To follow a legislative bill from start to finish, you’ll need to know many dance steps. The process is complicated and lengthy, from the drafting and introduction of a bill to its enactment — including public hearing, work sessions, amendments, funding, consideration by the House and Senate, and the governor’s approval.
Even good ideas can take years to flower at the Legislature. Only 10 to 15 percent of the bills introduced each session are enacted into law. It took us 10 years to get a sportsman’s license plate. Those who can return to the Legislature year after year to champion their ideas are most successful. Persistence does pay here.
Term limits have left legislators with short memories. Only lobbyists and state agency staff now have the longevity to remember what was done on particular issues in the past. That gives them the upper hand. You would do well to get to know them.
State agencies dominate the process. Most legislators consider state agency staff to be the experts and look to an agency’s leaders for direction on most issues. You’ll need to know how to compete with those experts to overcome their inherent resistance to new ideas and ideas that didn’t come from them.
Citizens who show up to speak at a public hearing and return home thinking the job is done are only fooling themselves. Public hearings are for show. The real work begins afterward in committee work sessions and private conversations. While members of the public are not allowed to speak at work sessions, unless they are called upon, agency staff actively participate in those sessions. I’ve been known to send a note to a committee member asking them to ask me a question so I can say something at a work session.
And work sessions are not always advertised. You can — and should — get on a committee’s email list to get those notices. It’s also very helpful to get to know the committee’s clerk. And please, when you are at the Legislature, always be respectful. No legislator appreciates disrespectful, angry, lecturing members of the public. Do not, under any circumstance, come to the Capitol to “tell them a thing or two and give them a piece of your mind.”
You also must anticipate amendments and be prepared to react to them. Uncompromising legislators and citizens are never successful in this arena. Collaboration and compromise are essential.
And like so many things in life, it’s the people you know, not what you know, that often matters most. Building positive relationships with your legislators is essential to success at the Capitol. It’s also helpful to get to know the professional lobbyists who are at the Legislature every day.
It is most important that you develop a relationship with your state representative and senator. They will be your guides through this treacherous and confusing process of creating laws. Most are surprisingly available. But please don’t rely on emails. Many of them get hundreds each day. Have breakfast with them. Call them at home. Spend some time with them at the State House. And most importantly, ask for their opinion. Pin them down!
And please be aware that food fuels the legislative process at the State House. There’s a reason the state’s most influential groups host “informational displays” every day there, always with good food served. You can get a lot done by enjoying breakfasts and lunches in the State House cafeteria with your legislators and others.
The legislative process can be excruciatingly slow. You’ll spend a lot of time sitting around waiting for something to happen. I suggest a trip next door to the fascinating collections at the State Museum, and some down time at the State Library, where there is lots to read, work space, and wireless internet.
And once a bill gets to the House and Senate, things get really murky. If this part of the process was a lake, it would be a highly polluted one with visibility impossible beyond the first foot of water.
For example, the Democratic and Republican caucuses in the House and Senate take up every bill before it is considered on the floor and often take positions on those bills. It’s difficult but not impossible to get invited to a caucus to talk about your bill or issue.
And please bring your sense of humor to the Capitol. The old adage that we’d be crying if we weren’t laughing is often true here.
Finally, my best advice is this: always be honest about your issue or bill, even when the facts are against you. The one thing that kills you at the State House is dishonesty. Once your credibility is tarnished, you may as well pack it in.