The Montana Legislature is set to convene Jan. 7 in Helena. Similar to the 2017 session, the state’s budget is set to experience another round of belt tightening. Money will be tight, but the policy agendas will be plentiful. Legislators will be forced to make tough decisions between balancing a realistic budget and potentially slashing programs and policies or making law changes to accomplish that.
A tight budget year makes the job of lobbying for Montana’s farm and ranch families challenging. Our top priority will be protecting existing funding for necessary state agencies and warding off tax hikes. This is why, as a lobbyist, I’m telling every farmer and rancher across the state to engage your lawmakers and share your expertise. Your legislators are swimming in piles of emails, phone calls, social media and in-house correspondence about a whole gamut of issues. We don’t want them to have to dig to find answers about legislation impacting our industry and rural Montana.
We can’t be upset by our lawmakers’ decisions if we didn’t do our best to help them out along the way. Representation of rural Montana in our state legislature is shrinking; it’s our responsibility to be informed and available advocates to help our law makers get the information they need. We know agriculture lobbying efforts are only effective when paired with constituent voices and participation from the farmers and ranchers we represent. So, this is the first of a weekly column where we’ll share highlights from Helena and updates on critical issues that need your input. We’ll share how you can get involved and where you can make a difference in this legislative session. Your voice matters.
Now is the time to introduce yourself to your elected officials if you haven’t already. This is especially important for the Representatives and Senators who do not come from rural backgrounds. Elected officials tell us over and over again that their constituent voices and opinions matter, and they’re looking for input on issues they’re not experts in. Be that expert. Be the farmer or rancher they listen and look to get a pulse on agricultural issues.
Reach out to them now, before they head to Helena. This can be as simple as an email, phone call or hand shake when you see them at a local event. Simply tell them who you are, where you’re from and a little bit about your background. Include areas you might have expertise in (Dealing with sage grouse? Been rounds with water laws? How about grazing permits? What do you farm/raise?), and what issues you are interested in. Find your legislator’s contact information by visiting www.mfbf.org, then click on the “Policy & Advocacy” tab to find our “Voter Voice” function. From there, enter your zip code and —voila!
It’s important to get off on the right foot here. It’s a lot easier to talk about tough issues and ask for a vote from someone you’ve met and feel like you have a relationship with. Wish them luck in the session and thank them for their service. Whether you agree with all their politics or not, tell them it’s admirable for a regular citizen to step up and take on this big job. Invite them to come to your next Farm Bureau meeting or community event so you can get to know each other on your home turf. They’ll remember that when you call or send a letter during the session.
Research important committee members now. Reach outside your own elected representatives and get to know the folks serving on the committee that most impact our industry. Your legislator may not be on the committee that matters most to your issues, and we can’t expect to pass or fail a bill by communicating with only one legislator. Find the committee makeups here: https://leg.mt.gov/committees/session-committees/. The elected officials serving on the Agriculture Committee may not have any background in agriculture. This opens up a great opportunity for you to call them up and make yourself a resource on agriculture issues!
Chelcie Cargill is a lobbyist for the Montana Farm Bureau Federation. She’s an expert in policy development and implementation, and serves as MFBF’s program coordinator for its ACE Leadership and Advocacy training program. Chelcie can be contacted at (406) 930-2299 or email@example.com. The Montana Farm Bureau Federation is a non-partisan, non-profit, grassroots organization that represents more than 21,000 member families in Montana.