Jerry Kopel

Common sense guide to unwritten rules for new legislators

By Jerry Kopel

Jan. 9, 2009

New legislators learn a lot about how Colorado's laws are made by attending lectures by Legislative Council staff. And for each fresh group of legislators over the past 16 years since I retired, I have supplemented the Legislative Council's efforts by offering some "unwritten rules" to help new lawmakers through the process.

When new legislators raise their hands to take the oath of office, some might wonder if they will be able to cope with the magnitude of their work.
Don't worry. In about three weeks, you'll wonder how the "veterans" managed to stay in office as long as they have.

This is personality time. Legislators are forced to work together closely during floor work and even more closely during committee work. Any of you who served in the military will find it's similar to basic training and your first barracks experience. You can't hide your personality in such close quarters.

The first bills you introduce and your first appearances in front of the body will establish your identity in the minds of other legislators. If that first impression is negative, you might have a hard time overcoming it during the rest of your legislative career. In other words, you can be "pegged˛ as good or bad.

Rule No. 1:
Don't go to the front to speak and merely state, "I'm going to vote for this bill." Don't go up to speak unless you have studied the bill being debated, can explain its merits and defects and can offer some potentially useful suggestions.

Rule No. 2:
If your early bills aren't too controversial ‹ and especially during difficult economic times ‹ you're most likely to succeed with bills labeled "NFI˛ (no fiscal impact). That doesn't make your bill less important. It just means your bill doesn't have to go through the Appropriations Committee, where it's more likely to be killed.

I introduced my favorite successful NFI bill jointly with then-Sen. Hank Brown in 1976. It permitted consumers to purchase equivalent drugs under the generic name unless their physicians ordered otherwise. It had major opposition from the drug lobby, but no fiscal impact on state or local government.

Rule No. 3:
Do your homework. There is nothing more frustrating for legislators who have taken the time to study a measure than to have their remarks greeted by blank looks on the faces of legislators who haven't the vaguest idea of what is being discussed. You don't even have to lug the bills home. They will be on your laptop.

Rule No. 4:
Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Check with a bill's sponsor before offering an amendment to it. He or she already may have addressed the issue that concerns you. You are likely to get the same courtesy in return. This informal process is different from interrogation, which happens when you oppose a bill.

Rule No. 5:
Try to make yourself an expert on one or two subjects where you feel comfortable. You might want to study the history of "your" subjects in the House and Senate journals or in documents you can obtain from Legislative Council.

All my legislative material is indexed and available for public examination in the Western History Section Archives of the Denver Public Library. I also have induced about a dozen other retired Republican and Democratic legislators to add their papers to that archive.

You'll know you've made your mark as an expert when other legislators sit or stand on request for a count on second reading or vote "yes" or "no" electronically following your comments. This marks you as a leader and not a follower. Lobbyists will notice and will start to come to you for advice or assistance on bills that touch on your area of expertise.

Rule No. 6:
If you don't want to read about it in the newspapers tomorrow morning, don't do it. That advice was given to me and other legislators by Chuck Green, who was then covering the Legislature for the Denver Post.

The small-town atmosphere at the Legislature fosters gossip. If you haven't yet heard the latest, you will soon. And if you are the subject of the gossip, someone is sure to tell your spouse.

There have been sexual liaisons in the past, and there will be some in the future. The media may or may not circulate the stories.

Gossip at the Legislature is a source of information and jokes. Weaknesses are exaggerated to create insult humor. For example, one lobbyist always openly referred to a certain legislator as "having the intelligence of a blade of grass."

Rule No. 7:
Don't sit in someone else's seat at a House or Senate committee meeting.
During the first few meetings of a committee, you will find legislators trying out different seats. Soon, however, many lay claim to seats where they feel most comfortable. If you diagram a seating arrangement in the middle of February, often you'll find it is still accurate in May.

Rule No. 8:
Learn about your senior compatriots (meaning senior in service). Read their biographies in past Colorado Press Association Legislative Directories.
Unfortunately, the Colorado Press Association stopped producing these biography booklets after the one for 2005, but you probably can find past issues in the Legislative Council library. Learn about members who aren't included by having your assistant find biographical material elsewhere.

Rule No 9:
Don't be afraid to cross the aisle to shake hands and make small talk with members of the opposing party. After all, you DID walk door-to-door to successfully get here. Legislative friendships are like other friendships.
Someone has to take the first step. If you are going to lunch, do it often with someone from the other party.

Having friends in the other party can help your bills, especially when there's a close call on a nonpartisan issue. This is something every astute lobbyist knows when he or she decides whom to ask to carry a bill.

Rule No. 10:
When you make a commitment, keep it. Legislators and lobbyists count votes for and against bills in advance, and they hate it when a legislator backs out of a promise. If you change your mind on a bill, let the sponsor and the lobbyist know several days before the vote. Otherwise, be prepared for vote switches in revenge on your key bills.

Rule No. 11:
Stay focused. Unless you are a marionette to a flock of lobbyists who will do everything except move to pass the bill on second reading, remember ‹ it's your bill.

Amendments will be offered. If they don't negate your objectives, let them pass ‹ unless other legislators who favor your bill express opposition, and would withdraw their support if the amendment goes through.

If an offered amendment runs counter to your purposes, you should, of course, try to defeat it. But if you don't succeed, keep the bill moving.
There's always the possibility of changes being made in a conference committee. (The Legislative Council staff will explain.) And you always have the option of silently killing your bill.

Finally, the following rule is for all legislators.

Rule No. 12:
I am not going to advise you on Article 29 of the Colorado Constitution, entitled Ethics in Government. There will be lawsuits challenging Ethics Commission decisions or rules. All I can suggest at this time is, "when in doubt, don't do it." If you make a mistake, your opponent in 2010 probably will put it in large type on his or her campaign literature.

To the new members:
Serving in the Legislature is your chance to make a difference for the residents of Colorado. Do it well, and you will never forget nor regret the experience.

Jerry Kopel served 22 years in the Colorado House

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