSU-Billings to bring the Montana higher education student voice to Helena. According to Ellig, “A good lobbyist strives to be a sort of walking library of information on a particular issue and is also very good at communicating complex topics. If student lobbyists are not available to answer legislators’ questions, then budgets and laws are passed in an information vacuum. That’s never a good thing.” The most important ASMSU initiative, according to ASMSU State Legislative Director Bryan Vadheim, is to get the student voice heard by legislators. Vadheim said that means getting students involved in the process, which may include going to Helena to testify before the legislators and show their support for initiatives. Vadheim explained that the Board of Regents, MAS and ASMSU all regard the State Employee Pay Plan as the most important objective facing the legislature this session. This plan determines the funds state employees such as MSU faculty and staff are paid. Clark reiterated the importance of student involvement, stating, “We have great students in our Montana University System, but I don’t think they always know that they can make the biggest impact up in Helena. When I meet with legislators, and others who work during the session, I’m repeatedly told that students make the biggest impact, and if they communicate directly, it will make a huge difference.”