January 9, 2013

GEORGE SMITH:Rules for strong citizen-lobbyists not covered in official brochures

George Smith

The legislative process is fascinating, frustrating and finicky. None of this is covered in the brochures "A Citizen's Guide to Participating in the Legislative Public Hearing Process" and "How a Bill Becomes a Law."

Although the brochures cover the technical details, they don't begin to provide the information needed to be an effective citizen-lobbyist. For example, a typical amateurish mistake made by private citizens is to speak at a public hearing -- and go home. The public hearings are for show. The committee work sessions are much more important.

To win enactment of your favorite bill, you'll need to know many dance steps, be able to recognize and get over every hurdle and be present and persistent.

Persistence pays. Even good ideas can take years to flower. Only 10 percent to 15 percent of the bills introduced each session are enacted into law. It took 10 years of work to get a sportsman's license plate. Those who can return to the Legislature year after year, to champion and advance their ideas, are most successful.

Know the history of your issue. Term limits have resulted in many legislators with no connection to or understanding of the past. Only long-term lobbyists and state agency staff know what has been done on particular issues in the past -- and that gives them all the advantages. Very few issues have never been considered by the Legislature.

Start your lobbying at the appropriate state agency. The leaders and staff at state agencies are a powerful presence at the Legislature, but don't have to report their time or lobbying expenses. You'll often see several people from an agency at a legislative committee meeting. Legislators consider state agency staff to be the experts and look to them for guidance and direction on most issues.

If, for example, you are working on a recreational fishing bill, begin by contacting the fisheries staff at the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, to learn as much as you can about the issue and the department's position on the issue.

If they oppose your bill, you will need to know how to compete with them at the Legislature, and most importantly, you'll have to overcome their inherent resistance to new ideas. It's almost impossible to overcome their opposition to a proposal, so try to get them on board before you launch your bill.

Get to know the committee clerk and get on the clerk's list for hearing and work session notices. Work sessions are not advertised and any bill before the committee can come up at any time.

Avoid a "by request" bill. Most legislators will submit any bill requested by a constituent, but they send a not-so-subtle-signal about their lack of enthusiasm for the bill by labeling it "submitted by request." If you see that label on your bill, forgitaboutit. It's dead. I've seen "by request" bills killed 60 seconds after the constituent leaves the hearing.

If the sponsor of your bill presents significant testimony at the public hearing, attends and participates in the work session, and continues advancing your bill all through the process, you've got a chance -- and a very good legislator.

Change is the rule. Most successful bills are amended before enactment. Expect this. Anticipate the changes. Decide what your position will be if those changes are proposed.

Compromise and collaborate. Uncompromising legislators and lobbyists are never successful in this arena. The best are able to collaborate with others and are willing to compromise and win a partial victory rather than suffer a total defeat.

Be respectful. No legislator appreciates disrespectful, angry, lecturing members of the public. Do not, under any circumstances, come to the Capitol to "tell them a thing or two and give them a piece of your mind."

The most important thing you can do is to build a positive relationship with your own representative and senator. They'll be your guides through this treacherous and confusing process of creating laws.

Finally, be aggressive, but friendly. Present your information -- always -- in the briefest possible way. Legislators are very busy people.

And above all, be honest. Once your credibility is tarnished, you may as well pack it in.

You can influence the legislative process. I have seen it done by individuals many times. Come on down to the Capitol and give it a try.

George Smith is a writer and TV talk show host. He can be reached at 34 Blake Hill Road, Mount Vernon 04352, or georgesmithmaine@gmail.com. Read more of Smith's writings at www.georgesmithmaine.com.

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