I actually wanted to write this quite a bit earlier, since this happened during Reading Week, but I didn’t get to it, mostly because things didn’t shape up the way I expected. In any case, this was such a cool experience that I just had to add it to this little forum.
On the Thursday of Reading Week, my mother and I went to Helena, Montana to see some friends, Phil and Laurie. Phil has early-onset Alzheimer’s and Laurie had a conference in town for three days. She didn’t quite feel comfortable being away from Phil for three-quarters of the day, and we hadn’t seen them in a while anyway, so we headed down for some fun and shopping.
Phil’s a former political science professor at Carroll College and since poli.sci. is one of my areas of study (not to mention interest), we generally have some interesting conversations, but this time he suggested that we could go see the legislature in session. He had given us a tour of the legislature buildings, but the buildings were empty. Apparently, the lawmakers in Montana only meet to pass laws every two years. Weird, huh?
Anyway, we went on Friday and got there at about 2:00 or 2:30. Purely by chance, we ended up in the Senate gallery first. They went through a few laws which were utterly boring, and thankfully also had no discussion. But then, the greatest thing happened. Senator Dan Harrington put forward a bill for second reading from the judiciary committee. That part’s not so interesting, but what really floored me was that it was a bill to ABOLISH THE DEATH PENALTY IN THE STATE OF MONTANA. And then there was discussion. A whole hour of it!
It was utterly fascinating and equally for and against. And so very respectful. It was really amazing, even though it was obviously an issue that raised people’s passions the aura of mutual respect in the chamber never changed. A lot of points were raised that I had never thought of before myself, most interestingly that their neighbour to the East, North Dakota abolished the death penalty in 1973 and they currently have a lower murder rate than Montana does. Another Senator made the point that we don’t have a justice system (I say we because I’m still an American, unfortunately, but I think this goes just as much for the Canadian system), we have a legal system, and it is inherently unequally applied to people.
It finally went to vote, and the Yeas had it by 6 (27 to 21 Nos). It was so great and amazing, and I wanted to celebrate when the vote was recorded. My mum started clapping, but no one else did, so I made her stop. The Chairman of the Senate has the right to clear the gallery at any time, so I didn’t want to chance it. It was totally cool.
After that, we moved on into the gallery for the house of representatives and took a quick look. It was bigger (more representatives than senators) and more ornate, less enclosed. That made it noisier, but no less impressive. We didn’t stay there terribly long, because we ended up staying in the Senate longer than expected. When we left we went through the Senate gallery again, which was completely empty, because they were all in recess for dinner. I heard singing coming from somewhere, so I followed it.
There’s a dome in the middle of the building, a lot like the Capitol in Washington D.C., and it’s acoustically amazing. The dome is over an atrium of sorts, so you can look down onto the first floor from any level, and look up into the dome from the ground floor. There was a choir standing under the dome, singing a capella. It was beautiful. We were on the third floor and there was a bit of a lip sticking into the void, so we went down one floor to get a better look. When we were there, we had the choir in front of us, and the view of the Helena Valley behind us (which is gorgeous in and of itself). It was absolutely amazing.
What was rather interesting to me that I didn’t mention before were the people who were sitting in the Senate gallery watching the proceedings. They were all cold as ice, utterly divorced from the proceedings, but I noticed that most of them were lobbyists. And it sounds silly, but I could feel the currents of power up there, as much as I could on the Senate floor. Admittedly small currents, since it’s only the Montana State Legislature, but nevertheless. I wouldn’t mind being a lobbyist for one of the many worthy causes out there. Being able to affect lawmakers for the better would be a great thing. Almost as good as a power-broker, though that’s not a job that you can exactly apply for.
Another interesting thing happened on the way out of the building, after the youngsters were finished with their lovely tunes. We ran into the Chairman of the Senate, who apparently is a former student of Phil’s (and surprisingly young and good-looking). Phil introduced us, like a good host, and when this guy (I can’t remember his name anymore) found out we were down from Alberta, he was completely enamoured. Apparently, they don’t get paid nearly as much in Montana as the MLAs in our fair province and they don’t get benefits either. He kept saying how much he loved Alberta and would love to be an MLA. Made me laugh. Yeah, right. He’s an American, and one who’s proud to be, so I’m sure he would never move, even if he had the opportunity. But the thought’s nice, I guess :-)
He also told us that the bill would have to go to a third reading, and assuming it passes that as well, it will then go to the House for them to deal with. He figured it would be another few weeks, but it may have been decided by now. Though I would have thought to hear about it on the news, considering our close proximity. I hope that doesn’t mean that it’s been defeated. I’m waiting on tenterhooks now.