Monday, March 20, 2006

Innovations report - how to lobby the legislature

The first presentation I went to (and woke up early for) on Sunday was on creating electronic portfolios; it was, in fact, the only talk scheduled for 9:15am. The room was filled to capacity, except for one seat: the presenter's. It turns out that none of the people who showed up had noticed a tiny line item in the schedule errata that said the talk had been rescheduled. Oh well.

The first real talk I went to was much more interesting; it was presented by Dr. Joseph Opatz, president of Central Lakes College in Minnesota. Prior to being college president, Dr. Opatz served for more than a decade in the state legislature in Minnesota, so he has an interesting perspective on academic politics. Dr. Opatz presented his talk ("Lobbying your legislature: Making your college's case at the capitol") as a practical guide on how community college administrators can (and should) interact with their state legislators so as to benefit their colleges. While he only has experience with Minnesota politics, his ideas almost certainly transfer to most other states.

Dr. Opatz started the talk with a "how much do you know about lobbying" quiz. I failed miserably:
  1. Name your state legislators, especially the ones that have your college in their district.
  2. What are some personal details about your legislators (e.g., family details, careers, personal interests)?
  3. What are the key features of your legislators' districts (especially the political leaning of the district)?
  4. Name the committees your legislators serve on.
  5. List the key policy interests of your legislators.
  6. Name all the legislators that are college alumni, or whose spouses (or children) are students or alumni.
  7. Name the legislators that sit on higher education committees (and, if possible, list how many of their district members attend your school).
The point of the quiz was not to illustrate how little the audience knew, but rather to illustrate that knowing the answers to all these questions can help you understand and interact with your elected representatives.

The primary suggestion Dr. Opatz had was to build personal relationships with the legislators that serve your district. Once you've built a relationship, your legislators will at least be familiar with you (and your institution) when bills or other items come up that need attention, and thus they'll be more likely to understand your specific needs and interests.

Obviously Dr. Opatz was not suggesting that college presidents and employees should become best friends with their representatives, but instead they should at least visit them and build professional relationships with them. Simple things like inviting your representatives to campus events, publicly thanking your representatives for their service when you see them attending college events, and visiting the capitol to meet them would all help. However, he also cautioned that you must remember that the legislator is probably exceptionally busy (he mentioned that the Minnesota legislature annually introduces about 3,000 bills), and thus you should never abuse the time you're given.

The presentation was packed with helpful information, and I'm sad to report that Dr. Opatz's slides are not available online. However, here's a short list of some of his suggestions that I was able to write down (keep in mind that this is my interpretation of his talk; Dr. Opatz has clearly not read this post):

  • If you do get invited to testify at a committee: talk only for your allotted time, talk with the committee staff beforehand to see what they want you to talk about, and know exactly what you want before you go in (as you may be asked to give feedback on wording changes on the spot).
  • If you do visit the capitol, have an "elevator speech" ready about your topic. In one minute you should be able to clearly state your problem, 1-3 facts backing up the problem (ideally with real life stories), and then propose your solution.
  • When referring to bills, don't use just the bill number; it's likely that nobody will know what you're talking about.
  • Remember to visit the capitol and talk to your legislator even when you don't have any important issues on the table. He reported that he regularly noticed which college presidents attended the higher education committee meetings. He also said that while most education lobbyists are treated as "just another lobbyist", personal visits from students, faculty, and administrators are often given more attention.
  • Find opportunities for informal socializing, like inviting the representative to lunch or dinner; he said this is especially worthwhile with legislators whose districts are far from the capitol.
  • If a committee or legislator tours you campus: plan their visit to the minute, make sure any local legislators are invited, don't overwhelm them with people, and make the visit fun and worthwhile.
  • Legislators often like to give guest lectures and teach courses, especially in areas they're personally interested in; this can be a great way to build relationships and get them more involved with your campus.
  • The "biggest mistake" most institutions make regarding bond funding is not having a plan "on the shelf" ready to submit; he recommended that all institutions, even if they have just gotten an item funded by a state bond, develop a plan for what their next highest priority is.
  • Most decision making at the legislative level is not decided by the local parties, but instead by the caucuses -- the groups of elected representatives that all share a similar party; caucus politics often differ from those of the caucus's party. Your representative will have to justify your case to their caucus, not their party, so learn about the caucus if you can.
  • Don't get involved (as an institution) in campaigns or candidate endorsements, primarily because it's possible the opposing candidate will win.
  • Avoid the temptation to mail or e-mail documents and items; they will most likely be thrown away or deleted (especially if they look like a mass communication). If possible, personally deliver items or call to talk about the issue.

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