Lanctot went into the legislative session cold, knowing no one and nothing about the process. "It was like starting school for the first time all over again," says Lanctot, now LWF's executive director. "You're at this huge building and you're trying to figure out who the hell all these people are. It can be quite overwhelming. But I think everyone has the same first experience when they try to get involved with the Legislature on that level."
So it isn't surprising to find that only 8 percent of respondents in a Hart-Teeter poll commissioned by the Council for Excellence in Government, a public-sector advocacy group, felt "very connected" to their respective legislatures. An overwhelming 43 percent also agreed that "people like me cannot really have much effect on government." In regard to the latter, respondents blamed political agendas, a dilution of the public voice due to special interests and a lack of motivation. The "America Unplugged" poll reveals a gap between the government and its people, which could partly be cured with a healthy dose of institutional knowledge on how to navigate the political process and encouragement from others who have made an impact.
The ongoing regular session of the Legislature, which ends June 28, is a fitting time for the average resident to jump off the bench and make a splash by contacting lawmakers in person, building alliances with dealmakers and offering the media a human interest angle. Just find an issue or piece of legislation you feel passionate about and, skipping the traditional district phone call or e-mail, drive into Baton Rouge and get involved. After all, the system was supposedly designed with residents in mind. For starters, get to know the Legislature's Web site, found at www.legis.state.la.us. Everything you need to know about the session is on there: committee schedules, background on lawmakers, legislation, live broadcasts and much more.
From a political perspective, you're going to need what everyone else wants: access to legislators. You'll find ample opportunity inside and outside of the Legislature's committee rooms, which are located down two long hallways that connect on the ground floor and carry into the Capitol basement. Once you have targeted lawmakers ' to discuss their legislation, lobby them on another bill, get their stance on a particular topic or chime in with your two cents ' find out what committees they serve on through the Legislature's Web site and attend those weekly meetings. You might have to wait a while until the lawmaker shows up or becomes free, but face time can have more impact than snail mail or phone messages.
You can also track the bills being authored by the lawmaker, and then attend those related committee hearings. But possibly the most consistent way to track down legislators is on the first floor, adjacent to the main entrance. "The best way to catch these folks is to talk to them while they are on the [House or Senate] floor," Lanctot says. "It's often hard to catch people in committee, but you can fill out a card with the sergeants-at-arms outside both chambers, and the lawmakers will likely come out to talk to you there. It's really a hit-or-miss thing, but the more you try, the more you learn."
If you want to explore other options, there's another tier of influence to tap with staff personnel and lobbyists. That was the first lesson gleaned by Eric Sunstrom, president of the Chesapeake Group, when he started lobbying in 1999. Staffers are often responsible for drafting and scheduling legislation, as are lobbyists, and both can offer up strong alliances to help drive your point home. In many ways, they're the gatekeepers. "I met one staffer years ago that I still use like a legislative encyclopedia," Sunstrom says. "You meet all these people during session, but you don't usually find out how helpful they can be until later."
Sunstrom also recommends getting a copy of the proponent/opponent cards filled out by lobbyists, concerned residents, special interests and others during committee hearings. They can be obtained from the committee secretary ' usually the person stationed front and center in the room ' and offer an inside look into where the political bones are buried. The cards outline coalitions waiting to happen for your cause, as well as list enemies to stay clear of.
Members of the media covering the ongoing session are also ripe for the picking. This year, you'll be able to identify the pack by their gold or orange press badges. Rather than introducing yourself cold, however, you might want to try testifying on your issue or bill of interest during a related committee debate, says Barry Erwin, CEO of the think-tank Council for a Better Louisiana. "The average person can show up at the State Capitol for a committee meeting, fill out a card and be asked for testimony," says Erwin, a former political reporter. "It's probably the easiest way to make an impact on an issue through the media. Talk about how the issue impacts you personally. Reporters are always looking for a human interest angle on these policy stories."
That was the case for Women of the Storm, a non-political alliance of Louisiana women who have successfully lobbied Congress on recovery issues. Not only did they humanize the devastation from Katrina and Rita, they also discovered there is strength in numbers when seeking influence with decision-makers, so team up, says founder Anne Milling of New Orleans. "Our togetherness made a clear statement," she says. "From the very first trip we made, with 140 women carrying their blue umbrellas, we knew what we wanted. It sent a message that these people are serious."
While grassroots activities can obviously be effective when lobbying some lawmakers, it's always important to remember that diplomacy dictates you keep a cool demeanor and never lash out, Lanctot says ' no matter how idiotic, pompous or disrespectful an elected official seems. In short, play nice and save your opinion for the voting booth. "Just don't argue with a lawmaker in public," he says. "I've seen aggressive people do it, and it never works out. Although the legislators work for us, they are decision-makers on the issues you ultimately care about. They'll have the final word in that area."
If personal interactions with lawmakers leave you cold, here are the traditional ways of reaching out to lawmakers and keeping tabs on them:
Post Office Box 94183
Baton Rouge, LA 70804
Post Office Box 94062
Baton Rouge, LA 70804
Post Office Box 94004
Baton Rouge, LA 70804
The Legislature's Web site:
This is your one-stop shop for the ongoing regular session. Committee schedules, bill information, background on legislators and more can be found on the site. There's even accessibility for the disabled and links to boards and commissions. Most important, you can watch and listen to legislative proceedings live through the site.
Local and state agents Thursday night raided The Keg, the popular college bar located in the area known as The Strip, leading to the (at least) temporary closure of the venue.
Here's your daily look at late-breaking national and international news, upcoming events and the stories that will be talked about Friday, April 18, 2014:
Friday's Blogs from the Bog!
Time and time again, the Lafayette Parish School Board shows an overwhelming tendency toward idiocy, but Wednesday night’s contentious discussion over Northside High School’s teen mother program tops the list of dumb discussions.
“The accomplishment of this goal within the next ten years is not only critical for the region to effectively compete with other regions for residents and businesses, but also to provide an amenity for everyone in Acadiana to enjoy.”
Education Superintendent John White says a continued push to try to keep Louisiana from using tests associated with the Common Core education standards are creating "a state of chaos" for public school teachers.
Gov. Bobby Jindal's plan to use $210 million in surplus and one-time money to help balance next year's budget received the backing Thursday of the State Bond Commission, support that was needed for the maneuver to work.
State wildlife and fisheries agents have arrested a 39-year-old man accused of stealing crawfish.
An East Feliciana Parish lawmaker has jettisoned his proposal to make it harder for a condemned prisoner to appeal a death sentence.
Senators advanced a proposal Wednesday that would let the governor remove New Orleans-area levee board members for violating what he considers to be public policy, despite concerns it would introduce political meddling into state flood protection.
The Lafayette City-Parish Council on Tuesday will vote on a resolution that if approved would clear the way for a December ballot proposition asking voters to approve a 1-cent sales tax parishwide to help fund the construction of a new terminal at Lafayette Regional Airport.
Just days before the fourth anniversary of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster and oil spill, the Coast Guard has moved cleanup of Louisiana's coast to a new phase, allowing BP to end its "active" efforts in the area.
Legislators still must leave their guns at the door of the Louisiana Capitol.
Sen. Fred Mills may have an "R" behind his name, but his actions in the Louisiana Legislature transcend the established boundaries of his party.
The Louisiana House overwhelmingly rejected a repeal of the state's unconstitutional anti-sodomy law Tuesday.
The Louisiana Senate sided with Gov. Bobby Jindal and the oil industry Tuesday, agreeing to void a lawsuit that a south Louisiana flood board filed against more than 90 oil and gas companies for coastal damage.
Acadian rep notifies would-be supporters that an April 25 fundraiser for the embattled U.S. rep won’t go on as planned.
While it isn’t all too unusual for public bodies to have hired security present during meetings, the LPSB’s push to do so is arguably a response to the antics of one board member.
“I’m running. Why would I be raising all this money? Just to have to return it to people?”
With incumbent U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu watching from afar, and with a united Democratic Party in her corner, the fight to get the GOP officially behind Congressman Bill Cassidy is gaining just as much momentum as it is hushed controversy.
15th Judicial District Judge Durwood Conque has announced that he will not seek re-election after 27 years on the bench.
The controversial standardized tests are set to be used in third-grade through eighth-grade public school classrooms next year.
The Louisiana Senate has agreed to prohibit unmanned aircraft from flying over chemical plants, water treatment systems, telecommunications networks and other items considered "critical infrastructure" in Louisiana.
It didn’t take long for KATC TV 3 to jump all over the news of a dead body found in Girard Park, but in its rush to produce headlines, the local TV station got sloppy.
An unholy trinity of civil-society upheavalers whose first names are not Conner, Tanner or Logan are facing charges in Eunice.