The 67th Montana Legislature convened Monday, Jan. 4, in Helena. For those who follow the process from home, this year’s mixed-format session, or “hybrid” as they are calling it, will offer an opportunity for remote and virtual participation in the lawmaking process. In addition to giving legislators the choice between participating in person or from a remote location at which they feel safe, the option to testify through electronic means opens the doors for farmers and ranchers from remote corners of our state to participate, regardless of winter feeding, calving or inclement weather. In this, our first weekly Boots on the Hill column, we’ll outline how you can participate and how you can keep in touch with throughout the session.
For us, your Montana Farm Bureau lobbyists working in Helena, this session comes with many changes. COVID-19-related precautions mean each committee will meet a little differently than usual, but they have put protocols in place to carry out the important work of the people and still allow public input. Depending on the size of the room in which the committee meets, they may allow a limited number of non-committee members into the room to testify and watch from the audience in socially distanced chairs. In smaller meeting rooms, members of the public are allowed inside to testify and then exit the room because limited space does not allow seating. Committees are also hearing testimony virtually. Committee members themselves are spread further apart in the room, and some legislators are choosing to participate virtually, but their pictures appear on a screen and they can interact with the rest of the committee, similar to how they would interact in person. Regardless of how, everyone from legislators to the public understands how important this work is and is ready to do it!
We spent a good deal of time this week learning the new “lay of the land” and figuring out how to use the technology and balance in-person participation. We feel passionately about doing everything we can to represent the farmer and rancher members of the Montana Farm Bureau Federation so we will be in Helena, participating in-person as much as possible, following safety protocols, and communicating the agriculture message to all.
Much of the legislative process remains the same, especially for folks who do not usually spend time in Helena. Anyone can visit the Legislative webpage, leg.mt.gov/, to find a listing of your elected officials, to view all the bills that have been introduced and to track where the bills are in the legislative process. What’s unique this year is the button in the middle of the website’s home page: “Request to testify remotely/testify remotely.” Though this portal, you can locate the bill you are interested in following and submit written testimony or schedule a virtual testimony. These must be scheduled 24 hours in advance. You can also call the Legislative Hotline to leave messages for legislators at (406) 444-4800.
What hasn’t changed at all is the importance of your involvement and engagement in the legislative process. The legislators who represent your house or senate district want and need to hear from you. Their phone numbers and email addresses are listed at leg.mt.gov, and now is the perfect time to reach out and introduce yourself. A simple e-mail to your elected official that briefly reads,
“Hello Sen. XXX, I’m a constituent in your senate district XX. Thank you for representing me and our community, especially in these challenging circumstances. I’m a cattle rancher and sugar beet farmer, and I’m interested in legislation that relates to agriculture, natural resources and wildlife. I look forward to keeping in touch throughout the session and I am available for questions or comments that pertain to our community.”
This simple introduction goes a long way when you want to talk to your legislator about an important ag issue later in the session. While it is important to have a relationship with your own legislators, they may not be on the committee that most pertains to issues you care about. You may wish to familiarize yourself with legislators who serve on relevant committees including but not limited to: agriculture, natural resources, fish and wildlife and taxation.
We have started tracking bills and testifying on behalf of our farming and ranching members. Each week for the next 90 days, you can look for our update on bills we’re working, as directed by the Farm Bureau member-written policy we represent. MFBF members will receive weekly email updates on all of the bills we are working, the policy we use to support or oppose them, and their progress through the Session. We’ll also provide print newsletters approximately monthly. If you are not a Farm Bureau member, we’d encourage you to join by visiting our website: www.mfbf.org, or talking to a local member who can help get you signed up.
Here’s the first bill we’re supporting this Session: