HELENA — They ran for office, they kissed babies and they won.
This week, most of Montana's newly elected state legislators came to the Capitol to learn about bill drafting, fiscal notes, transmittal deadlines and other mechanics of setting policy for the state.
“You probably made some promises along the way, and have some great ideas,” Legislative Services Division Research Analyst Joe Kolman told a group of lawmakers-elect Thursday in a training session on bill drafting, part of the three-day orientation. And it's the legislative staff's job to take those ideas and put them into bills, he said.
When the 2011 Legislature convenes in January, nearly one-third of its members, including about half of the 68 House Republicans, will be new. They have varying levels of experience with legislative procedure, but figure they are quick learners — especially when helped by the Legislature's staff.
Matthew Rosendale, a Republican representing House District 38 in Glendive, said 25 years as a real estate developer gives him the experience to navigate complex terrain. He likened the lessons to a road map: Even if you've never driven cross-country, you can do it if you have a map and know your destination, he said.
“I don't feel intimidated or overwhelmed in any way, shape or form,” he said. “You have to learn the process, that's all, and there's so much support here.”
Like most incoming legislators, he's held a longtime interest and engagement in government, starting in his childhood on the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland, where his father ran a local newspaper.
Republican Liz Bangerter beat longtime union leader Don Judge to represent House District 80 in Helena. A stay-at-home mom, she grew up in politics, she said. Her father was a city councilman in Lander, Wyo. And in the 2009 session, she came to the statehouse and watched and listened.
She likened orientation to trying to drink out of a fire hose. But the system, she said, is already well-oiled, and the staff is making it easy for legislators to find answers.
“I think they're here to help you succeed,” she said.
Democrat Mary McNally of House District 49 in Billings had never run before, but marveled at the helpfulness of staff.
“People are like, 'Just ask anything,'” she said.
As a college professor, she said she's a stickler for language. “I love the fact that they are, too,” she said.
On Thursday, lawmakers learned how to request a bill: Fill out a blue form and give it to anyone with a legislative staff name tag, Kolman said.
That's the easy part. From those requests more than 2,000 bills will compete to squeeze through a very narrow chute in 90 days.
Staff had recommendations for requesting a successful bill. Identify specific problems and solutions. “Improve government efficiency” is a tough order for staff. “Reduce state employee work weeks to four days” would be more helpful.
Legislators can introduce as many bills as they like until Dec. 5. But their first five bills get top priority from legislative staff, which includes 10 attorneys and 12 research analysts.
The longer bills survive the process, the harder it becomes to change them. Those that survive committee votes get a couple of votes on the floor (House or Senate), where a more complicated procedure governs the action.
Lawmakers participated in a mock committee hearing and floor session, where they started to learn about “second readings,” motions to suspend the rules, what requires a two-thirds vote and what needs a simple majority and “points of personal privilege.”
Joanne Blyton, a newly elected Republican from House District 59 in Carbon County, has no legislative experience — a quality she mentioned to the voters whose doors she knocked on, she said.
Much of her knowledge of issues comes from decades as an owner, along with her husband, of Billings Towing and Repair. That's provided plenty of background on issues like taxes, workers compensation and others affecting small businesses.
The volume of procedural information at orientation is slightly overwhelming but “a great experience,” she said.
“You feel like you're a sponge,” she said.
Orientation has also included mentoring sessions with returning lawmakers. Orientation continues Friday with a session on “Legislative Rules, Ethics and Decorum,” among other events.