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A primer on how the legislature works

Now that the 2008 election for state legislative races is close upon us it seems like a worthy idea to review what the heck it is that the Montana Legislature does. It’s my opinion that most folks form their understanding and opinion of most everything from national television news. By that measure the state legislature is a full time, three-day-a-week job held by people we hire at outrageous salaries to pout and insult members of the opposite party in the hopes that someone will think them hard at work.

Well, it’s a little different from that. The Montana Legislature only meets from January to April every odd numbered year for 90 working days. Legislators usually work a six day week and rest—sort of—on Sundays. Twelve to fourteen hour days are commonplace. Pay is $98 a day after taxes, and there is a per diem allowance of $99 a day to cover the cost of meals and lodging. Legislators do not get reimbursed for mileage, phone calls, or postage expenses incurred outside of Helena, and I can tell you that adds up fast in a rural district.

The Montana Legislature has a Senate of 50 members and a House of Representatives with 100 members. Each representative represents one percent of Montana’s population, which works out to about 9,500 men, women and children. Senators represent double that number, and there are two representatives for each senate district.

There were about 1,500 pieces of legislation introduced in the 2007 session, and almost every one of them had a hearing. And how, you may well ask, does anyone read, let alone understand, 1,500 bills? Well, quite frankly, they don’t. Legislators have to rely on other legislators who are familiar with the bills in their area of expertise, and this reliance is based on trust in both the other person’s ability and honesty.

There are also committees that meet in the interim between legislative sessions. They are almost always made up of equal numbers of House and Senate members evenly divided by party. Because there are fewer senators than house members, senators usually have to serve on two or more interim committees. That can take up two to five days a month in meetings, usually in Helena.

It stands to reason that 90 days is not a lot of time for a legislator to master one subject, let alone more than one, so the longer a legislator is in office they more they comprehend… usually. Like the general population, not every legislator is a genius. There are, however, non-elected folks who do have mastery on various issues called bureaucrats and lobbyists, and there are plenty more of each than there are legislators. Trust figures high with these folks, too. My mentor in the legislature, Francis Bardanouve, told me that a lobbyist will show you one side of the coin; it’s up to you to turn it over. Presenting only one side of an issue is expected of a lobbyist; being untruthful is not. It is rare that a lobbyist lies to a legislator, but once is all it takes to ruin their credibility.

In 1992 Montana voters enacted term limits. The conditions are that no one office can be held by the same person for more than eight out of 16 years. That holds from the Governor and other statewide elected officials to members of the House or Senate. It is permissible to run for a different office after being term limited in a previous one. Before term limits about one third of legislators did not come back for the next session due to retirement or defeat.

Some argue that because lobbyists and bureaucrats are not term limited they have increased political influence at the cost of state legislators. Others argue that legislators get too “cosy” with lobbyists and each other and need to be removed after eight years to prevent that.

Both Republicans and Democrats supported the term limit movement. It’s up to you to make up your own mind as to whether it works well or not, but if it’s a good idea to limit a person’s time in office, is it a good idea to limit ideas? In short, should term limits have term limits?


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Senator Jim Elliott Senator Jim Elliott is a State Senator from Trout Creek in his 15th year of legislative service, and is chairman of the Senate Taxation Committee.

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