When Legislatures Go on Break, It’s Time to Give Them an Earful

During a regular Montana legislative session in the pre-pandemic past, the Capitol would have been regularly filled with hundreds of citizens, groups and organizations holding rallies in support of or opposition to the measures being heard and voted upon every day. But due to the necessary precautions to prevent COVID infection, those rallies and in-person communications have been largely absent. This week, however, marks the halfway point in the session and as legislators return home, it gives constituents a good chance to provide input on the legislators’ actions so far — and those to come.

While Republicans, who hold the majorities in both chambers of the Legislature as well as the Governor’s Office, will heartily crow that “elections have consequences,” the simple truth is that legislators in every legislative session, no matter who holds which majorities, benefits from the feedback of the populace they take an oath to serve.

No one, no matter how intelligent, well-versed or experienced, can possibly know everything about the vast number of issues that come before the legislature each session. There’s no doubt that individual legislators may know a great deal about the issues with which they are familiar. But in the broader scope of society’s concerns, those are actually tiny niches and only a foolish and headstrong legislator would discount feedback from those knowledgeable in specific issue areas.

Unfortunately, Montana’s Capitol has largely been a right-wing echo chamber for the last two months due to the medical impossibility of having large numbers of citizens who are familiar with certain issues being able to contact and inform legislators in person — which has always been the most effective way to communicate, particularly on complex issues.

The result has been an avalanche of very bad, very partisan measures that have little to do with “the greatest good for the greatest number” that governance is supposed to achieve. For instance, what does hunting black bears with hounds have to do with regular Montanans who are trying to do their jobs and raise their families during this very tough pandemic? “Nothing” would be the right answer since chasing bears with dogs is both unethical and exceedingly cruel.

And that’s just one of the many, many bad ideas coming out of the legislature to date. As a friend emailed the other day: “Amid the pandemic, collapsing middle class, high unemployment, high eviction rates & homelessness, and undeniable global warming, their priorities are voter suppression, ending all women’s rights, killing unions, allowing concealed guns everywhere without permits, making sure transgender females cannot participate in sports, protecting businesses from liability suits if employees get Covid when forced to work in unsafe conditions, eliminating rooftop solar, protecting Colstrip’s coal generators from ever closing and replacing the coal plants with NUKES!! Some days, I can’t stand to even read the news.”

But that just scratches the surface of what’s emanating from the Legislature and the Governor’s Office right now, including the measure to get rid of the commissioner of political practices — who actually enforces campaign finance laws. Montana’s political watchdog would be replaced by the secretary of state and a panel of four legislators. And of course there’s nothing like allowing politicians to police themselves for campaign finance accountability. What could go wrong?

This week’s mid-session break will be one of the few opportunities before session’s end when legislators are accessible to their constituents in person. Don’t waste the opportunity to give ‘em an earful before they return to the Capitol’s right-wing echo chamber — and crank out even more bad laws and policies.

 

George Ochenski is a columnist for the Missoulian, where this essay originally appeared.

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