Why (and How) We’re Covering the Montana Legislative Session

Two weeks have passed since the 63rd session of the Montana State Legislature began, and a very-long fourteen weeks remain. But I’ll only say this once: You should probably care about the work being done in Helena right now.

The decisions made by Montana’s citizen legislature in the coming months will affect our state, our lives and the university system of which we are all part. As you may know, legislators set the university system’s total budget for the following two years, and will decide whether to fund large-scale building projects such as MSU’s proposed renovation to Romney Gym. They also make legislation regulating elections, including voter registration policies. As opinion columnist Brent Zundel describes, Montana’s public lands and even local microbrews are subject to legislative initiatives this session. So, yes, they do a lot inside the State Capitol Building.

Throughout this semester, everyone in MSU administration and student government will be talking about the legislative session. President Cruzado has written about it in her first few Monday Morning Memos, and ASMSU has a team dedicated to lobbying for student interests. Students will be encouraged to follow the political drama, write letters to their legislators and perhaps attend rallies in Helena. We are told becoming active in state politics will have real influence on lawmakers’ decisions and that participation in government is responsible citizenship.

Underlying these calls to action, though, is a feeling that legislators do not often give students a fair shake. Students do not have the best reputation in Helena.

During the last session in 2011, for example, now-House Majority Leader Tom McGillvray wanted to end state-mandated voting outreach efforts to students and other traditionally disenfranchised citizens. “Concerned individuals don’t need to be coddled and babysat to make sure they get it right,” he said. Fellow representative Champ Edmunds opposed use of mail-in voting ballots, conjuring a scenario where university RAs and students conspire to forge ballots mailed to residence halls. (See  2011 story by Montana Kaimin here)

What frustrates me about such attitudes is not so much their ability to impact higher-ed funding or voting laws; as a student, I do not think Montana’s lawmakers should always give more money to higher education. However, as a student, I do think Montanans should expect more sophisticated discourse from their representatives.

Similarly, students should expect a public dialogue about the state legislature that does more than ask them to simply “get involved.” Students hold a wide range of political opinions, but what unites our group is our busy lifestyle and high mobility. When juggling two jobs and 18 credits, students quickly become adept at tuning out calls for more of their time and energy. So, this is the one and only time I’ll tell students to care.

Access and information, more than advocacy, is what seems lacking in state legislative dialogue around campus. Given that, the Exponent’s top responsibility this semester is to make it easy for students to access consistent, diverse coverage of the legislative session. Visit www.msuexponent.com/mtleg for updates throughout each week — not just on Thursdays. The webpage will host a regular stream of news reports, links to resources, as well as new forms of blogging, analysis, social media storytelling and links to reports from across the state.

As a student-run publication without reporters based in Helena, we recognize our reporting limitations. Nevertheless, we hope that by including relevant outside material alongside original content, and experimenting with new modes of storytelling, we can provide a premier source of legislative coverage for students in the state.

If you are curious about the developments in Helena, bookmark www.msuexponent.com/mtleg, or follow our social media links by liking the “Montana State Exponent” on Facebook or following @msuexponent on Twitter. I will also provide legislative updates and commentary using my personal twitter account, @derekb6464.