HOW TO WRITE, VISIT, AND LOBBY YOUR STATE LEGISLATOR
The following tips will help sharpen the impact of your letters
- Be sure to include your name and address. An anonymous letter will be ignored. Write legibly so that busy people can easily read what you have to say.
- Make it a page or less. If you wish include an enclosure, such as a newspaper article or fact sheet to support your points.
- Cover one subject only. Different staff members in the legislator's office cover different issues; so, if you cover several topics, one or more may get lost.
- Be brief. Use spare, effective, active prose.
- Ask for specific action. This will obligate someone to consider your request. You can ask how the legislator plans to vote; his or her position on an issue; or you can ask a question about the legislation in which you are interested. Put your request in the first paragraph of the letter.
- Be as specific as possible. If possible refer to a bill by number or name, who introduced it and what it will do. Show your familiarity with the subject and the current status of the legislation.
- Write as an individual. You will be more effective if you write to your legislator as an individual rather than a member of an organization.
If your legislator provides you with helpful information or services, of if she/he votes as you asked, it is a good idea to follow up with a letter of thanks. Letters of thanks are a rarity and you will probably be remembered for it!
When possible, if you write to a legislator who is not your own (i.e. a committee chairperson), send a copy of the correspondence to your own legislator. Indicate clearly at the bottom of the page that you have sent a copy to your legislator.
Correct forms of title and mailing address:
The Governor: His Excellency the Governor, The Capitol Buidling, Tallahassee, FL 32301
State Senators: Senator________, (#)____ Senate Office Building, Tallahassee, FL 32301
State Representatives: The Honorable__________, (#)____ House Office Building, Tallahassee, FL 32301
The best way to communicate with your legislator is to visit him/her.
- Getting an Appointment
You don't have to travel all the way to Tallahassee to see your legislator. Call the district office to establish when he/she (or a staff member) will be in town and able to meet you. Consider whether you really need to see the legislator or if a staff person is appropriate (depends on the issue and the urgency). Make an appointment. If you feel your are being unreasonably put off, find someone who is sympathetic to the issue and personally known to the legislator. It may be easier to arrange an appointment through these channels. Another alternative is to have several people call for an appointment on the same issue on the theory that one or another will be successful.
- The Visit Plan
Go into the visit with a strategy and a mental list (or paper list) of issues to be covered, questions to be asked, and answers to be obtained. Devote the early part of the visit to finding out about the legislator. Ask whether he/she has had a chance to review the bill you are concerned about (have an extra copy in case its needed); inquire about legislation that is currently being considered by his/her committees or find out when he/she visits your home community and where he/she goes during visits in the district. Listen carefully. Maybe you'll pick up the name of a mutual friend, discover a shared interest or gain an insight into how he/she thinks. All this knowledge may come in handy in communicating with him/her some day.
Then, launch into your agenda. Be prepared to talk in simple terms. Bring, and then leave with the legislator, a fact sheet summarizing the major points you plan to make. The fact sheet may be general or may be tied to a specific bill--it should explain the bill, the impact, who supports or opposes it.
Above all be punctual, courteous, and friendly--and listen carefully!
Immediately after you leave the office take a few minutes to take some notes about the meeting--your major points of conversation; the important things the you said, and the important things he/she said. This could be useful in the future at a second meeting.
Follow up the visit with a brief letter of thanks, referring to the most significant points covered in the conversation. Be sure to include any materials or information you said you would send after the visit.
If you believe your legislator could be more supportive if he/she heard from more constituents, channel your energies into mobilizing others.
Some questions you need to ask yourself before you begin...
- What is the political climate in your state?
- Who are your Legislators? Learn about them, their backgrounds, their previous activities, their frame of reference, their group affiliations, etc.
- What is the bill passing process in your state? In Florida a bill follows these steps:
- Emergence of need for a bill
- Background Research (factual, political, agency positions)
- Drafting and filing of bills (choice of sponsor, companion bills)
- Committee references
- Role of committee staff personnel
- Consideration and amending of a bill (sub-committee, committee, house or senate)
- If the bill passes, legislative oversight committee
- What are the rules of the House and Senate, i.e. which committees moves which bills, what is the amendatory process?
- How is the committee structure organized?
- Identify the power structure, both overt and covert.
Some of the realities of the state legislative process
This is not a rational process. Disappointment is the first experience. But you must not let this dissuade you. Most legislators are honest, but come with very little understanding of the needs of the public. Trust them until you learn they can't be trusted.
The role of the State Legislature is strengthening in this country and with the federal-state relations and revenue sharing as well as with Title XX and other federal funds the relationship of the budgeting process from state agencies and governors must be clearly identified every step of the way and worked with.
You must ask yourself:
- What are the constraints on your revenue and budget process? For instance Florida is mandated by the Constitution to have a balanced budget.
- Who are the budget Czars, and what is their relationship to the state agencies and governor?
- How independent from governor influence is your legislature?
- What is the role of the legislative staff? The staff can be an invaluable source of information. Staff report meetings can be good places to present ideas for legislative changes and new bills. Both majority and minority party members and their staff must be worked with.
- Committee staff
- Administrative staff to legislators, governor, etc.
- Bill Drafting Staff
- Clerk of the Houses
How to work effectively with a legislator in face to face situationsTime, research and expertise must be put together to give the legislators appropriate, sound material and the reasons for your proposals
- Give the legislator as much background as you can develop in a very brief, succinct way.
- Ask their advice about strategies for reaching the goal.
- Build the legislator's trust in your expertise for the an issue.
- Indicate respect for their position on the issue.
- Always be honest about how you read the situation--never mislead them!
- Try to avoid confrontation.
- When you are successful with a bill, always give the legislator the credit for support and advancement of the bill.
- Recognize the pragmatics. 1) Everyone will not vote the way you want. 2) Certain legislators that are friendly to the idea may need to keep a low profile so as not to coalesce the opposition.
- Always share negatives with the legislators so that they are not surprised when the negatives are raised by the opposition.
- Don't pigeonhole legislators, i.e. rural-conservative, urban-liberal. These are myths. Individualize and establish your own assumptions.
- Always identify the consequences for the legislator of a particular bill. Help them understand the implications for their district.
- Don't bury legislators with unnecessary paper. Provide them with a one-page outline if possible, and offer to provide more than the succinct position statement to friendly legislators if they want back-up data. Provide your legislative sponsor with everything they need to be knowledgeable about the area.
- Rehearse and role-play interactions with legislators with colleagues.
- Recognize that legislators are locked into certain basic expenditures to keep the state operational, i.e. highways, educational grants, etc. But do not minimize the use of discretionary funds.
- Timing is crucial Assess your economic and political climate. Is there a reasonable chance for success? Sometimes bills need to be introduced just for the dialogue they generate.
- Remember, sometimes you are lobbying to kill a bill and you should pay close attention to where it is in the process before approaching legislators.
Legislative action at the local, state or national level should evolve from a set of social policy goals. The skills necessary to achieve those goals include:
- Selecting legislative priorities
- Building Networks
- Building Coalitions
- Use of Media
- Collecting Professional Expertise
- Maintaining a year-round legislative presence
- Generation of new legislation
This information is from: Budd Bell and William G. Bell, "Lobbying as Advocacy," in Bernard Ross and S.K. Khinduka (eds.) Social Work in Practice, Washington, D.C., National Association of Social Workers, 1976