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Highlights from Legislative History


First State Constitution
In a special election Oct. 1, Montanans overwhelmingly adopt a state constitution and elect state officials, including 66 state legislators.

On Nov. 8, Montana becomes the 41st state, with 16 original counties.

Photo of Lewis & Clark County Courthouse, Montana Historical Society, HelenaFirst Session Stalemate
1st State Legislature convenes Nov. 23 at the Lewis & Clark County Courthouse (pictured) amid heated partisan charges of voting irregularities in Silver Bow County. Democrats and Republicans each seat separate delegations from Silver Bow in separate Houses of Representatives.

Due to the partisan conflict, 1st Legislature adjourns Feb. 20, 1890, with nothing to show for its efforts. The 2 Houses pass separate sets of bills, but a deadlocked Senate (8 Democrats, 8 Republicans) passes none of them.


Image of state sealState Seal & Motto
3rd Legislature officially adopts a state seal with the motto "Oro y Plata," Spanish for "Gold and Silver." The design is almost identical to the seal adopted by the territorial government in 1865.



Helena Becomes Capital
Montanans vote Nov. 6 to name the permanent capital for state government. Helena receives 51.8% of the vote, just edging out Anaconda.


Photo of bitterroot blossom, Travel MontanaFirst State Symbol
4th Legislature passes a law creating the first state symbol: the bitterroot becomes the state flower. The Legislature goes on to adopt several other state symbols over the years, including the western meadowlark as the state bird (1931), the ponderosa pine as the state tree (1949), the blackspotted cutthroat trout as the state fish (1977). and the grizzly bear as the state animal (1983).

Building a Capitol
Legislators appoint a Capitol Commission, chaired by the governor, to secure plans for a statehouse of "highest degree of architectural beauty and constructive excellence."


Minority Party Power
5th Legislature convenes Jan. 4, with 50 Democrats, 20 Republicans, and 21 Populists - the most politically divided session in the history of the state. Minority parties are represented in every session 1893-1905 and many sessions thereafter.

Corruption Exposed
Newly elected Rep. Fred Whiteside, a Democrat from Flathead County, exposes graft among members of the Capitol Commission.


Photo of Fred Whiteside, Montana Historical Society , HelenaVote Buying
"Copper King" William A. Clark of Butte successfully bribes members of the 6th Legislature to get their nod to represent Montana in the U.S. Senate. His minions toss thousands of dollars over the transoms of legislators' hotel rooms. Fred Whiteside (pictured), now a state senator, exposes the crime in a dramatic moment on the Senate floor.

The corruption surrounding election of U.S. senators in Montana helps spur ratification in 1913 of the 17th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, providing for direct election of U.S. senators by voters, not legislators.


Photo of landscape work at newly constructed state Capitol, Montana Historical Society, HelenaCapitol Dedication
The new Capitol in Helena is officially dedicated with great fanfare at a ceremony July 4. The final cost of the building, including furnishings and landscaping, is about $540,000.



Copper Collar
8th Legislature meets in special session Dec. 1-11 to respond to a devastating shutdown of all statewide operations by the Amalgamated Copper Company. The Company puts 11,000 workers out of work in a successful attempt to force legislators to pass a "fair trial" law, allowing disqualification of judges from court cases for prejudice. The measure becomes the first of its kind in the nation.


Initiative & Referendum
9th Legislature proposes a constitutional amendment to allow Montanans to bypass the Legislature and adopt or repeal state law through initiative or referendum. The proposal is overwhelmingly approved by voters the following year.

Primary Elections
The Legislature passes a law creating primary elections and allowing for the nomination of candidates by popular vote at primary elections.

Image of state flagState Flag
Lawmakers establish a state flag of Montana. It features the state seal on a dark blue background. In 1981, the 47th Legislature adds the word "MONTANA" to help differentiate the flag from those of other states.

Photo of Meagher statue, George Lane, Helena Independent RecordMeagher Statue
The Legislature authorizes placement on the north lawn of the Capitol of a bronze statue of Thomas Francis Meagher (pronounced mahr), a Civil War veteran who twice served as acting governor of Montana Territory.


Women's Vote
13th Legislature passes a law giving Montanans the opportunity to ratify a U.S. constitutional amendment extending to women the right to vote. Voters approve the measure by 52.2% at the 1914 general election.


County Busting
14th Legislature passes the Leighton Act, allowing counties to split or subdivide as they see fit. The result: Montana gains 20 new counties in the next decade. This increases the political power of rural counties as each new county gains a new senator.


Photo of Maggie Smith Hathaway, Montana Historical Society, HelenaPhoto of Emma Ingalls, Montana Historical Society, HelenaFirst Women
The first two women elected to the state Legislature take their seats Jan. 8 in the House: Maggie Smith Hathaway (left), a Democrat from Stevensville; and Emma Ingalls (right), a Republican from Kalispell.


Sedition Act
During patriotic hysteria surrounding World War I, a special session of the 15th Legislature passes the toughest sedition law in the nation. Aimed at stifling criticism of the war effort, the law becomes a model for the federal Sedition Law of May 1918.


Old-Age Pensions
18th Legislature passes an Old-Age Pension Act, setting a national precedent for care of elderly citizens. The action precedes creation of the federal Social Security system by 12 years.


Photo of Dolly Smith Cusker Akers, Montana Historical Society, HelenaFirst Native American
Rep. Dolly Smith Cusker Akers, a Democrat from Poplar, becomes the first known American Indian to serve in the Montana Legislature.



Legislative Council
35th Legislature creates a Legislative Council to direct research during the interims between sessions. The Council also quickly assumes bill-drafting duties, reducing heavy reliance on lobbyists.


Open Meetings
38th Legislature passes a law requiring all public agencies to allow the public to attend their meetings.


One Man, One Vote
After the U.S. Supreme Court upholds the principle of "one man, one vote," Montana is forced to reapportion its senate districts by population. Previously every county was allowed to have one senator. This "frees Montana Legislature from the constitutional hammerlock of rural domination that had been created in the constitutional convention of 1889."


Legislative Auditor's Office
40th Legislature creates the Legislative Auditor's Office to investigate how state agencies spend the money appropriated to them by legislators.


Voting Age
42nd Legislature passes a law lowering the voting age to 18. The stipulation is incorporated into the 1972 state Constitution.


Constitutional Convention
Montana holds a Constitutional Convention to significantly revise and reform the state constitution. Among other things, the new constitution:
-- Limits the size of the Legislature to 40-50 senators and 80-100 representatives.
-- Ends the practice of the lieutenant governor presiding over the state Senate.
-- Establishes a bipartisan citizen commission to reapportion legislative districts.
-- Calls for 60-day annual sessions instead of the biennial sessions that have been tradition since statehood.
-- Requires all meetings of the Legislature and its committees to be open to the public.

Montanans approve the new constitution at a June 6 election.


Annual Sessions
For the first and only time in its history, the Montana Legislature meets in annual sessions, as provided for in the 1972 state constitution. But opponents of annual sessions propose a constitutional initiative to return the Legislature to 90-day biennial sessions.

Montana voters approve biennial sessions by a slim margin at the Nov. 1974 election.


State Laws Updated
44th Legislature creates the office of Code Commissioner to supervise the recodification of Montana laws and to provide for recodification on a continuing basis. "Recodify" is defined to mean "compile, arrange, rearrange, and prepare for publication… without changing the meaning, effect, or intent of any law."

Photo of Geraldine Travis, photographer unknownFirst African American
Rep. Geraldine Travis, a Democrat from Great Falls, becomes the only African American ever to serve in the Montana Legislature. She serves only one term.


Legislative Fiscal Division
Lawmakers create the Legislative Fiscal Division, to help estimate revenue from state taxes and analyze the executive budget.


First Female Majority Leader
Ann Mary Dussault, a Democrat from Missoula, becomes the first woman to serve as majority leader in the Montana House of Representatives.


Photo of inside of Capitol dome following restoration, Legislative Services DivisionCapitol Restoration
47th Legislature appropriates $6.7 million to restore the Capitol as closely as possible to its original appearance. The restoration includes a return to the original decorative paint scheme, which had been painted over in 1936. A barrel vault, removed in 1964 to make another hearing room, is also restored. The restoration work took place in 1999-2000.


Term Limits
Montanans vote 2 to 1 to limit terms of elected officials. As a result, legislators and other state officials may serve no more than 8 years in a single office in a 16-year period.


Open Caucuses
In response to a lawsuit filed by Montana media, 56th Legislature opens its caucuses to the public. Later Legislatures continue the practice.


Public Affairs TV
57th Legislature establishes a state government broadcasting service (Television Montana, or TVMT) to provide gavel-to-gavel coverage of legislative and administrative proceedings.


Public Participation
58th Legislature gives the public the right to comment at a public meeting on any matter within the jurisdiction of the public entity holding the meeting, even if the topic is not on the agenda.


Photo of Carol Williams, photographer unknownFirst Female Leader in Senate
Carol Williams, a Democrat from Missoula, becomes the first woman to serve as majority leader in the Montana Senate.



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1. Johnson, Charles. "A Century under the Capitol Dome: The Montana Legislature from Past to Present," a presentation at the Montana Historical Society, Feb. 12, 2008.

2. Lambert, Kirby; Burnham, Patricia; and Near, Susan R. Montana's State Capitol: The People's House, Montana Historical Society Press, 2002.

3. Laws of Montana, 1889-2007, Legislative Reference Library.

4. Lopach, James J., ed. We the People of Montana: The Workings of a Popular Government, Mountain Press Publishing, 1983.

5. Lynch, Neil J. Montana's Legislature through the Years, self-published, 1977.

6. Montana Capitol Restoration Foundation website:
Accessed March 31, 2008.

7. Roeder, Richard, and Malone, Michael. Montana: A Tale of Two Centuries, University of Washington Press, 1976.

8. Toole, K. Ross. Twentieth Century Montana: A State of Extremes, University of Oklahoma Press, 1972.

9. Waldron, Ellis, and Wilson, Paul B. Atlas of Montana Elections 1889-1976, University of Montana, 1978.

10. Walter, Dave. "Capitol Capsules: Legislative Minutes," presented to the 57th Montana Assembly by the Montana Historical Society, 2001.

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Last Modified:
3/14/2017 11:24:42 AM