Part of our Montana sojourn included a trip to Helena, the state capital. Surprisingly, the state capital is a mere 33,000 in population, about the same as Canmore. Helena is even smaller than four other cities in Montana – the overall population of Montana is about 1.13 million compared to Alberta at 4.5 million. But it’s in governance that Alberta and Montana differ even more. For instance, Montana has 100 state representatives and 50 state senators. That’s 150 elected politicians for a population of 1.13 million citizens. Alberta looks rather underrepresented with only 87 MLAs for a population of 4.5 million – perhaps we should count our blessings. But then Montana keeps its politicians low-paid and part-time – they pay a daily per diem of only $126.00 and an allowance of $9,000. In addition, they curb any enthusiasm for unnecessary meetings by restricting their legislature to meeting every second year and then for only 90 days. They also serve two-year terms compared to a maximum of five in Alberta. I expect the state founders designed all that to ensure their politicians are humble representatives of the people and not professional wannabe lifetime politicians like in Alberta. Our MLAs make about $120,000 a year plus $15,000 pension contribution. Ministers of various kinds receive considerably more. There is something appealing about the constrained Montana political model except for their state Senate. I am not sure what they do more except that they serve four years instead of two. The state also has a Governor who, like the US congressional system, is elected and governs somewhat separately from the legislature.
An insightful Montana state guide provided some observations of their political system that makes governing somewhat challenging. The two-year election term and meeting every two years means representatives really only meet once and then have to campaign for their re-election. He noted that the fleeting circumstances with being a rep has seen a constant turnover. It seems to be a matter of having to spend too much time, fuss, abuse, and insecurity for a job that pays way too little. One might suppose civic pride in being a dedicated representative of the people would compensate for all the job’s shortcomings. But apparently, there are fewer folks that want to serve as legislators – pride or not. According to some commentators that has seen eccentrics of all kinds, idle seat fillers and even naïve teenagers become representatives. Mind you, that could be said of representatives of many legislatures and parliaments. The point is it’s getting tough to find folks to run in many Montana voting districts.
The three-level governance system has seen legislative gridlock when different levels are controlled by either the Republicans or Democrats. The Republican Party tends to dominate Montana politics, but it has seen Democrat Governors for several years. At the US congress level, Montana has also had Democrat Senators. At the moment, it’s a trifecta situation with Republicans controlling all three levels. Some commentators note that such partisan party control doesn’t mean the Montana legislature operates flawlessly and efficiently. Unlike our system, political party discipline in the US system is more by consensus, meaning legislators and senators can vote against their own Party on government bills. In Canada, such activity usually sees members thrown out of the caucus. But I digress.
One notes an interesting group in the Montana legislature – it has 10 First Nation members – which equals the indigenous share of the state’s population. No legal or quota situation forces that to occur – all are elected like other legislators. However, with over 100 voting districts, one suspects gerrymandering might favour some districts with majority indigenous voters. It causes one to wonder if there isn’t some way to ensure that the Alberta legislature has First Nation members that reflects their population share. It would be a first in Canada and provide First Nations with an opportunity to participate fully in the elected legislature of the province. From a population share basis, it would mean four First Nations and three Metis nation MLAs. With good intentions, I believe some sort of agreement could be reached with all the stakeholders to have this level of ongoing indigenous participation.
Lastly, in addition to a Department of Agriculture, Montana has a Department of Livestock, which has been made famous by the TV series “Yellowstone.” However, unlike their swash-buckling image in the TV series, they tend to be more like Alberta brand inspectors, albeit with guns.
Will Verboven is an ag opinion writer and former resident of Warden, Quebec