As we near the midsession break, I thought I’d offer a few observations about the legislative process this session.
People frequently ask me if I notice any differences from the earlier periods when I served in the Senate. Some things are much the same as they were in those years of my previous service. Most of the members are genuinely interested in good public policy, although they may have fierce disagreements about just what should pass as good public policy. I believe there has been a concerted effort this session to be more civil with one another than was the case last session. To date, there have been no big blowups between the majority in the Legislature and Gov. Bullock like there was during the previous administrations’ of Gov. Schweitzer and Gov. Stephens.
There is one change, however, that I worry may become problematic as we get into the more difficult second half of the session. That change is the frequent use of proxy voting in the committees. During my earliest years in the Senate, there was no such thing as proxy voting in the Senate committees. Members were simply expected to attend their committee meetings, and committee chairs were expected to schedule executive action when all or most of the members could be present to vote. Then, sometime, during the '90s, the rules began to allow proxy voting in the committees. Though allowed, it was a very rare occasion that such absentee voting was employed.
To be sure, family emergencies, brief business requirements or appearances before other committees were, and remain, legitimate reasons for missing a meeting. Unfortunately, this session there are a small number of legislators, primarily leaders in the majority, who have taken this availability of proxy voting to be a license for permanent absence from their assigned committees. They are not there during the hearings, they are not there during the executive sessions. They haven’t heard the bills, and they haven’t discussed or debated the bills with their colleagues. But their votes are cast determining the outcome of legislation. I believe the instructions for how their votes are cast are based on the partisan take on most pieces of legislation.
Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but after we’ve tormented our families, our friends and our voters with our campaigns, the least we can do is show up for work and actually try to work with one another. There is growing unrest among the rest of us, from both parties, who believe we really are responsible to show up and work with one another. It’ll be interesting to see how this finally works out.
As always, I’m interested in listening to your thoughts and ideas on the legislative process. Your input ensures that citizens continue to run our democracy. Please email me online at http://leg.mt.gov/message/, call me at 406-444-4800, or write me at Montana State Senate, PO Box 200500, Helena, MT 59620.
Thanks for reading — until next time.
(State Sen. Greg Jergeson, a Democrat from Chinook, represents SD 17, which includes Hill and Blaine counties. During his 31 years of service as a state senator and public service commissioner, Jergeson has served north-central and northeastern Montana, including Liberty, Hill, Choteau and Blaine counties. He’ll be sending a weekly “Hello from Helena” update to keep the Hi-Line informed.)