Jerry Kopel

4/4/1996

Another rule for legislators to live by: Don't fall in love with your bills.

That's easier to suggest than to do because all of us can confuse an idea with printed words.

There isn't a legislator or "ex" who hasn't sometime fallen in love with a bill. But problems occur when "bill loving" becomes the rule rather than the exception. And if a legislator keeps the anger and frustration inside when the bill dies, health problems can and do occur.

Complicating the issue is another strain felt by some legislators: That a vote against his or her bill is a REJECTION of the sponsor. There is a tendency to carry November election struggles over into the legislature and to equate each battle on a bill as an election replay.

Another approach is to blame each defeat on someone else. The bill died because I'm a minority, or a Democrat, or considered a Republican extremist, or the committee chairman hates me. It's more likely your bill died because it was not well drafted, or was a new idea that needs time to become an accepted idea, or because you didn't do your homework.

Here are examples of the right and wrong way to handle the death of a bill.

Sen. Vince Massari would keep a small notebook listing the names of legislators who voted against one of his favorite bills. When that legislator had a bill in the Senate, Sen. Massari would vote against it, regardless of the merits. VENDETTA. It's the same philosophy prevalent today in Bosnia.

Other legislators might at first be intimidated by vendetta, but after a while it loses any impact. If you were in the senator's bad thoughts, you planned a positive Senate vote without his inclusion.

Rep. Stan Johnson was carrying the corporation bill in 1992 (the one that passed the following year). He was sideswiped in House Appropriations on a vote I helped engineer, and he knew I was partially responsible for the bill's death.

The following day I had a Senate bill up in House Judiciary as the House sponsor. I happened to glance over at Rep. Johnson and knew I was "fair game".

The bill was about the practice of religion by Native Americans who were in our penitentiaries, and passage of the bill would put the right to religious practice into law instead of leaving it to the discretion of wardens. Witnesses testified as to how religion had turned them from crime and recidivism into model citizens. At the conclusion of the testimony, it was Rep. Johnson who moved the bill to the House floor.

Guess which of the two legislators I had the most respect for.

Chances are that over a period of time, more of your bills are going to die than become law. If that wasn't so, our statute books would be twice their present size.

When your bill dies, "they" haven't killed your idea, just a piece of paper. Go over the arguments raised against your bill. If an argument has merit, let its maker know that you plan to resolve the issue before the bill is reintroduced. You may turn a negative vote into a positive.

Remember that today's opponent can be tomorrow's ally. Keep feelings about your bill "platonic" because "love" can distort perceptions and make you angry at someone who had legitimate concerns.

Here is one example. In 1979 I returned to the House after a brief hiatus (I lost the election in 1976). The very first bill before the House Judiciary was HB 1031 by Rep. Steve Durham "Concerning the suspension of drivers' licenses for speeding violations and providing an exception thereto."

After his presentation, I moved to postpone indefinitely, which motion passed. Steve was furious, went back to State Affairs where he was chairman and announced that no Democratic bills would pass his committee. (Shades of Sen. Massari!)

Later that day, temper had cooled, and when I passed his desk, Steve asked me to explain my reasons for killing his bill. I did, he accepted the argument, and from that day until now, we have been good friends. We might vote against and help kill each other's bills, or we might be allies in battles against others. But we respected each other more than we loved our bills.

When I retired from the legislature in 1992, Peter Blake wrote a column in the News and included a quote from Steve Durham that was the best compliment any legislator could hope for from a fellow legislator: "I think he was the most intellectually honest guy I ever served with."

Getting bills passed and into the statute books is always pleasant. But from one who was there from the mid-60's into the 90's, don't let "bill loving" ruin an otherwise enjoyable opportunity to serve your constituents.

And if the truth be known, nothing really bad would happen if some year the legislature didn't pass a single bill.

* * *

Postscript: Steve Durham and I entered a capitol elevator the other day while the Democrat and Republican House legislators were in caucus discussing the long bill.

Durham: "What's the difference between a cactus and a caucus?"

Kopel: "I don't know, what is the difference?"

Durham: "With a cactus, the pricks are on the outside."

 

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


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