Jerry Kopel

Milling around in the corridors and basement level of the state capitol building are old and new members of the fourth branch of state government: The lobbyists. Here are eight rules lobbyists ought to consider, whether they represent private interests or Colorado state or local government.

Rule No. l. You want a legislator to vote for or against a bill, offer an amendment, speak for a measure or protect a department's funding. If the legislator asks you for help on a bill, be prepared to help if it is not contrary to your client's interests. There are no free lunches at the legislature.

Example: I carried the ball for the department of regulatory agencies for many years. When I came to them with a concept now known as the psychotherapy grievance board to discipline all varieties of psychotherapists, they backed me partly in recognition of many battles I had waged on their behalf.

Responding to a legislator's request for help is especially important for government lobbyists. Legislators are elected and their constituents have to deal with government. Often, third or fourth echelon employees will give a constituent a hard time in resolving a problem.

The constituent complains to the legislator. The legislator asks the top people in your department to render help. You render help.

The constituent is grateful to the legislator and the legislator feels warmly about you. All because some lower echelon employee acted inappropriately. The legislator is now someone who will listen to you on the merits of a particular bill.

Obviously you want to give preferential treatment to a legislator who has been helpful to you. But even an opponent can be softened by the way you handle a constituent problem. Experienced lobbyists are aware of this rule.

When a social worker had been denied the right to take an exam because papers were not in order, the Social Workers professional association would send this person to me if it was my constituent, knowing that I would contact the department and knowing the department would do their best to satisfy my concern.

Rule No.2. In pushing for legislation, begin by deciding how much you can delegate to potential allies. Once the regulatory agencies department decided to support my grievance board, they had to decide how to proceed.

As you know, the legislature is probably clogged with four hundred or more lobbyists. If a government issue and a private special interest lobbyist's issue is the same, government should take a back seat and let a private special interest lobbyist do the heavy work. Government can be the information source. The legislature expects rough battles with private special interest lobbyists, but they get upset when the executive branch tries to be the heavy.

However, there are times when the governor says he wants something. The government lobbyist better be as professional as those representing private groups. A smart bureaucrat may not be a a good lobbyist. The government lobbyist is the face of government to many legislators. Keeping the same person on the payroll for many years helps build up rapport with legislators.

Rule No. 3. Don't go overboard on any particular issue. If your bill is stalled in House Appropriations, think twice before trying to force it out. There's always next session. Usually it is not a matter of all or nothing. Usually it is a question of how much of a bill or an issue you can get under the circumstances.

If you expect a legislator to compromise over his or her issue, why should the lobbyist be any different? If there is something you want but can't get because too many legislators oppose it, take what you can get. You will be around for some time.

The legislative turnover is enormous. After voting several thousand times in a session, I often forgot why I voted a particular way the previous year. Next session, try again and add a little more to what you already obtained. The bureaucracy (and private lobbyists) always outlast the legislature. The Chinese civil service outlasted Genghis Khan, even without term limits.

Rule No. 4. Avoid making enemies, because the legislator you oppose may be the one you need to help you on the next issue. Or at least, avoid making unnecessary enemies. Think your position through. What are the consequences of the confrontation? If you are opposing a particular bill, is the Senator's pet project really devastating when weighed against his or her ability to cut off funding for a program you want?

Can you win in a less obtrusive manner by getting his or her bill stuck in Appropriations while you arrange to show it will cost "X" number of dollars to fund? Can you get help from a legislator who is an opponent of your opponent? If you have to take a legislator on directly, let the legislator know in advance, and the reasons why. There is almost always a possible compromise.

Rule No. 5. Never surprise a legislator by making your objections known for the first time at a committee hearing. I have seen legislators almost apoplectic when that happens and you have made an enemy for life.

Former Sen. Vince Massari of Pueblo kept a little black book. When he felt wronged, the name and event went into the book. If he had a chance for revenge he took it even if he would otherwise have supported the issue because it helped his constituents. For some legislators, revenge is the sweetest dessert.

Rule No. 6. The legislature is not a level playing field. When you send someone to testify before a legislative committee, be sure they remember never to be confrontational at legislative hearings. You don't make points by showing a particular legislator to be ignorant. Always choose someone to speak who maintains a modulated tone of voice ... who doesn't shout. Legislators like to shout at you or each other, but they get upset if you shout at them.

Lobbyists who choose witnesses should realize the best witnesses are not necessarily the best experts. Anyone who watched the O.J.Simpson trial knows that. If you can present your support or opposition in a conversational tone, do it.

Some legislators tune out if you read to them from a paper, and especially if that paper has been handed to them in advance of your testimony. Your statement doesn't have to be dull. There is nothing wrong with a display of emotion. Just don't try to overpower your listener by loudness.

Don't exaggerate your testimony. Never tell a lie or give half a truth, even if the full truth is adverse to your position. You really have nothing going for you as a lobbyist except your credibility. If you lose that, if you are caught in a lie, then get another job, because in Colorado you are dead in the water.

Rule No. 7. Remember there are end games going on that you may know nothing about. You and Rep. John Jones may be the best of friends on the outside. In the committee room, don't refer to Rep. Jones as Johnny. You should call him Rep. Jones in all your remarks.

Before you go into the committee room, read up as much as you can from the biographies of committee members. There may be something you can toss into your remarks that will catch the ear of a legislator because of information in that biography.

Rule No.8. Don't expect legislative committees to operate on the same time zone you use. If a meeting is scheduled at 10 a.m., it might not start until 11 a.m. But you are expected to be there whenever they do begin. Your bill may be scheduled for that morning and a committee member asks it be continued until that afternoon. This could throw your entire schedule off, but that is how things work at the legislature.


Jerry Kopel writes a column for the Statesman based on 22 years past experience as a state legislator.

Home  Full archive  Biographies  Colorado history  Colorado legislature  Colorado politics   Colo. & U.S. Constitutions  Ballot issues  Consumer issues  Criminal law  Gambling  Sunrise/sunset (prof. licensing)


Copyright 2015 Jerry Kopel & David Kopel