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Every two years, 150 citizen legislators, elected by their geographic peers and representing all parts of the state, gather in Helena to legislate. Each session lasts 90 working days, long enough for the Capitol complex to develop a distinct, albeit transitory, social ecosystem within the capital, a self-contained society made up of experienced and new legislators, lobbyists, journalists, temps, etc. interspersed with agendas to represent and bones to pick at is average citizen.
At first glance, the hustle and bustle seems random and chaotic. But soon an order emerges that is repeated every day.
In the morning, after Capitol staff have filled all the coffee carafes in the building, lawmakers meet for committee meetings at 8 a.m. This is where the intricacies of the calculations are worked out, and the public is welcome to join the conversation. Lunch is usually served by various interest groups in the rotunda before the 100 members of the House of Representatives and the 50 members of the Senate meet in their respective chambers to debate and vote on which bills should become law. Then more committee meetings fill up the rest of the day. In between the formal meetings, informal meetings crowd the hallways.
When the working day is over, the energy of democracy pours into Helena. Most lawmakers rent temporary housing for the session and live with other lawmakers or, less commonly, with their families. At the weekend, many travel long distances back to their home towns.
This year’s session is scheduled to end on May 5th. By then, the country’s laws will be codified for the next 21 months. Lawmakers will return to their normal lives until their communities again decide who to send to the Capitol to conduct the people’s business in 2025.
The State Capitol is illuminated under a blue sky in Helena on Thursday, January 26th. Construction of the core of the Capitol building was completed in 1902, flanking additions were completed in 1912. Credit: Samuel Wilson/Bozeman Daily Chronicle
During a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Friday, Jan. 27, a line of people testifying against Senate Bill 99, which bans gender-affirming care for transgender minors, spills out of the Old Supreme Court chamber in the Capitol. sponsored by Senator John Fuller, R-Kalispell was among the first controversial meetings of the session. An amended version of the bill was passed by the committee four days later. Credit: Samuel Wilson/Bozeman Daily Chronicle
Rep. Zack Wirth, R-Wolf Creek, votes against a bill during a session of the House of Representatives on Friday, Jan. 27. Every afternoon at 1 p.m., the chambers of the House and Senate meet to discuss and vote on bills. Credit: Samuel Wilson/Bozeman Daily Chronicle
dr Al Olszewski, right, a former Montana lawmaker, says he chats with Sen. Steve Hinebauch, R-Wibaux (left), Rep. Braxton Mitchell, R-Columbia Falls, and Rep. Tanner Smith, R-Lakeside at a Committee hearing in the Capitol on Friday, January 27th. Credit: Samuel Wilson/Bozeman Daily Chronicle
People wearing matching yellow scarves gather outside the Capitol during heavy snowfall before a rally organized by the Montana Family Foundation supporting the school’s choice on Friday, January 27. The rally was one of many at state buildings across the country as part of National School Choice Week, and was attended by several lawmakers and Montana Public Instruction Superintendent Elsie Arntzen. Credit: Samuel Wilson/Bozeman Daily Chronicle
Troy Zeeman, a House Sergeant-at-Arms aide, prepares a load of coffee for the House of Representatives in a small room in the Capitol on Friday, January 27. Zeeman reports that on the busiest days, he and his colleagues will brew up to 40 gallons of coffee for lawmakers around the house. Credit: Samuel Wilson/Bozeman Daily Chronicle
The Montana House of Representatives will convene during a session on Thursday, January 26th. The number of voters represented by each member of the House of Representatives varies from about 9,200 to almost 18,000. Credit: Samuel Wilson/Bozeman Daily Chronicle
A digital board shows state senators’ votes on the third and final reading of Senate Bill 154 during a Senate session on Thursday, January 26. The bill creates a law stating that the Montana Constitution’s right to privacy includes access to abortion. Credit: Samuel Wilson/Bozeman Daily Chronicle
On Thursday, January 26, reams of colorful paper imprinted with bills to be distributed to lawmakers are organized on shelves at an office in the Capitol. By February 1, 699 bills had been introduced. Credit: Samuel Wilson/Bozeman Daily Chronicle
Governor Greg Gianforte delivers his State of the State address on Wednesday, January 25th. During the biennial speech, the governor addresses a joint session of both houses of the Legislature. It was Gianforte’s second in the state, and he took the opportunity to emphasize his opposition to abortion and his budget priorities, which include tax cuts and investments in health care. Credit: Samuel Wilson/Bozeman Daily Chronicle
Bob Gilbert, a longtime lobbyist and former Montana legislature, arrives in court Thursday, January 26, in a hallway with his wife, Dee Gilbert, and Bonner Armstrong, Deputy Sergeant-at-Arms of the Senate. Gilbert long ago adopted the strategy of letting lawmakers come to him and setting his “office” on the same bench every day. “This is my 38th year up here, 28 years of lobbying,” Gilbert said. “You’re doing something you like and you enjoy it, so you just stay and do it.” Credit: Samuel Wilson/Bozeman Daily Chronicle
From right: Micki Young, Misty Mitchell and Bridget Coulter, members of the culinary arts program Passages for female delinquents, set up a tray of roasted Brussels sprouts with aioli and other hors d’oeuvres before serving them to lawmakers and Capitol staff in the Capitol Rotunda on Thursday 26 January. The program provides hospitality training and employment assistance to inmates within 24 months of being eligible for release through a pre-apprenticeship program with the Montana Department of Labor and Industry. Credit: Samuel Wilson/Bozeman Daily Chronicle
Rep. Emma Kerr-Carpenter, D-Billings, and her husband Dan Cohn put their 10-month-old baby Asa to bed after a day’s work at the Capitol as her parents, Kathy and Colin Kerr-Carpenter, finish the dishes at the house they for the Thursday 26th January meeting. “It was interesting,” Kerr-Carpenter said, to have a child with her during her third session as MP. “The only way it would have worked would have been if my family was here.” Credit: Samuel Wilson/Bozeman Daily Chronicle
Tom Kuglin, left, assistant editor of the Lee Newspapers State Bureau, and Jonathon Ambarian, a senior political reporter at the Montana Television Network, watch a TV Friday showing a live session on the house floor from a media office in the basement of the Capitol Shows, January 27th. The corps of journalists working at the Capitol includes veteran veterans and students from the University of Montana. Credit: Samuel Wilson/Bozeman Daily Chronicle
A Capitol staffer monitors the door of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee hearing on Friday, January 27. Committees serve as working groups for lawmakers to discuss the details of a bill and hear from constituents, lobbyists, and subject matter experts before making a decision on whether to submit it to the plenary vote. Credit: Samuel Wilson/Bozeman Daily Chronicle