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Tips for new legislators.

Get to know the staff. Learn the rules of your legislature. Don't introduce too many bills. Remember who's boss--heed your constituents. And be considerate of others.

Whether coming from Arizona's Representative Polly Rosenbaum, Oregon's Speaker of the House Larry Campbell, Colorado's Representative Carol Snyder or Indiana Senate President Robert Garton, the advice is much the same.

Learn Where to Get Help

As early as possible, newcomers should learn where to go for help, says Speaker Campbell who has been on both sides of the aisle in his 14 years in the Oregon House. "Meet and become acquainted with staff members," Campbell says. "You want to know where to go for help and how to get it." And that means not only legislative staff but the key people in the governor's office and the cabinet offices.

New legislators will find themselves dealing with "3,000 issues," Campbell says, and while more seasoned legislators know they can't be experts in everything, a new legislator often tries to juggle them all. Find out who knows what, Campbell recommends, and that means on both sides of the aisle. "Other legislators have expertise and experience and you can turn to them for advice and counsel, but you have to know who they are."

In small states, where staff is scarce, legislators need to know how "to use lobbyists effectively," says Representative Carol Snyder, who was just elected caucus chairman for the minority party in the Colorado House. Lobbyists can serve as resource people if a legislator is bold enough to demand information on both sides of an issue. "Sometimes it's difficult to ask them to get you information, but it's important to do so, especially if you don't have staff," she says.

"Keep two eyes open and two ears wide open and one mouth closed," says Arizona's spunky 93-year-old lawmaker Polly Rosenbaum, who has served since 1949. "Watch and observe," she says. "See who gets things accomplished."

Rosenbaum advises new legislators to "listen to lobbyists, ask questions, but do your own thinking." Remember that lobbyists "want their own way," but they can be valuable to help a legislator sort through the myriad bills they face each year, she says.

"Lobbyists do represent some of your constituents, so listen to what they have to say," recommends Senator Garton who has served in the Indiana Senate for 23 years.

Learn the Rules

Representative Rosenbaum, who was a teacher for many years, says new legislators are going to think they're back in school. "It's like starting out in school for some," she says. "Our rules and regulations are different. You have to be careful. Learn the rules and how we operate."

You wouldn't play volleyball or tennis without knowing the rules and you can't legislate without knowing the rules, Garton says. "But you can't read them like a novel. Carry them around with you and read them as you see the process unfold."

Representative Snyder, who is just starting her second term, says learning how to use the parliamentary process successfully was one of her greatest satisfactions as a freshman legislator. "It's difficult to learn how to manipulate the process, and how to strategize it," she says.

Don't Introduce Too Many Bills

"Only introduce those bills that are needed," Rosenbaum says. "Remember, you only have one vote. You must be well-informed about your bills and be convinced that you are right, because you have to pick up 30 more votes (in her 60-member House)."

"It takes a lot of your time to get a bill through the process," Speaker Campbell says, "and even more time when you're a first-term legislator. Only take those bills that are really important to you and your constituents. If you introduce a bill in your first session your objective should be to get it passed, not just to get credit for introducing a bunch of paper."

"Don't overlook the power of committee work," Representative Snyder suggests. "That's where you can really be influential on legislation--yours, or someone else's. Sometimes it's much easier to get amendments added in committee than if you're trying them for the first time on the floor," she says.

Be Careful Accepting Money

When it comes to accepting campaign contributions, Representative Rosenbaum says she "turns down those from people who you feel might ask for something special." A savings and loan official offered a contribution, but Rosenbaum was cautious.

"What strings are attached?" she asked. "I turned him down. But I told him to tell his employees to vote for me anyway."

Be Careful What You Agree To

Before you agree to co-sponsor a bill, make sure you understand its direction and purpose, advises Speaker Campbell. "Don't sign on to bills just because the individual who initiated the bill contributed money to your election campaign. In other words: The old boy process and the old girl process in the legislature can get you in a hell of a lot of trouble. I know legislators who signed on to bills and when the bill came to committee they were absolutely opposed to it, but there they were--one of the sponsors."

Limit Your Floor Speeches

When you make a speech on the floor always prepare in advance and make sure that your topic is something that's important to you. "It has to be something that you're convinced you want to share and you have to do it in a professional way," Speaker Campbell advises.

"There's nothing worse than getting the reputation of being a motor-mouth," he warns, "because when you do have something important to say, nobody will listen to you." Campbell says "one of the most effective guys in the Oregon legislature for a number of years was a guy who probably only spoke three times during the session. But when he spoke everybody listened."

Remember Your Constituents

"Elected employees. That's all we are," says Senator Garton. "We are hired for our judgment and our decisions on behalf of others. So always keep in contact with the boss. Any good employee does that."

If you ignore this tip, you won't be back in two years, warns Representative Snyder. A new legislator has to develop good contacts among his constituents. "Make sure you return phone calls, answer letters, try to have town meetings or whatever it takes to get your constituents to know who you are and to know that you are approachable and responsible to the people you represent," Snyder says. "Besides," she says, "if you really know the people you represent, your job will be a lot more interesting."

Rosenbaum puts constituent service above party loyalty. "I get votes from both sides," she says. "You have to represent the people rather than the party." She says she probably does more constituent work than anybody else in the Arizona House.

"People complain about everything, like barking dogs," she says. "I tell them to go to the sheriff. I went over to the Health Department myself to get a birth certificate for someone. Once, a young woman on the reservation needed some help with her state income taxes. I called someone over there and luckily got it straightened out in about 30 minutes."

Above all, when doing something for a constituent, never ask their party affiliation--never, Rosenbaum says.

Never Lose Respect for Others

It's going to happen, Senator Garton warns. "You're going to disagree, and become upset, and at times dislike another legislator. You'll wonder why that person was ever elected. But remember, that person was elected to represent the same number of people that you do, and brings some strength to the process," he says.

"Don't react emotionally or in anger on the floor to something someone has said," cautions Speaker Campbell. "The things you say in these cases will come back to haunt you. You might create an unnecessary enemy and enemies are one thing you don't need in the legislative process. People don't have to like you, but if they respect you and know you are going to play it straight, you'll be all right. But if you get up and hit someone in the nose, it may cost you down the road."

The key to being effective in the legislature, Rosenbaum says, is kindness, courtesy and listening to the other side's point of view. It's a give and take proposition," she says. "You have to learn to compromise. Remember, every piece of legislation helps somebody--and hurts somebody."
COPYRIGHT 1993 National Conference of State Legislatures
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Author:Randall, Sharon
Publication:State Legislatures
Date:Jan 1, 1993
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