Imagine that you are elected to serve in either the House or the Senate. Imagine a thousand bills coming your way; ranging from health care to recalculating the way mill levies are figured. It is impossible to gain a complete grasp on so many issues. Enter the lobbyists. It is their job to explain issues to the legislators, and campaign for their point of view.
Companies, associations and government agencies typically hire individuals for 90 days to fight or promote new bills; or simply to keep track of certain bills of interest. It is common for these lobbyists to represent multiple clients simultaneously. These are generally folks with experience in a particular area, or someone that can learn quickly.
The Citizen Lobbyist
The most effective lobbyist is a private citizen who takes the time to call or write their legislator on an issue. Or also takes time to travel to Helena for a personal visit.
Always remember that your legislator wants to hear from you. If there is a hearing, legislators tend to be far more interested in what you have to say than paid lobbyists that they hear in every hearing. Why? Because they know that you know what you are talking about. They also know that you will be personally affected by the outcome of their vote on the bill.
Lobbying for or against a bill is no more complicated than contacting your legislator or traveling to Helena to present your opinion. It is important to understand how legislature works, and use your valuable time in the most beneficial way possible. Never assume that by simply calling the Capitol and leaving a message on how you feel about a bill will have much impact on how your legislator (or others you have left the message for) will vote. If there are a lot of people calling about one bill (leaving messages), that will indeed have an impact.
Many bills that cross the desk of legislators represent foreign and new issues to them. They all have certain issues that they have strong feelings for, but there are many more that they are initially clueless on. Your input helps them understand the issue.
How to Lobby
To be an effective citizen lobbyist, there are some very important rules:
· Be honest. Whether you are talking directly to a legislator, or testifying before a committee in a hearing, it is critical that you are honest. If you even stretch the truth, sooner or later someone is going to correct your information. And from that point on, your testimony will loose its strength.
· Know your information. This is the one major difference citizen lobbyists typically have over the professionals. If you have personal knowledge of the subject, your credibility will be miles ahead of the rest. Study the issue carefully in advance.
· Read and study the bill being considered. If your testimony is misdirected and not relevant to the bill, you will weaken your case. You need to read the current version of the bill ahead of time. The bills are not complicated. Take time to study it.
· Understand whom to lobby. This will be covered later. It is very important to understand the path a bill takes to become law. There are times when you may need to talk with a Senator, and other times when you need to talk with a House member.
· Be respectful. Sometimes in the ‘heat of the battle’, it is easy to loose your cool. Nothing is more frustrating than to try and make a point to a legislator, and then discover that he/she totally ignored your information. There are even times when you may be told that they will vote your way, and then end up going the other way.
A bill may be introduced either in the House or the Senate. The cool thing about legislature is that there is plenty of opportunity to become involved. For a bill to enjoy success, it requires at least two public hearings – as well as a legislative debate in the House and Senate. And even after that, the bill can still be vetoed.
Once you have identified a bill you are planning to lobby on, you need to prepare to attend at least two public hearings.
Badbills.com lists bills in 4 Stages. All bills in Stages 2 & 3 will be given a public hearing. This is your chance to be heard.
If the bill is introduced in the House, the bill will first be heard in a House committee hearing. You are allowed to testify at that hearing. Within days of that hearing, the committee will decide whether to kill it or send it back to the House for ‘2nd Reading’. If they send it to the House, they will also send a recommendation for the bill. The House will then take the bill and debate it. After the floor debate, they will vote on it. This is called Second Reading. Their vote can be to pass it or kill it.
If this is a bill you were against, you should attend the hearing and testify against it. If you write a letter, you should write a letter to every committee member expressing your feelings (with information). Send your letter to the committee members before the hearing is held. Request that your letter be added ‘to the record’. If the bill makes it out of committee, then contact your legislator in the House (where the bill is headed).
It is important to verify hearing dates and times. Sometimes a hearing can be cancelled with little notice, or a previously scheduled bill will be pulled (or added) with little notice.
IMPORTANT: For all upcoming hearings for bills in Stage 2 & 3, badbills.com will display hearing dates in RED. Past hearing dates will return to BLACK. LOOK FOR RED DATES TO PLAN AND PREPARE FOR THOSE HEARINGS.
The hearings are held in various rooms in the Capitol building. If you are unfamiliar with the layout of the building, arrive early to locate the right room. Some of the hearing rooms are smaller than others. If your room is a bit small, you should go there early and lay your coat on a chair to reserve it.
Show up at least 15 minutes prior to the hearing. There are signup sheets at the entrance of the hearing room. These are only for record and are not used to call up those testifying. Often there is more than one bill being heard in the hearing. Make sure you sign the right sheet and mark whether you are a proponent or opponent of the bill.
The Chairman of the committee will call the hearing to order and state the order in which the bills will be heard. If your bill is first – you are lucky. Otherwise, you will have to sit and listen to testimony, etc on bills that you probably have little interest in. Generally, it takes 20-30 minutes for the committee to finish each bill.
When your bill is called, the order of business on the bill is: Introduction by Sponsor, Proponents, Opponents, Informational Witnesses, Questions by committee members, and Closing remarks of Sponsor. The chairman will then close the hearing on that bill and move to the next bill. The committee will not take action on the bill for several more days. They typically meet at a separate time to discuss the bill and vote on it. That is called Executive Action. If you know when they plan that, you can attend. Sometimes it takes place within days, and other times weeks.
Do not leave the committee hearing room until the Chairman closes the hearing on your bill. There may be questions from the committee directed to you. It is important that you hang around to answer them. The questions help the committee fully understand the issue.
The chairman strives to treat the proponents and opponents equally. If the hearing involves a lot of testifiers, the chairman will set a time limit for each side. Generally no longer than 20 minutes per side. Unless you are one of the principle testifiers, plan to keep your testimony to 2-3 minutes. It is best to type up your testimony and make enough copies for each committee member, PLUS one copy for the secretary.
If you have typed your testimony, do not read it if you plan to give them a copy. Form an outline and give a personal testimony. Though the committee will treat you with courtesy, they have many to hear from.
If you arrive early at the Capitol, you may want to attend other hearings to see how they operate. At the information desk on the lower level, there are important materials you should pickup when you arrive. There is a list of all bills being heard on the Senate and House Floors, as well as all the bills being heard in the Senate and House Committees. Also, there is the Guide booklet with information about all the legislators (including photo). Be sure and pick up one of these as well.
If you attend a hearing and have not prepared any testimony, you can simply step to the mike and state your name and address for the record.
SPECIAL NOTE: Never forget, that you can speak at any hearing you attend. So if you come for one reason, and discover a bill of interest in another hearing room (or in the same hearing room), feel free to go and listen and even speak.
Either before the hearing, or after, you should plan to find your legislator and share your concerns with him/her. Sometimes legislators can be found walking down a hall, or working in their small office – or even at their desk on the floor of the Senate or House. If you are there outside of the ‘2 Hour Rule’ (2 hours before or after the day’s session begins/ends), feel free to walk onto the floor to meet them.
Often legislators are in committee hearings, and you will have to wait until the hearing is over. Most of the legislators serve on at least 3 committees. And most committees meet 3 times a week. So you can see that they are pretty busy. But your visit and issue is important, and they want to hear from you. Be persistent, find them and talk with them.
At first this may seem complicated, but it is not. Never forget that legislators in our state are just like you and I. They have a passion for serving their fellow citizens. They want to do the best for the state and their constituents. It is up to you to participate beyond voting at the polls. Take your kids to the Capitol. Learn about our government. Participate. It is your state. It is your government. And with the internet, phone, fax and automobile – you can be part of it (and have little excuse not to).
NEXT: Lobbying 201