Tuesday, February 11, 2014

How to Influence Idaho Legislation

Not enough citizens get involved in legislative issues.  Many don't really know what to do in order to have their voice heard on an issue.  Many times I get asked questions about exactly what to do and how to participate when I encourage people to get involved; often the process can be confusing and there are various obstacles to participation.  I hope this basic tutorial (not exhaustive) on how to participate in Idaho's Legislative process will help you get involved.  If you already know the bill number and simply want a quick action guide, skip to the FIRST HEARING section below.


A bill can be drafted by a Senator or Representative, a lobbyist, lawyers who work for the legislature ("Legislative Services"), or anyone - as long as a Senator or Representative is willing to sponsor or carry the bill.  First, a bill has to get printed, and go through an "RS" draft version.  Then it gets read and it gets assigned a bill number.  If a bill originates in the House is has an H first, if in the Senate it has an S first.  Every session you can find a list of the bills on the Idaho Legislature's website at: http://www.legislature.idaho.gov/http://www.legislature.idaho.gov/.  Click "Bill Center" - you have a choice to look up a bill number by Bill Number or by Subject/Topic.  If you want to receive email updates on the status of a bill, sign up on the Idaho Legislature Home page by clicking the "My Bill Tracker" link - if you create an account you can select the bills you want to follow and you will get emails as they make their way through the Legislature.  (Beware:  it takes a little time to update so if there is something urgent, be sure to track the bill other ways too).

So, for example, if you want to see what bills this session impact animals, look under the Bills by Subject for Animals - then track any that interest you.


When you click on a bill, you will see status on the page. You will also see a link to the Bill Text at the top, and to the Statement of Purpose.  The Bill Text is the actual legislation proposed - it will have line numbers and show additions, deletions and edits to existing Idaho Code.  (I encourage you to always read the bill if it is an issue you care about it, don't trust anyone's summary.)  The Statement of purpose is a brief description of why the bill is needed and what fiscal impact it will have.  It should also list a bill sponsor (sometimes there is more than one and sometimes you will see a separate link to a list of co-sponsors on the main page of the bill, with the status summary).  


Every bill gets assigned to a Committee where it starts; for example a bill starting in the Senate will go to a Senate Committee first.  Once you know what Committee was assigned the bill, you can see who is on that Committee by going to the "Committees" link on the left side of the home page, where you will have the option to see Senate or House Standing Committees by topic.  For example, here is the list of Senate Committees:  http://legislature.idaho.gov/senate/committees.cfm

You can see from the list what dates and times the Committee meets as well as who is on it.  You can contact the Committee Secretary and ask for notice of when a certain bill will be heard, or you can keep checking the website/rely on My Bill Tracker.  The best way to check online is to look at the posted agendas for the assigned committee the day before the committee meets at:  http://legislature.idaho.gov/sessioninfo/agenda.htm  When a hearing is assigned, it is important to get comments in ASAP to all the members of the Committee.  Here is how you can do that:

1.  Write a letter addressed to the Chair and Members of the Senate ______ Committee.  You need to get it delivered, by hand delivery, fax or email, to the Committee Secretary before the meeting where the bill is scheduled to be heard.  It will get to all Committee members. Include the bill number.

2.  Write emails to the Committee members - put the bill number as the subject.  If you go to the "Contact By Committee" selection on the far left of the Legislature webpage, you can send an email to all Committee members - you choose which Committee.  You will have to email each Committee member individually but you can cut and paste your message easily enough.

3.  Call Committee members - their numbers are on the website.  You can leave a message or possibly reach them.  However, I find they are so busy that a brief, succinct letter or email is more effective.

4.  Testify - if you can come to the Legislature and testify in person, this is the most effective.  They really WILL listen to you.  You get 3 minutes in most hearings.  Allow a lot of time to park, as being on time is important.  Go to the legislature and ask how to get to the room where the Committee meeting will be held.  At the start of the meeting there will be a sign in sheet at the back of the room.  Sign in and indicate whether you want to testify or not and whether you are pro or con on the bill.  This sheet is collected and used by the Chair so it is important to get there early enough to sign in.  Some chairs ask if there is anyone else there who didn't sign in and wants to talk, but don't count on that.  If you do speak, always go through the Chair - start with "Madam Chair or Mr. Chairman" and then address the Committee as a whole.  You can take notes up with you.  They are just people, do not be afraid - you have every right to participate in the process.  Unfortunately, they make this hard to do with short notice and long meetings - you can't take off work all the time to go over there - but if you can make it, it can make all the difference.

How to make your communication count - written or oral:

Keep it short.  Be specific.  WHY do you want them to vote yes (support) or no (oppose)? If you live in their District, mention that.  If you can give a brief example or a few bullet points outlining your position, it makes it easier for them to read, and easier for them to discuss with others in committee. Be respectful!  Spell check.  Be sure to include your name.  Never let passion turn into rudeness.

At the end of the hearing if the bill is held, it doesn't leave Committee, it dies for the session.  If they vote to send it to the floor, they can vote to send it with a "Do Pass" recommendation (a thumbs up) or recommend amendments.

If you can't attend a committee meeting, you can still possibly listen to it or view it online.  At the Legislature home page, click "Video and Audio Streaming" or go here: http://www.idahoptv.org/insession/leg.cfm  Sometimes you need a plugin and it works best with Explorer - take time to make it work before the critical hearing you want to listen to.  You can also order an audio CD after the hearing or click the digital media archive and find past hearings.


When the bill moves out of Committee, it goes to the full body - in this example, the full Senate first.  At this time, you can be most effective by contacting the Senator from your district.  If you don't know who that is, use the "Who is Your Legislator?" link on the left of the legislature home page.  Call or email and tell him/her what bill, and how you want them to vote and why.  You can use the same communication you did with committee members.  After the vote, if the bill doesn't pass, it's over for the year.  If it does pass, it goes over to the other side and the process starts basically over with a new committee assignment.

It's hard to tell exactly when a bill will be up for floor vote but if you want the Senate or House calendar online you can see when it is scheduled and listen in to the debate on the bill.

It is possible to send a letter to every Senator or House member before a floor vote, but it is hard to get so many copies distributed at the right time and I would save that for only measures which are really, really close calls and hot issues.  Otherwise its overkill.


The bill will be assigned to a Committee and it may be the same or a different one from the side it comes from.  For example, a bill that is in Agricultural Affairs in the Senate will likely be assigned to Agricultural Affairs in the House, but not always, so pay attention.  Once a Committee is assigned, you go through the same process to participate as outlined in "First Hearing" above.  In the example of a bill starting in the Senate, if it passes, it now goes to the House and the Committee hearing process repeats.  Committees can be very different based on who is on them - so do NOT assume because there was a certain result on one side the same will be true on the other.  Participate fully on both sides if you want to pass or kill a bill that is important to you.


If the bill gets out of the second Committee with a do pass, it is almost done...follow the steps outlined in "First Floor Vote" but now you want to contact your Representatives - you will have more than one.  Contact them both!! 


If the bill passes the Senate and the House it goes to the Governor's Office.  If the Governor doesn't sign it, it won't become law - if he does, it will.  So if you want to ask him to sign/not sign, then you need to contact him.  The best way is an email or letter.  You can send an email here:  http://gov.idaho.gov/ourgov/contact.html.  Remember to include the bill number and the same main points why you are asking him to support/not support the bill.


Sometimes you may see an online petition or a 1-800 number to call on an issue.  Although signing or calling might help, and is better than doing nothing, IT IS NO SUBSTITUTE FOR THE DIRECT PARTICIPATION OUTLINED ABOVE. I know that some legislators pay little attention to "mass emails" or people signing on to petitions - sometimes they chalk it up as hyped up by a certain organization.  They know it only takes a few seconds to participate that way.  Some legislators may care, but recognize some won't.  On the other hand, they generally do all care if you contact them directly.  Many Idaho Legislators are very sincere, hardworking, good people who do listen and try to do the right thing - they need to hear from you.  They are not mind readers.


Idaho is still small enough that you can quickly develop personal relationships with legislators.  Why miss the opportunity to do that?  If you participate in every step of the above process by sending mails or letters, it can take as little as an hour - or as much as several days of your time.  How much you invest depends on you.  I encourage you to invest more than a quick call to an 800 line.

Seem like a lot of work?  Well it's not too bad.  If you write a brief email or letter, you can use the same one throughout - just change the recipients.  Or you can tailor it based on what issues arise about the bill as you track it (especially true if you listen to and respond, respectfully, to comments of others).

The real problem is that the average person, who is working, raising a family, traveling, etc. can't participate much in the process - it takes time.  Even if you pay attention to ONE bill per year though, it makes a difference!  Especially if you have expertise in an area.  If you are a CPA, pay attention to the bills that affect you.  If you share a common interest with others, consider joining a group that shares your interests and tracks legislation, sending alerts to you when you need to act.  For example, Farm Bureau, Idaho Trail Lawyers - there are all kinds of associations that will track legislative issues for you.  But don't count on them to act for you!  There is no substitute for citizen vs. lobbyist participation.

Too often, lobbyists have too much influence - but that's because they are hired to advocate - and the rest of us don't speak up.  If your Representative only hears one side of the issue, how will they know the other side?  Don't just complain about the system, work to change it.

As a final note, when your Representatives or Senator does vote as you asked, take a moment to thank them.  And remember to vote for them next election - or against them, as the case may warrant.  If one has been particularly helpful, you may even volunteer for their campaign.

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