My 1/18/09 Missoulian column
The 61st session of the Montana Legislature is in session, and if you want to participate in government beyond casting a vote on Election Day, the best resource available is the Web site of the Montana Legislature.
At the site, you can check up on your elected legislators, see the committees they sit on, see what bills they have drafted and/or sponsor, and contact them. You can search for and read the text of proposals, and follow those bills through the convoluted process of drafts, introduction, readings, motions, committees and votes. You can also read legislative history, current laws and check out the state constitution. And if you’re heading to Helena, you can read the agenda for that day online and see what is scheduled.
The 61st session began on Jan. 5 and is scheduled to end on April 25, so you have some time to check the site during the session. (You can also check out information back to the 1997 session, though the amount of information is limited compared with more recent sessions.)
The Montana legislative site is well laid out and not “heavy” in terms of graphics and other features, so if you’re on dial-up or a slow Internet connection it should work just fine. Click around and see what’s there to read; you won’t break anything and there is much to learn.
In order to use the site and participate in online government beyond the bare basics, you need to know who your legislators are. If you didn’t care who they are until now, you can “Find a Legislator” very easily; it’s nearly the top link on the left hand side of the site.
With all the features available, there’s no excuse not to know who your people in Helena are. And don’t forget that the legislative branch is bicameral (meaning it has two chambers, the Senate and the House of Representatives, with 50 and 100 members respectively) so you have more than one direct representative in the capital.
If you have some idea of their names, you can browse the whole roster, which has links to their own Web pages. If you’re not sure of their names but you know your zip code, you can go to Project Vote Smart – which is based out of the Great Divide Ranch, located 12 miles outside Philipsburg – and enter a zip code (nine digits sometimes required in order to narrow it down) to get a whole list of your elected officials, from Congress all the way down to the state level, in this case your local legislators.
If you can find yourself on a map, you can look on maps provided by State of Montana Natural Resource Information System and click down to the street level to find your street and thus your legislator.
Once you’ve got your legislator’s name(s) nailed down, you’ll find that each has a Web page with all necessary contact information, committee assignments, and, of course, listings and links to sponsored bills and associated bills.
This is government in action, and it should be much of the information you need to follow your folks and see what they are up to and let them know what you think. If you want to e-mail your legislators, I’d keep it short and put the title of the bill that’s of interest in the subject line of your e-mail. I’m sure they get many calls, e-mails and old fashioned “snail mail,” so to be most effective, be brief and to the point.
Another handy feature is searching for bills. If you want to find out about a measure not listed on your legislator’s page – one that you may have heard about or that was covered in the news – you can search for it by name.
However, if you want to do a general search for bills – concerning wolves, guns or the budget – you have to first choose a search subject, because you can’t search directly on keywords.
So, to search for measures concerning wolves, scroll through the subject list and select either “Wildlife” or “Fish and Wildlife.” Then search. You’ll get a list of introduced and unintroduced bills. Then, you can use the search function in your Web browser to further search for terms in the titles of bills – or just scroll down the page if there aren’t that many proposals listed – and then go to the text of the actual bill.
Some measures may concern wolves but that word may not appear in the title of the bill, so in order to be diligent in your research, you will need to browse the text of other bills that could be related to wolf issues.
Clicking on a measure will take you to the “Detailed Bill Information,” you’ll see that the bill text is available in hypertext markup language – which means you can read it in your Web browser – or in PDF, which means you can also read it in your Web browser or download it to your PC or Mac in Acrobat format. Then you can save it, read it and e-mail to someone. Also on the “Detailed Bill Information” page for each bill are the actions taken with the bill: drafts, readings, committees and more.
If searching for and reading particular proposals isn’t enough for you, just about everything else you need to know – in terms of how legislators develop bills, how those bills move through the process – is available on the site. The full Montana Code is available online, as are past laws and the text of the state constitution. All legislative publications are available and searchable.
State legislative history is available, too. Some nuggets: the first state Legislature convened Nov. 23, 1889, but was deadlocked by political fights and adjourned the next February with nothing to show for its work. There were annual legislative sessions in 1973-1974 until they were voted down again. And, in 1899, “Copper King” William A. Clark of Butte successfully bribed the sixth Legislature to gain his own congressional seat.
And, concerning those particular critters of the legislative process – aka lobbyists – the Commissioner of Public Practices provides a searchable list of all registered lobbyists (politicalpractices.mt.gov/default.mcpx).
Lastly, if you want to listen or watch the sessions, you can. Go to “Sessions” and then to “Listen.” To listen or watch the live stream, you need RealPlayer (which is a free download), unless your PC is set up to use another player for RealPlayer audio and video files. If you want to watch on TV, look at the listings under “Watch” to find your cable channel that carries Television Montana, the state government broadcasting provider or call your cable supplier
Don’t forget to check out Project Vote Smart, “The Voter’s Self-Defense System.” There’s a huge amount of information to peruse, which begins right in our backyard outside of Philipsburg.