Lawmakers want to hear from constituents
Jan 27, 2013 (Tulsa World - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
OKLAHOMA CITY -- Every Oklahoma voter has a political voice, but many of them never speak up.
As the opening day of the 54th Oklahoma Legislature nears, House and Senate members from both parties say they are anxious to listen to their constituents' concerns.
"If you get 10 people from your district that are really concerned about something, I want to tell you, that can make a difference," said Rep. Weldon Watson, R-Tulsa. "If you get a bona fide response, those are the kinds of things that change minds."
Communicating with an elected official -- in person, by telephone, by letter or email -- can be intimidating to some, but lawmakers insist that it's essential for the system to work.
"Although it can be strange, don't be intimidated," said Rep. Seneca Scott, D-Tulsa. "I'm here to listen. ... Just go ahead and bring it. It's OK."
When he first went to the Legislature, Scott wasn't a strong gun rights advocate, he said, but after listening to the authentic stories of constituent crime victims who felt the need for firearms for their own safety, he changed.
"That flipped me. It did," Scott said. "It had a huge effect on me."
Citizen lobbyists can increase their effectiveness if they are prepared, honest and civil, experienced lawmakers say.
Sen. Brian Crain, R-Tulsa, said a few strategies are key: Target the House and Senate members from your district (and tell them your address so they know you are from their district), then support your point with evidence and behave civilly.
"Talk to your legislators the way you would like to be talked to," Crain said.
That doesn't mean legislators don't want to hear from people who disagree with them, he said.
"Anybody who disagrees with their legislator has an obligation to try to convince the legislator of their point of view," Crain said. "If you sit back and criticize without trying to educate that individual, who's to be blamed in that Is it the person who doesn't understand or the person who refuses to teach "
Most legislators have stories about angry constituents who berated them with threats and curses. Those stories never end with, "So I changed my vote."
"When constituents are least effective is when they make it personal between them and their legislator and they yell and scream and cuss and start name-calling," said Rep. Scott Inman, D-Oklahoma City. "That's the quickest way possible to convince a legislator not to take you seriously and not to consider your position with the credibility that it deserves."
What works best
There isn't universal agreement on the best means of contacting a legislator.
Inman said the best communication is face-to-face, either at the Capitol or in the district. If that's not possible, make a phone call. If that doesn't work, he thinks the third best way is to send an email.
U.S. mail gets the attention of Watson.
He sends out thousands of constituent surveys by mail every year. The ones that get mailed back -- and any kind of first-class mail -- has the feel of a committed voter -- someone who will invest time and a stamp in the process, he said.
Rep. Eric Proctor, D-Tulsa, puts his cellphone number and personal email address on some 30,000 pieces of mail he sends into his district every year.
"I don't know why, as an elected public official, you wouldn't want people calling you," he said.
Some legislators say participation in group trips to the Capitol multiplies the effect of the message, but others say it dilutes the effect.
Almost all agree that mass email campaigns can be less effective, especially if they repeat the same language without personal effort.
"Put it in your own words," Inman said. "That is an exponentially more effective way to get your point across."
If you write to your legislator, you should expect a response, most lawmakers agree.
Crain said his office gets about 1,200 emails a week during the session and that he or his legislative assistant reads every one. Those that come from his district get a written response from Crain by mail.
He wants every constituent who writes to him to know that he took the time to read and consider their thoughts and then responded in a formal way.
Inman said voters who don't communicate with their legislators should consider this: The zealots on the left and the right absolutely will express their opinions loudly. If the people in the middle don't speak up, he said, some lawmakers will get a skewed perspective of the people's voice.
And the people's voice is the only one that counts, Proctor said.
"They don't elect me to be the Eric Proctor Show at the state Capitol. They elect me to be their representative," he said. "If I get three or four phone calls from my constituents and that's all I hear, that's the way I'm going to go."
Watson said no one should think their legislator won't pay attention.
"I don't care what party affiliation they are, I don't know any legislator who is not concerned about hearing from their constituents and responding in the right way," he said.
It's a matter of pure political logic: Constituents count because they're the only people who can vote, he said.
"I can assure anybody that when you run for public office, you are very concerned about what the people who vote have to say," he said.
Tips for lobbying your legislator
--Don't start when the pressure's on Get to know your legislator before the session begins.
--Be polite. Keep the discussion civil and about issues, not personalities.
--Feel free to disagree. Zeal can be good, but anger or threats are never a good strategy.
--Listen to your legislator's response. If he hears you out, extend him the same courtesy.
--Respect your lawmaker's time. Stay on point. Address only one issue per contact.
--Thank your legislator for their time.
--Know your facts. Obvious errors undercut credibility.
--Use your own language. Mass emails are often discounted.
--In a personal meeting, bring a one-page synopsis of key points. Include your name, telephone number and address.
--Don't underestimate the power of your voice. Lawmakers who ignore their constituents lose elections.
Key legislative dates
Feb. 4, noon: The 54th Oklahoma Legislature convenes. The first order of business will be Gov. Mary Fallin's State of the State address.
March 14: Deadline for most House bills to be passed in the House and most Senate bills to be passed in the Senate. With some exceptions, bills that don't make the deadline typically are dead for the year.
April 25: Deadline for most House bills to be passed in the Senate and most Senate bills to be passed in the House. With some exceptions, bills that don't make the deadline typically are dead for the year.
May 31, 5 p.m.: Deadline for final adjournment of the Legislature's 2013 regular session.
Ten things to know about your Legislature
1. The Legislature has two houses. The House of Representatives has 101 members. The Senate has 48 members.
2. The 54th Legislature will last for two years, 2013-14. It meets for about four months each year. Bills and resolutions are filed in advance of each year's session, but a bill filed this year can still be considered next year. After final adjournment in 2014, all legislation that has not passed into law is dead.
3. The Oklahoma Legislature meets at the state Capitol at 23rd Street and Lincoln Boulevard in Oklahoma City.
4. The House website can be accessed at tulsaworld.com/okhouse. The Senate website can be accessed at tulsaworld.com/senate You can find links to both sites and more information about the Legislature at tulsaworld.com/capitolreport.
5. The Oklahoma Legislature typically meets on Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. While daily schedules vary, some details are available on the websites. Committee schedules also are available, although meeting times often change, especially late in the session.
6. Meetings of the House and Senate can be viewed live on the websites. Many committee meetings also can be viewed there. House sessions are archived.
7. Telephone numbers, email addresses and office numbers for legislators are available on the websites, as are maps showing district boundaries.
8. Other features of the website include legislative histories of pending bills, vote tallies and the language of filed legislation.
9. To become law, a proposal must be passed with identical language by both the House and the Senate and be signed by the governor. If the governor vetoes a bill, it can become law if it is overridden by a two-thirds majority in both houses.
10. House members have filed 1,259 bills and 43 joint resolutions this year. Senators have filed 1,119 bills and 34 joint resolutions.
COMING NEXT SUNDAY
We preview the biggest issues, tell you about the key leaders and give you more information on the legislative session that starts Feb. 4.
Wayne Greene 918-581-8308
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