The Montana Legislature just hit its halfway mark, formally known as “transmittal,” when all non-appropriation or revenue bills have to be transmitted from the chamber of origin to the second chamber or they’re dead. It’s also the time when legislators get to head back home for a few days to catch their breath and, importantly, to get some feedback from their constituents on the vast array of public policy bills spanning the spectrum of issues that affect Montanans’ lives and future.
While it’s a great opportunity to contact our legislators, thank ‘em for what they’re doing right and voice an opinion on what one may not agree with, treating them with a little respect will go a long ways to make legislator-constituent interactions more humane as well as more effective.
It’s no news that our nation is perhaps as divided as it’s been since the Vietnam War era. That’s in no small part due to the highly disrespectful and inflammatory rhetoric of Donald Trump during his campaign. The name-calling, threats and insults tossed about on a daily basis certainly did nothing to raise the level of public discourse. But it did pit Americans against each other, including acts of violence.
The bottom line, however, is that each and every American has exactly the same rights when it comes to public policy debates. We all have the right to our own opinions. Likewise, we have the right to advocate with vigor for those policies we support as well as those we oppose. And we have every right to expect our elected officials to give serious consideration to the input they receive since, after all, their job is to represent us.
Due to the nature of Montana’s “citizen legislature,” which only meets every other year for a hectic 90-day session, it can be very challenging for any legislator to understand the multitude of measures that require their support, opposition or amendment. Anyone who has ever read a complex bill, or a long and detailed fiscal note, will readily admit that it’s far from light duty. Every area of the law is rife with specifics to that particular issue. And while a teacher may be very familiar with education policies, it can be a very different chore to deal with health, seniors, transportation or environmental policies. Toss in the funding sources, agency structures and tasks, and existing laws, regulations and administrative rules, and one can quickly get an idea of what legislators deal with on a daily basis while in session.
The other side of that situation is that it provides a great opportunity for those who do know about specific issue areas to lend their expertise to legislators. In large part, despite the common image of schmoozing and lavish dinners, that’s exactly what professional lobbyists do. Of course most citizens, having jobs and families to raise, can’t spend every day in the halls of the Capitol. But what we can do is take advantage of the opportunity on transmittal break to be citizen lobbyists to our legislators.
It would be naïve to think that how Montanans treat each other is going to have much effect upon the current extremely toxic national political scene. But we have a long tradition of neighborliness in Montana that is often commented upon by those who visit our state. We surely won’t agree on all – or even most – issues, but suffice it to say when we do disagree a modicum of respect for another’s opinions goes a long way in Montana’s public policy and legislative arenas.