Guide to State Politics

If you're like me, you forgot most of what you learned about local politics in tenth grade. So when my badass sister-in-law asked me to attend an informational session at the public library that detailed how to learn more about state legislation, I said "yea." 

Waking up for a nine a.m. lecture on a Saturday was...different for a decidedly not morning-person like myself. But I'm glad I rolled out of bed for the powerpoint. I was going to post Christmas cookie recipes today, but that will have to wait till next week. Instead, here's a very condensed "How To" guide for anyone who's interested in learning more about what bills are up for debate, which representatives support what, and how we, as citizens, can stay up to date and even lobby for what we want. 

*I'm using Montana as the platform for this guide, but the same concepts will (I assume) apply to all or most states. The hyperlinks on this post will lead to Montana government website pages. 

With legislation being on pause while desk nameplates are either polished or changed, I figured now's a great time to get caught up on the hows, whos, and whats of the Powers that Be. 

Let's Get Basic

These may be no-brainer facts for you, but I honestly had forgotten most of this stuff. (Insert blushing emoji here.)

State governments are modeled off of the federal government: there are three branches (executive, legislative, and judicial). The Senate and the House of Representatives make up the bicameral (two-chamber) legislative branch known collectively as Congress. (Nebraska opted out of the bicameral Congress.) 

In Montana, there are 100 representatives and 50 senators. Each state has its own number of house reps and senators, depending on the state's constitution. 

Representatives and Senators are elected by districts. Find out here who represents your district in Montana. For example, I am in House district 61 and my representative is Kathleen Williams; I am in Senate district 31 and my senator is Mike Phillips. Hyperlinks on their names reveal what party your legislators affiliate with, their contact information, what their hair and smile look like, what bills they have sponsored or associated with, and what committees they are on. 

Baby Steps Past Basics

Committees are bipartisan and gather information for bills. In Montana, there are 16 House Committees and 17 Senate Committees with foci ranging from Agriculture to Ethics to Natural Resources. Standing committees meet during sessions and hold public hearings on proposed bills within the committee's policy subject. Interim committees meet between sessions and conduct studies that help form bills, including input from specialists and the general public. There are also joint subcommittees that meet at the beginning of sessions to look over budgets and delegate money to state agencies. 

The Senate has a Committee on Committees that appoints Senate committee members and presiding officers of these committees. The House Speaker appoints members of House Committees and presiding officers. Montana bleeds red so our House and Senate majorities are Republican, and you'll see in the most recent Interim Newsletter that all of the presiding officers for all of the committees are Republicans. 

You can sign up to be notified when the Interim Newsletters are published to stay up-to-date with what's happening with interim committee work and other legislative development. You can also stream live footage of sessions - find out what broadcasts are coming up here

If you'd rather not shift through all the government doings to find information about the topics that are near and dear to you, find the interim or standing committees that call to you. Then click on that committee, and the hyperlink will take you to a page that details what bill(s) have been created from the studies. On the righthand sidebar there is a "sign up for e-notices" link. This way you can pick and chose what topics you receive notifications about.

You can also create a preference account with the LAWS database and stay current with any bills you chose to follow. On this search page you can find any bill using the name, a subject, a legislator, and/or a primary sponsor. 

Beyond Voting: Five Ways to Voice Your Opinion

1. To offer your insights and feelings about bills, here's some guidelines for public comments. You can keep up-to-date on specific committee developments and when public hearings will be held by signing up for e-notices (see above), creating a preference list, or simply by calling the Legislative Communications Office and asking. 

2. You can always write or call your legislators. Anytime on anything. 

3. You can lobby as an organization or as a citizen. There is a $150 lobby fee that can be waived if deemed a hardship.  

4. In a more hands-on approach, given time is available, you can also apply to be on a board, council, or commission. Like committees, these citizen-run boards center on topics ranging from horse racing to housing. It's one way to create direct influence in your profession or passion.

5. And, of course, there's social media, daily conversation, letters to the editor, (peaceful) protests, and general "I live in a democracy and am protected by freedom of speech and I'm gonna play an active role" do-ery. 'Cause maybe it won't make a difference, but there's a lot of evidence out there that ya, your voice actually can shape the future.


More from Politics & Culture