HELENA – Jared Yates spent 11 hours in the Capitol’s windowless basement last Thursday, printing hundreds of copies of bills and amendments hours after the legislators’ parking lots cleared.
“It’s down and dirty, copies in and copies out,” he said while squaring up a stack of papers hot off the press. “If it comes in here in the evening, it has to be ready for the next morning. That’s just the way it is.”
His office printed nearly 3 million sheets of paper during the 2011 Legislature, and it’s on track to do it again this session. He can feel the pace of the 90-day session picking up, and he’s not the only staffer running a mile a minute to keep up with the influx of work during the remaining five weeks.
As 150 lawmakers wrestle with issues like Medicaid expansion, pension reform and tax relief, more than 250 staffers make sure they have the tools necessary to do the people’s business.
For much of the staff, that means working long hours and sorting through copious amounts of papers, sticky notes and emails.
Sandy Bradford and Kathy Baird know what that feels like. They sit on the rostrum at the front of the House six days a week.
“Frick and Frack,” as they call themselves, have worked side-by-side since 2006 keeping tabs on bills to make sure nothing gets lost in the process. Hundreds of bills cross their desks during the session, and they record votes on dozens each day.
The camera is often aimed at the rostrum, so it’s critical they maintain serious faces. That’s not always easy, they say. Sometimes their best efforts are compounded by mischievous legislators.
To this day, Sen. Jim Keane, D-Butte, continues to pull pranks on the women. It started back in 2003 during Bradford’s first session, when Keane served in the House.
“He knew I was terrified,” Bradford said, explaining that she had not realized her job involved sitting at the rostrum in front of 100 representatives. “He sent a note to a page and told me I had food all over my face, which I really believed.”
Several sessions later, Bradford and Baird discovered a walkie-talkie under their side of the rostrum. They figured Keane intended to disrupt the floor session, so they planned to counter strike.
They turned off the device just before the session began and tried hard not to laugh at the confused look on his face when he couldn’t hear any noise coming from their end.
“He could not figure out why it wasn’t working,” Baird said, smiling at the memory.
Bradford jumped right in, explaining that they turned the device back on after the House adjourned.
“He came up to the rostrum testing it,” she said. “It was working.”
Keane, they both note, is a hardworking lawmaker. They said personalities like his help lighten the session’s hefty workload.
Like the legislators, about half the staff comes from across Montana to work at the statehouse during the session, including Bradford and Baird. The rest work here year-round to conduct research, staff interim committees, implement bills in state code and prepare for the next session.
“It stays busy during normal times, but it’s nothing like it is now,” said Yates, who works in his print shop in the Capitol basement all year. “But when I’m doing the session, I feel like I can actually contribute to the success of the state government.”
Like Yates, Dan Ritter gets caught up in the buzz. Every two years, he leaves his real estate job in the Flathead to work in Helena.
“You’re running at a pretty significant gallop for the 90 days,” the Senate sergeant-at-arms said. “We try to cut down as much stress as we can as support staff so (the lawmakers) can focus on their work.”
When Senate Secretary Marilyn Miller worked in the House, a lawmaker asked her to help him empty his catheter bag.
“I emptied it into a soda can, and I was standing there with a hot soda,” she said, laughing as she recalled the unexpected request.
Regardless of the sometimes bizarre tasks and hectic schedule, she says the Legislature is “addicting.”
That’s why she’s been coming back for 21 years.
Bradford has not worked at the Capitol for nearly as long, but six sessions have convinced her that legislators work hard. Before she started, she had her doubts.
“I would hear people in the grocery store give their opinion, and I was right there to jump in and give my opinion,” she said. “Now, I correct them.”