NOTE: This citizen’s guide to lobbying was originally written by 9NEWS political reporter Brandon Rittiman as a resource for anyone seeking to influence the state legislature. He has updated it each year to reflect the most current information.
DENVER— Accusations of harassment overshadow the start of the 2018 session of Colorado’s legislature and lawmakers will spend some of their limited time on responding to that issue—including a possible vote to expel one of their own members, something that hasn’t happened in a century.
Add to that the fact that 2018 is a contentious election year and it would seem like there’s not much hope of seeing compromise on big issues, but you’d be fooling yourself.
Lawmakers still need to pass a multi-billion dollar budget and are likely to pass hundreds of other bills on a wide range of topics.
For the moment, all bills will need to be at least a little bipartisan to pass. Democrats control the House of Representatives and Republicans control the state Senate.
We expect a debate over everything from road construction to mental health issues. Criminal law and education. Just about any issue of public concern can end up on the agenda.
It can seem daunting, but it’s easier to lobby your state legislature than it is to lobby Congress in Washington, DC..
For all of the formalities, it is possible for you to interact with your lawmakers at several points in the process as they debate bills.
This guide is meant to help you become an effective citizen-lobbyist for your issue, no matter what it is you’re passionate about.
As political reporter for 9NEWS, I’ve seen what can work and what doesn’t when people try to influence this process. Below, you’ll find basic information and practical advice to help you make sure your Senators and Representatives in the Colorado General Assembly know what you think on the many issues they’ll vote on.
FIND THE INFO
Get familiar ASAP with the state legislature’s website. It’s critical to know what you can find here if you want to keep track of what’s going on.
In the upper right corner you will find a “Watch & Listen” link to broadcasts of floor sessions and committee hearings.
The site has tabs at the top to organize things you might want to look through: schedules, bills, existing laws, legislators, committees, and more.
The “bills” page allows you to search by keyword, bill number, or sponsor just as before. You can also see a giant list of topics and click on one to browse bills that interest you.
Try multiple searches for keywords to get what you’re looking for using synonyms that might be in a law. (Eg: if you’re looking for gun bills, try words like “firearm,” “weapon,” or “ammunition” to increase your odds of finding what you’re looking for.)
Learn the legislature’s deadlines. With some exceptions (called “late bills,”) most bills will be introduced by the end of January.
COMMITTEE HEARINGS: YOUR CHANCE TO SPEAK YOUR PIECE
ANYONE CAN TALK AT THE COMMITTEE HEARINGS. Every bill gets at least one public committee hearing in Colorado, which includes an opportunity for public comment—you get a chance at the microphone to tell the lawmakers why they should pass, kill, or alter the bill at hand. (We’ll get to how to craft your message in a moment.)
Lawmakers can place limits on the amount of speaking time you’ll have—so organize your thoughts and try to get your pitch down to two minutes or less. Oftentimes, if lawmakers think you’ve got a new or interesting perspective, they’ll ask follow-up questions after you finish speaking.
You can find each committee's website and contact information for staff who can help you get a better sense of what's happening with your issue.
BEWARE OF “CALVINBALL” TOWARD THE END: The final week of session is what I call “Calvinball time.” Committee hearings are routinely held with little or no advance warning—sometimes with the rules suspended and no testimony allowed because the committee meets “at the well” on the floor of the House or Senate. But for most of the session you’ll have some advance notice before any particular bill comes up.
If you have a deep personal connection with the issue at hand, it's helpful to find lawmakers who are sponsors or opponents of a bill so that they can help to call attention to what you have to say.
"Early is better than later," says former Senate President Morgan Carroll, who advises you to reach out to lawmakers before testifying at hearings.
Your very best opportunity to talk face-to-face with lawmakers is just before and after a committee hearing because you know exactly when and where to find them. Ideally, try to go to a hearing before the day your bill comes up for debate so you can chat in advance about it. If you’re polite about it, most lawmakers will make a brief moment to talk to you if they’re able.
The legislature also maintains a social calendar of events where lawmakers sometimes gather.
TALK TO THE RIGHT PEOPLE
Not everybody can make it to scheduled committee hearings, but that doesn't mean you should stay quiet.
A good place to start is to reach out to the Representative and Senator who represent your district (find yours by entering your ZIP code here) because they are most accountable to you.
Your local legislators may be able to help you find another lawmaker working on an issue you care about.
You might also consider reaching out to bill sponsors and members of the committees your bill is assigned to.
CRAFT A GOOD ARGUMENT
Politics can make us angry. It's easy to jam out a quick nastygram and send it to a lawmaker's inbox, but that's probably not going to help your cause.
"When I get those really negative and vitriolic emails, we tend to just shut that off and ignore it," advises former House speaker Mark Waller, a Republican. "Put forth a reasonable argument even if you disagree with me and then be willing to listen to my answer."
Assuming you've got that covered, your message is still going to need to compete with a lot of other chatter.
State lawmakers have to deal with hundreds of bills and feedback from all sides in a short amount of time. It's like drinking from a fire hose.
Whether it's an email, phone call, tweet, or testimony at a hearing, keep the following things in mind if you want to cut through the noise.
If it helps you, remember these three “C’s:”
- BE CONCISE - your time will be limited at a hearing, but in all other forms make your argument short, sweet, and easy to understand
- BE COMPELLING - explain how the issue makes an impact in your life
- LOOK FOR COMPROMISE – if you can find a middle way, it's much easier to convince a lawmaker to adjust their idea to accommodate your concern than it is to get them to scrap their idea altogether
Still not getting anywhere? Almost every lawmaker is on Twitter, where you can publicly engage them.
Again- you won’t get far if you "troll" lawmakers, but hold them accountable in a respectful way.
If you think your issue isn't getting the attention it deserves, you can also alert the media!
If you have a compelling story, you might be able to get some attention in the press. Telling your story in public can bring a new level of attention to your issue.
Any professional lobbyist will tell you—you win some and lose some. At the end of the day, lawmakers are entitled to vote on bills and you aren’t—that’s how representative democracy works. But you can hold your lawmakers accountable at the ballot box in their next election.
Let them know if they've earned or lost your support and why.
When election time rolls around, seek out opportunities to ask candidates questions so you can vote for the right person.
State legislative candidates are generally pretty easy to find and talk to.