Montana Viewpoint©


February 16, 2009

Well, the bill that would have designated the “whole wheat huckleberry pancake” as Montana’s official flapjack has flopped. The idea for the bill arose from students at Franklin Elementary in Missoula who wanted to participate in the legislative process. They are not the first and will not be the last to request legislation that really doesn’t seem to fit the lofty nature of making law. Since I live in Trout Creek, the officially designated “Huckleberry Capital of Montana” - you can look it up - I was kind of partial to the little critter. Not everyone was though, and thought the Legislature had more important, pressing issues to attend to. Well, it does, but these little silly bills serve their own purpose; there is now an elementary school class that has a better working knowledge of how laws are made than do 90% of Montana voters. (And 80% of legislators according to a wise guy in Helena whose name will not be made public for his own safety.)

I’m not setting out to recommend that the legislature seek out frothy little feel goods to make into law, but I am going to defend the practice when it happens. Montana is about as close as you will come to direct democracy in the United States, and allowing and encouraging citizen participation in the process is one of the important functions of the government. Too many times citizens see the Montana Legislature as an aloof and lofty body infected with a heavy dose of self importance. Well, try approaching a legislator in California or Pennsylvania with an idea for special legislation. Good luck getting past the receptionist. In Montana, the legislator IS the receptionist.

Over my years in the Montana Legislature, I carried a few bills that were suggested to me by one or more of my constituents. I won’t name names, they will know who they are if they read this list, and I remember each one of them: declare December 15th Bill of Rights Day in Montana; create a 10-day fishing license for out of state anglers; require truth in labeling on Huckleberry products; restrict the use of baled, used tires (there’s a long story about that one); restrict sounding of train horns at private crossings; allow multi-county museum districts; and allow an increase in ambulance levies with a public vote. As you can see, they vary in degrees of importance in the grand scheme of things, but they were important to the folks who wanted them, and most importantly of all, those folks saw that one person can make a difference.

That’s important because those people now know how the legislative process—and democracy— works. In the past 20 years that I’ve been paying attention there has been a depressing decline in the number of people who know even a little bit about the government that they go down and vote in or out every two years. Here’s a short list of misconceptions folks have about the Montana Legislature: it meets in Washington, DC (I kid you not)—it’s Helena; it meets year round—nope; it meets every year—nope again, 90 days every odd numbered year; legislators get huge paychecks just like Congress—if you consider $9000 bucks for two year’s work big, then they do; and legislators have big expense accounts—they wish. It’s zip, and everything comes out of their own pockets when they aren’t in Helena. The sad part of it is that folks can have some very intense negative feelings towards legislators based on those misperceptions.

There are plenty of places to lay blame for this, but why bother? It won’t change; but as a result, the American people—the folks who just about invented democracy, for heaven’s sake—have been turned into the least-informed voters in a major democracy and with the lowest voting turnout, too. Lowest if you don’t count Switzerland, that is. Go figure.

Montana Viewpoint© is carried by 20 Montana weekly newspapers, including those in Helena and Billings, with a combined circulation of over 60,000.

Jim Elliott is a former state senator from Trout Creek. He served in the Montana House 1989 to 1996 and the Montana Senate from 2001 to 2008. Elliott has distributed his opinion column statewide since 1992. There is no charge for publication.