Legislators Alan Redfield, Laurie Bishop and John Esp talk with constituents
Local government impacts our lives. School boards, county commissioners and state legislators don’t receive the same attention as national politicians, but their decisions directly affect us and our communities. This year, during the biennial Legislative Session, our legislature will vote on everything from funding for rural water projects, firefighter health and safety and sales tax.
Many of us do not have the time to engage with our decision makers. We’re working to pay our mortgages; we’re catching calves before they freeze to death; we’re getting our kids ready for school. We can’t track every bill or testify at every hearing.
How refreshing it is, then, when our representatives take the time to come to us. On March 6, on an unusually still night for Livingston, Representative Alan Redfield, Representative Laurie Bishop and Senator John Esp came together in the basement of the Park County Government Complex to chat with folks about the Legislative Session. A few dozen people showed up to listen to the updates and share their own thoughts and concerns about bills and issues. Across the state, at least two other forums like this took place: one in Great Falls and one in Ronan.
Park County Legislative Forum
Montana Women For — an all-volunteer, non-partisan group out of Livingston that sponsors educational events and promotes citizenship — held the event. The organizers didn’t censor or pre-screen any questions; they trusted the community members to treat one another like any good neighbor would: respectfully and civilly.
“Our goal is that we all leave here feeling like we listened, we learned, and we feel like we’ve been heard,” said Margarita McLarty, the chair of Montana Women For. “We are a community and we can give that to each other.”
Rep. Redfield (a Republican from Paradise Valley), Rep. Bishop (a democrat from Livingston), and Sen. Esp (a republican from Big Timber) spoke openly and honestly about the challenges that come with their position. The session is a whirlwind of activity and the forum corresponded with the Transmittal Period, the halfway point of the 90-day session that should end by early May.
In addition to meeting with their constituents, these three legislators spent their much-needed break taking care of their lives and families at home. Our state representatives and senators aren’t career politicians, after all. Here in Montana, we have a citizen legislature, and holding office is not their full-time job.
At the time of the forum, Redfield, a rancher, was in the middle of calving season during a particularly brutal winter. He described how he lost two calves earlier that week to the bitter cold, and he almost didn’t make it to the forum because of his ranch workload. While Redfield said he enjoys his time in the legislature and is happy to serve, he acknowledged that his family and neighbors do a lot of heavy lifting while he’s gone.
Bishop also expressed gratitude for her family’s support while she’s working in Helena. Thanks to them, she can completely immerse herself in her work at the capital. Her days are particularly long because she holds a leadership position in her party and she sits on the committee that handled the largest number of bills. Despite her workload and full-time job, she still finds time to communicate with her constituents through Facebook and in old-fashioned, face-to-face forums.
Esp, who is in his seventh term, said he wants his constituents to feel as if they have a direct line to their legislators. He tries to answer every email personally, but admits that he has a stack he still needs to answer. Esp said he appreciates community forums because they allow him to meet people outside of his typical routine, which consists of going to church, working in his woodshop and attending ball games.
“It doesn’t hurt to come here and hear different points of view,” Esp added. “It’s important to talk because if people do have an issue, they’ll feel comfortable coming up and talking to [me].”
Listening and Learning
For the most part, the atmosphere at the Park County Legislative Forum felt comfortable. The legislators shared the issues that excited them the most, and they listened as folks asked questions or gave feedback.
Redfield’s main focus is on the budget this year because he chairs the House Taxation Committee. His passion, though, lies in agriculture and he is most proud of his bill that revises water rights laws.
Although Bishop is disappointed that she is not on the Energy Committee, she is excited about two of her remaining bills: one that classifies eating disorders as a mental health disease and another that supports wage transparency and could help tighten the pay gap between men and women.
Esp is proud of his proposed bill that addresses the counties throughout Montana that don’t report their finances to the state government. Esp seeks to hold these counties accountable to state laws. And while he admits that his bill isn’t the flashiest, he believes that every county must be in compliance with the law and report their budget and accounting to the state.
During the open forum, the audience had the chance to ask questions about specific bills or issues. Some folks asked general questions about the legislature, while others shared their support or opposition to specific proposals. For the most part, the discussion remained civil. Legislators addressed their neighbors by first name, and audience members thanked the representatives and senator for their service.
Did the discussion get heated at all? A little. There are a lot of bills in the session that would directly impact folks in Park County, and people have strong opinions about them. Rightfully so. As to be expected, there was a lot of discussion around taxes. Some folks stood in strong support of Bishop’s proposal to give gateway communities like Livingston the ability to have a local option sales tax; others staunchly opposed it. Some folks spoke out against a general sales tax while others told Redfield they’d be willing to pay more taxes if it meant that services and infrastructure would improve.
It’s not easy to receive direct criticism, and none of these legislators had to show up to the forum. It’s a testament to all three of them that they took the time out of their vacation to attend a forum and meet with their constituents. And it’s a testament to all the folks who showed up that night to listen and share. What the community members saw is what many of us see when we participate in local government: that, for the most part, the folks we elect are real people with nuanced beliefs and a true desire to do the right thing.
These three elected officials spoke openly and freely. They didn’t have communications professionals feeding them messaging and urging them to stay on-script. They spoke from the heart about the issues that matter to them, the issues that matter to many of us like taxes, social services, healthcare and alternative energy. They didn’t always follow party-lines. Redfield, for example, co-sponsored Bishop’s bill on mental health and eating disorders, while Esp proposed a bill to restore Child Services back to Park County.
“We do need the services in this community,” Esp said. “It’s the government’s role to help and protect these people.”
We live in a time when mud-slinging and partisanship rule at the national and sometimes state levels of government. At the Park County forum, it was refreshing to see folks in both parties treat each other civilly. It’s refreshing to hear them vouch for each other’s character and acknowledge that each party presents valid ideas. And it seemed refreshing for the legislators, too, who want to hear from people.
“We’re just community people, too,” said Esp. “We’re not some aloof guy in the heavens.”
These legislators want to hear from you. Here’s how to get in touch:
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Updated on March 13, 2019 at 10am.