How a Villager Assails the Walls of Our State Capitol
Your guide to getting laws passed
by Carrie Madren
Last year, we paid our 188 lawmakers between $43,500 and $56,500 each to consider some 2,856 bills.
That batch included the McDonald’s Bill, which would have prohibited fast-food eaters from suing a restaurant because its food made them fat. The Ferret Protection Act would have prevented us from selling or transporting any un-neutered baby ferrets. Neither of those bills made it through the General Assembly. Many others did. One prohibits hunters from shooting live animals by remote computer control. Another lets us bring home our corked bottle of wine that we ordered at dinner out but didn’t finish though another law on the books makes sure we can’t send home wine from Virginia or California vineyards.
No wonder people feel estranged from our sprawling legislature that spends so much time ruling on so many laws that affect so few people.
Alongside the micro-specialized hopefuls were strong bills that affect many, laws that will change your life. Representatives weighed the pros and cons for paper trails for our new electronic voting machines, and whether to cap nitrogen pollution in the Patuxent River. The Healthy Air Act now curbs air pollution from industrial smokestacks.
When our representatives consider such life-changing laws, our quality of life is at stake. Legislators only know what’s important to us if we tell them.
And now’s our chance, as the General Assembly nears the midpoint of its 90-day session.
The historic Maryland state house that sits high on a hill like a castle can seem as unapproachable as a moated fortress.
But you don’t need to feel like the poor peasant locked outside the looming castle’s door. You don’t need ropes, a disguise or the dark of night to scale this castle’s walls.
From Wishes to Laws
What’s on your mind? Perhaps a loophole is allowing pollution into your streams. Traffic is overwhelming your roads. Sprawling development is inching into the last open spaces of your community.
Getting laws that solve our problems likely starts with hopes or frustration. Getting from the itch to a law is an eight-step process. Be prepared to repeat as necessary.
First it takes passion. Then it takes action. For you’ve got to craft a message and find a legislator willing to fight for your cause.
Step 1: Decide what peeves you.
Let your frustration sprawling roads, dirty water or taxes guide you to your plea for change. Could a Maryland law help the situation?
Last year, accountant Tom Hensler of Deale concluded that Maryland needed an income tax law change.
“As the pension exclusion law stands, it discriminates against small businesses,” says Hensler, whose tax-code expertise comes from 25 years with H&R Block. While he worked for a big company, his wife worked for a small company. That contrast shaped his thinking.
Hensler wrote his own proposal for a bill and picked up the phone. He started with his own representative, Del. Bob Costa (District 33B). Hensler explained his bill in two or three emails.
Del. Costa responded to each of these emails. But Hensler’s was not among the 122 bills Costa sponsored or co-sponsored last year. This year, Hensler plans to step up his campaign.
“I might go talk to Del. Costa in person,” he says, in hopes that face-to-face might sway the legislator.
“I’m going to continue the effort and try to explain it better,” Hensler says. “I’ll also send the same info to my senator, Janet Greenip.”
Step 2: Become bill savvy.
“Know what you care about and find a bill that reflects those values,” advises Clare Douglass, on staff with the Chesapeake Climate Action Network.
At the General Assembly website (http://mlis.state.md.us/), you’ll uncover bills obscure and life-shaping, ranging from aggressive driving to bowling alleys to property to nuisances to pets and beyond. For instance, find the Clean Car Act by looking under Environmental Matters. If you find the website hard to maneuver, check with organizations in your field of interest for bills they support or oppose.
As of February 13, legislators had introduced 574 House bills and 720 Senate bills. That’s a lot fewer than last year, Del. Jon Cardin explains, because years following elections start slow as newcomers learn the ropes.
Legislators should have introduced all their new bills by now: The deadline for senators was January 23, and for delegates, February 9. Tardy bills introduced after these dates go to review by each of their Rules and Executive Nomination Committees, which rules whether a late bill can still be introduced. Or, if you’re past deadline, a lawmaker could still amend a related bill to reflect your concerns.
Step 3. Find strength in numbers.
So you’d like to play the game, but you’re not sure which bill will change Maryland for the best? Seek out others who share your values. Is it the Maryland League of Conservation Voters, Smoke Free Maryland Coalition or the Maryland Motorcycle Dealers Association that articulates your passions? Shaping legislation is a key activity of interest groups from farmers to doctors to environmentalists and more. Each session, they line up for and against bills. And they line up in the halls of power to woo legislators to their side.
“Find out who else is supporting a bill, and see if there’s some ongoing effort you can connect with,” says Brad Heavener of Environment Maryland. Learn what bills are on the agenda this session by calling the organization or reading its website.
Team up with groups that share your values, and you’ll get the added support and benefits from teamwork. Such special interest groups have staff to spend time researching, analyzing and identifying strong bills.
Tom Hensler, who tried pushing legislation on his own, now plans on joining forces with lobbyists for both small businesses and the American Association for Retired People.
Step 4. Craft your message.
Once you’ve named your passion, you’re ready to hone your message.
You don’t need specific expertise; Legislators don’t expect you to have all the answers. You do have to talk about why you care ideally not at length.
“It’s not the constituents’ job to be experts,” says Chesapeake Climate’s Douglass. “It’s up to the representatives to really investigate the nit-picky stuff, because they have the resources.” Instead of knowing facts and figures, Douglass continues, a constituent’s credibility comes from being a Maryland citizen and caring about an issue.
“What these legislators want to hear is why it’s important: we go boating on the Bay …” says Bevan-Dangel. “They want to hear the personal story.” Make sure you’re clear about which way you want them to vote, so that there’s no room for confusion.
For extra credit, strengthen your plea by finding examples of how a similar bill or legislation has worked in other states.
Second, if you’re emailing or writing a letter, you don’t have to write an epic to be clear. Short and sweet as well as personal gets your point across. A legislator will more likely read a clear, concise email than a rambling one.
“If a constituent can show how an issue impacts him or her,” says Betsy Bossart, district director for Congressman Steny Hoyer, “that’s a lot more meaningful than a form letter that someone just put their name on.”
Step 5. Devise a plan to petition our rulers.
Rally your cry through email, write or type a letter, place a phone call. Even better, schedule a face-to-face meeting. To help you get started on your lobbying quest, the experts offered Bay Weekly sage advice.
“It usually is easy to get a meeting,” says Jennifer Bevan-Dangel of Environment Maryland. “Most [reps] are very keen to hear from people from their district.”
After you’ve talked to your representative, broaden your reach.
An Activist in Action
Early this session, another constituent villager did take to the halls of the legislature.
After getting past the castle gates where an X-ray scanning machine stands guard Don Schroeder, bishops deputy for public policy from the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland, wasted no time in getting upstairs.
Schroeder’s job that afternoon was to help the Healthy Air Coalition a network of 16 groups that rally for clean air pass out a letter about the Clean Car Bill. The Coalition sought co-sponsors to sign on and needed to get the word out about the bill, up for another vote after failure in 2005. Each office typically houses two delegates and their staffers, and Schroeder had many halls to cover before he ran out of letters.
“The more sponsors you get, that shows other legislators that there’s a lot of interest,” said Schroeder, who retired from the Maryland Petroleum Council, an oil trade association representing major oil companies. Like a lightning bolt, the retired Episcopal minister charged down the long corridor of delegates’ offices.
With a list in hand of sponsors already signed on, he rounded into each office. A legislative aide greeted him in most offices as he presented the letter on the Clean Car Bill.
“Hello, anyone here?” Schroeder called into an empty lobby. A voice from a back office responded, and Schroeder walked through to hand the letter to Del. Adelaide Eckartdt from District 37B. He mentioned the bill’s formal introduction in a couple days but didn’t stay to chat before rounding the corner into the next office.
“It’s good to be generally knowledgeable on the bill you’re supporting,” he said, though you don’t have to know everything.
On his way through the corridors, Schroeder ran into Del. Sue Kullen. She’d just signed on to the Clean Car Bill as a co-sponsor minutes before, and spoke briefly with Schroeder before heading to her office to prepare for constituent meetings.
By joining up with a group, Schroeder had the advantage of reaching out to more legislators in less time; he says he’ll be in the halls often before session ends.
Zero in on a committee where the bill is going to be heard, advises activist Don Schroeder. That way you can reach out to the many lawmakers who will decide the fate of a nascent bill. Most bills die in committee before making it to the whole House or Senate. So that’s where you can use your power most effectively.
Next, knock on the doors of bill sponsors and others of like mind. When you’ve exhausted your list of lawmakers, there’s still the governor to approach though because he’s one and citizens are many, expect to make your case by letter or by phone.
Step 6. Make contact with a lawmaker.
If you’re meeting a representative in person, don’t be intimidated.
“Treat it like a conversation with a relative you don’t see very often,” Bevan-Dangel says.
Being a lawmaker’s own constituent adds weight to your opinion. When you meet a legislator no need to bow or curtsy identify yourself as a resident in his or her district and give your address. Also mention the groups that you associate with.
“Politicians are seeing the vote,” says Douglass of Chesapeake Climate Action Network, when you speak about your concerns, because you represent larger numbers than just yourself. You represent all the groups you associate with: your family, church, community and more.
Tell lawmakers clearly so there’s no doubt in their mind which way you want them to vote on the issue.
Del. Sue Kullen of Calvert County says that she meets with any constituent who requests time. Del. Jon Cardin from Baltimore County meets with constituents daily.
“I have about 10 people a day come through that have made an appointment,” he says, adding that another dozen or so drop in unexpectedly to chat legislation.
Maryland’s General Assembly is cut to such a personal scale that, even if you come unannounced, legislative staff may be able to call your representative out of session for a brief visit.
Bring along a friend or relative who also stands for the issue.
“People don’t have the money to wine and dine their reps,” Douglass says, “so the power is in the numbers.”
As you present that point, don’t assume that the legislator will disagree with you. Perhaps your voice is one that will tip the scales.
But in case the two of you do disagree, don’t vituperate. You don’t want to make an enemy; you want to win a friend.
Step 7: Say the magic words.
Lobbying Boot Camp
Hone your skills at Environmental Lobby Day on February 19, when citizens learn the ropes of talking to lawmakers. Hear from the pros who work with legislators daily how to win over lawmakers. This year, the focus is the Clean Car Bill. Environmental lobbyists explain the bill’s status and what facts and stories might persuade more legislators.
Learn how the legislative process works and how timing your contact makes a difference in getting a bill passed. Then break into small groups according to district and meet with your legislators. Under the guidance of pros, find your way through a maze of underground tunnels with and into the offices of political power.
The day wraps up in time for General Assembly session, so you’ll see your representatives in action.
Join Environmental Lobby Day on Monday, February 19. Have a photo ID handy. Registration begins at 3:30pm; lobby training and issue briefing 4-5pm; meet with legislators 5-8pm. Start at the Joint Hearing Room in the Legislative Building, off Lawyer’s Mall, Annapolis. Free: 410-467-0439.
Follow up with a hearty Thank you. If you spoke to a politician on the phone or in person, send a note of thanks. Use your note as a review of your message, repeating briefly what you said and the vote you’re seeking. Add your address to you signature to emphasize your constituent standing.
For brownie points, make it a short handwritten letter.
Step 8: Stay tuned…
Of the 2,856 bills introduced last year, some 232 Senate bills and 387 House of Delegates bills graduated to the governor’s desk. Gov. Robert Ehrlich vetoed 102 of those, including bills that were duplicates. Four of his vetoes were overridden by the General Assembly. So 2006 gave us 521 new laws (including funding authorizations).
Keep tabs on how your legislators vote on bills you support or oppose. If they voted with you, write a brief note of thanks. If they didn’t, write that you hope they’ll vote another way in the future.
Your passion could help push a bill through that maze of weird bills to the few that become law.
If you don’t win over your legislator the first time, try again next year.
“Don’t slow down,” says Heavener of Environment Maryland. “Keep at it. Lobbying takes a lot of persistence.”
Schwartz, of Maryland League of Conservation Voters, adds patiently, “Sometimes it takes a long time to make progress.”
Stay updated on this year’s bills and legislation at http://mlis.state.md.us/