The Legislature as High School Reunion

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – Walking through the Senate gallery to attend a committee hearing Wednesday morning I bumped into one of my professors from UM’s journalism school, here on a field trip for a Legislative reporting class. In 2007 he served as my advisor when I covered the session for my graduate degree.

“This place is like one big high school reunion,” he muttered when he saw me coming, and he couldn’t be more right. There is something so undeniably reminiscent of high school about the Montana Legislature: the crowded hallways, the institutional feeling, the cliques, the occasional passive-aggression, the mediocre cafeteria food, and the thousands of people cycling through a building that we all feel belongs to us, but somehow doesn’t really belong to us at all.

And, if I may beat a tortured metaphor into the ground a bit further, if there is an equivalent to the teachers and administrators of high school, in the statehouse it is not the elected officials. Politicians come and go, and with term limits, even the best lawmakers eventually see their time in the Capitol come to an end. But the lobbyists remain, implacable and unchanging, looking exactly the same as they did two years ago, with nary a new hairstyle or suit to be found.

In many cases these lobbyists remain stationed in the same place, along the leather benches outside the Senate, or the hallway leading to the House, hovering and waiting for a moment of face time with a lawmaker. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a rip on lobbyists by any stretch; they serve a vital function in the Legislature and lest you think they solely represent the interests of industry, there are also a considerable number representing conservation groups, municipalities, universities and colleges, and low-income Montanans.

But there is something in the astonishment I hear from freshman lawmakers that the vast majority of institutional knowledge in the Capitol often resides in the lobbyists and long-time state employees, some of whom have been here since the 1970s. The experience can sometimes leave freshmen lawmakers feeling like, well, freshmen. It’s an integral part of the debate over term limits, but when you walk the statehouse halls, you really see it. If the Legislature is like high school, the lobbyists are the super-seniors.

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