The U.S. and state constitutions give every citizen the right to speak on public issues and to be heard by officials at every level of government. At the Montana Legislature, that means you have the right to share your thoughts and opinions about any public issue under consideration by lawmakers.
The state Legislature functions in an open and public atmosphere. Committee meetings and floor sessions are open to the public. All votes must be taken in public and recorded for public access.
One of the most important opportunities to become involved in the debate over a bill is when it is the subject of a hearing before a legislative committee. You can communicate personally with legislators at any time about any bill, but the committee hearing is the occasion when anyone may publicly approve, oppose, or suggest changes to a bill.
You can testify on any bill that concerns you. All committee hearings are scheduled at least three days in advance.
Committee hearings allow you to speak your mind before the committee takes any action and before the bill is brought to the attention of the House and Senate for debate and a final vote.
The purpose of committee hearings is to gather information so that the committee can make an informed recommendation on a given bill or resolution. Legislators were elected to represent citizens like you. They are eager to hear your thoughts and perspective. Don't be intimidated, and don't let stage fright stop you from taking this opportunity to participate in your government!
How to Find a Committee
During legislative sessions, each committee of the House and Senate is assigned to a specific meeting room in the Capitol. Occasionally, if a hearing is expected to attract a large crowd, it may be moved to a larger room. Such changes are noted on hearing schedules, and notices are placed outside the regular meeting rooms.
The time and place of every committee hearing is posted several days in advance on the boards reserved for that purpose in the legislative hallways. In addition, computer terminals are placed in the halls for the convenience of the public. You may use these terminals to get accurate, up-to-the-minute information on the status of each introduced bill. You may also call or visit the Session Information Desk in the first floor hall of the Capitol, (406) 444-4800 (during session only), or check hearing information on the Internet.
Printed schedules of each day's hearings are available at the Session Information Desk, and some major Montana newspapers print the hearing schedules each day of the session.
You may enter a legislative hearing room at any time, even if the door is closed or a hearing is in progress. The common standards of courtesy and respect apply; enter quietly if a meeting is in progress. Be sure to turn off your cell phone before entering. Food and drink (other than water) are not permitted in hearing rooms.
During legislative sessions, copies of bills are available for a small charge in the Bill Distribution Room (Room 74) in the basement of the Capitol. Because a bill may be amended at many stages of its life, be sure you have the most recent version. Bills are also available electronically on this website through the Legislative Automated Workflow System, or LAWS. (Please note that the printed version of a bill is the official version; the electronic version may not be in its final form when posted.)
Know the Committee
You may find it helpful before attending a committee hearing to find out who the members are.
Members of all committees are appointed by legislative leaders before the opening of each session. Rosters are announced in the media, listed in various directories, and available online.
The speaker of the House or the Senate Committee on Committees designates the presiding officer and vice presiding officer of each committee. The presiding officer, or chair, conducts the hearing and applies the rules of the Legislature. The vice chair presides in the absence of the chair. Both are members of the party holding a majority of seats in the chamber that the committee represents.
A staff person from one of the Legislative Branch agencies is permanently assigned to each committee to provide professional assistance. Each committee also has a secretary assigned for the session to keep the record and perform clerical functions.
Committee hearings are as informal and unpretentious as decorum allows.
Because the committee tries to consider several bills at each meeting, the chair will allot time for proponents and opponents of each measure. The chair also will call for informational witnesses. These are people who are neither for nor against a bill but who have objective information that may be useful to the committee as it deliberates. After all the testimony is over, the chair will allow committee members to ask questions of those who have testified.
Seating in committee rooms is limited, so plan to arrive a few minutes before the hearing begins to get a chair and reduce diversions after the meeting opens. Be sure you turn off your cell phone before you enter. Sign the witness sheet for the committee record, indicating the number of the bill that you are interested in and whether you support or oppose it.
At a hearing with many prospective witnesses, there may not be time for everyone to testify. In that case, you may be asked to state only your name and whether you are a proponent or opponent. You can always submit written testimony to the committee, even if you are not given the opportunity to speak due to time constraints. If you know that several other people plan to offer testimony similar to yours, try to coordinate with them to eliminate time-consuming redundancy. You may even want to designate one or several representatives to speak on behalf of a group of people with a shared viewpoint.
Each bill hearing opens with the bill's sponsor explaining its purpose and background. The presiding officer will then ask to hear statements from proponents, followed by opponents and then informational witnesses, if there are any.
When your turn to testify comes, begin by addressing the presiding officer and committee members (for example, "Mr. Chairman, members of the committee ."). Then identify yourself by name, hometown, occupation, affiliation, or other information that will indicate your acquaintance with the subject. Be specific, confine your remarks to the subject at issue, and indicate clearly your reasons for supporting or opposing the bill.
You are strongly encouraged to provide a written copy of your testimony to committee members and the committee secretary, so that your testimony will become part of the official record. But do not let the fact that you have not prepared a written statement stop you from testifying.
Because all committee meetings are open to the public, members of the media may be present. Be aware that your statements may be quoted in the newspaper, or you may appear on television, either testifying or sitting in the audience.
Many committee meetings are broadcast by TVMT, a state government public-affairs broadcasting service. TVMT may distribute the televised proceedings to various Montana local access and public television stations. TVMT also broadcasts committee hearings on screens located throughout the Capitol.
Questions from the Committee
After witnesses have testified, the presiding officer will allow committee members to ask questions of them and the bill's sponsor. If you are called upon, respond directly. Start your response by addressing the presiding officer and then the legislator who asked the question ("Mr. Chairman, Senator So-and-so ."). Remember that only committee members are allowed to ask questions. You may speak only when called upon.
When committee members have concluded their questions, the sponsor will make a closing statement to end the hearing on that particular bill.
The committee may hold hearings on more than one bill during a meeting. If the hearings do not take up all of the meeting time, the committee may go into executive session to review the information that it has gathered and to discuss whether to recommend passage of the bills before it.
The executive session is open to the public. You are welcome to observe and listen, but you may not join in the discussion.
During the executive session, the members may express their views on the bill, propose and adopt or reject amendments, and finally take a recorded vote for a recommendation of "do pass" or "do not pass" or other action on the bill.
If time is short, the committee may wait to take executive action on a bill at a later meeting.