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Lobbying bills on the floors of the Legislature

The chamber of the state Senate in Sacramento. (Photo: Felix Lipov, via Shutterstock)

Editor’s Note: This is second of two parts on the logistics of lobbying the California Legislature, a sort of instructional how-to for students and potential lobbyists. Part 1 targeted the committees. This story examines lobbying on the floors of the Legislature.

In simplistic terms, lobbying the state Senate and Assembly floors is similar to lobbying legislative committees, except that the scale is much larger.

For example, some committees have as few five members (elected officials), while others have over 20 members. As you would assume, most committees in the 40-member Senate have fewer members sitting on them than do their counterparts in the 80-member Assembly.

In contrast, the 40 senators and 80 Assembly members typically are all present when they convene on their respective floors. Many of the members on the floors will not know as much about particular subjects because they do not sit on all of the policy committees.

One of the first issues to address when a bill is headed to the floor is to identify the likely key players or essential votes.

On the floors, members are voting on all bills currently in that house rather than just the bills that were heard in their committee(s). To make matters more difficult, the timeline is usually compressed, which means they have more bills to consider in a shorter period of time than when the committees meet to hear and vote on legislative measures.

Another factor to consider is that higher vote threshold requirements may be in effect on the floors. For example, a tax-increase bill requires a two-thirds majority vote on the floors, but a simple majority vote in a committee.

One of the first issues to address when a bill is headed to the floor is to identify the likely key players or essential votes and then discuss the bill with those members and their staff.

For example, a controversial bill may involve the committee chair, house leadership and, perhaps, other key legislators. You will need to provide a “heads up” to these key players that the bill is headed to the floor because no one likes a surprise in the legislative process.

This is particularly important for bills that may present a difficult choice, as your warning will give them invaluable time to consider the matter.

If you are sponsoring a bill, remember that your bill’s author and staff  have to balance your bill and their other measures as well as dealing with the usual crush of legislative business. As part of this initial round of visits, you may need to visit many offices during a short period of time in order to let as many legislative members as possible and their staffs know about the bill and to answer any questions.

While many legislators will say that they have not taken a position on the measure, they always appreciate the early education and you may get a good sense of the member’s vote, or at least their initial thoughts on the bill. This will assist you in determining which legislators need follow-up visits, as well as those who are sympathetic to the other side’s arguments, or who might request an amendment to the bill.

Some members or their staff will be able to tell you immediately whether they will vote for or against the bill. This is obviously the most helpful type of meeting.

What should you bring to these lobbying visits for measures on the floor? The same documents you brought to your committee lobbying visits. Bring a copy of the bill text, your letter, a fact sheet, any press coverage, studies, reports, etc. You should also have the published votes for the bill in policy and/or fiscal committees, as legislators will often ask about how their colleagues in the respective committee voted to determine the political winds.

It is often helpful to bring the committee analysis as well, in order to address arguments, concerns or amendments that were covered in the policy and/or fiscal committee analyses.

Finally, do not forget to bring a vote card to make notes regarding each legislator’s likely position after your lobby visits. Not only do you need to keep track of their likely votes, but this also allows you to track which members or staffs you visited and whether you need to conduct any follow-up with that office. Follow-up may include providing additional documentation or providing an answer to a question that you did not have the answer for at your initial meeting.

Some members or their staff will be able to tell you immediately whether they will vote for or against the bill. This is obviously the most helpful type of meeting.

However, even if an answer is not forthcoming at the first meeting, you should be able to ascertain in which direction the legislator is headed and whether he or she is sympathetic to your arguments or those of your opponent. Also, a member may suggest an amendment to the measure in order to secure his or her vote on the floor.

If a legislator has already voted on your measure in committee, it is unlikely that he or she will change position on the floor.

Be sure to listen intently to the feedback you are provided. Make sure that you are not assuming a statement clearly indicates the likely vote of the member.

Worse yet, do not let yourself hear what you want to hear. If concerns are expressed, understand the basis and determine whether a change in the measure’s language can be made or whether there is a philosophical concern that cannot be addressed through an amendment to the bill.

Moreover, if you are hearing the same concern(s) being expressed in offices that you visit, consider how to respond. For example, there may be a misunderstanding of the bill’s provision or intent; or the other side may be doing an effective job in raising concerns with the bill, in which case you may have to consider making changes (i.e., amendments) to the bill to address these concerns. You may also change your lobbying pitch to address any recurring points of concern that Members or staff express.

If a legislator has already voted on your measure in committee, it is unlikely that he or she will change position on the floor. Or, if the member cast a vote on a similar measure in past years, be sure to know that fact and provide it to the office.

Take time during your lobbying visits to review your vote count and reevaluate your list of targeted members.

In order to get a member to change his or her vote on the floor, there will have to be a very good rationale for doing so. For example, did the bill language change substantively? Is there new information or a significant change in circumstance to warrant the legislator to revisit that prior vote?

On a side note, the policy committee consultant in most cases prepares the floor analysis that legislators and their staff will review when the measure reaches the floor for final consideration.

This means that you should be sure to keep the committee consultants apprised of any proposed floor amendments or changes in position for those who support or oppose the measure even after the bill leaves their committee. They will need to reflect these changes in their floor analyses.

Take time during your lobbying visits to review your vote count and reevaluate your list of targeted members for further lobbying. Again, your initial visits should be to educate and make a preliminary list of firm “aye” votes, firm “no” votes and the members who are undecided regarding how they will vote on the measure.

Based upon this review and evaluation, you should also identify coalition partners or others who may be helpful to your lobbying efforts.

For example, you might want to have a particular group or constituent weigh in with the member on your behalf. You should also have a clear idea of what message(s) help mobilize your supporters and which ones do not. This will be an ongoing, iterative process throughout your floor lobbying efforts.

How can you convince the other side of your position? And how can you move those members who are undecided into your vote column? The mechanics are the same for committee and floor lobbying: Speak with members and their staff and try to persuade them of your point of view. As members and staff have limited time, make your “pitch” (or key message points) concise, but thorough.

Remember that members are politicians and therefore care about how votes will be viewed by constituents…

In these short lobbying pitches, you should be able to express in a few sentences the policy, fiscal and political elements of the bill. Regarding the policy element, address why this legislation is needed and the main arguments in favor of doing so. Address the main arguments posed by the other side. An example could be: 

“Last year, a similar piece of legislation was passed to fund local school districts, but it was missing a key provision, so the funding was never distributed – it just sat in an account and was not spent.  This bill simply corrects that mistake so previously appropriated moneys can be spent.”

Regarding the fiscal element, be sure to explain where the money comes from and where it is being spent. Regarding the political element, remember that members are politicians and therefore care about how votes will be viewed by constituents, interest groups, the media, and others. In this case, legislators may pose the question to themselves, “How will this vote impact me?” Their concerns may focus on their district, on particular groups, or on their fellow legislators.

Because of this reality, in some instances, you will need to bring along others to assist in your lobbying efforts. For example, should you ask other legislators to weigh-in with a colleague? Are particular interest groups persuasive with this member? Or is there a constituent or local group that is particularly friendly with this legislator?

It is a professional courtesy to hear from the other side and consider their arguments and their proposed changes.

In working with coalitions, it is valuable to keep them “in the loop” and regularly updated regarding any developments related to the legislation.

For example, are amendments being made to the bill that will change a group’s position on the bill? You should also encourage the active involvement of your coalition partners by giving them specific targets to lobby.

A general request to “get out there and talk to legislators” is not really helpful to your coalition members (nor to you), because most will not respond to such a broad request. Instead, focus your colleagues to lobby only specific legislators and you will likely get better results.

Regarding potential amendments to address concerns of the other side, it is a best practice to discuss proposed amendments, even if your client is unlikely to accept them. First, it is a professional courtesy to hear from the other side and consider their arguments and their proposed changes to your measure.

You also do not want to defend a claim that you refused to talk with the opposition or even entertain their proposed amendments. It harms your credibility with members, staff and other lobbyists. Even taking some amendments, but not all, may increase your chances of success and reduce the level of opposition to your measure.

If you commit to take amendments in the second house, be sure that you fulfill that commitment.

Keep in mind if you are negotiating floor amendments that the California Constitution requires a bill to be in print for a minimum of 72 hours before it can have its “final vote.”

As such, amending on the floor has a strict time limit. This may force resolution of potential amendments, or it may foreclose any further amendments to your measure until a subsequent year.Of course, negotiating amendments also requires active involvement of the bill’s author and staff, as well as relevant policy, fiscal and leadership staff.

As a result, you should begin negotiations well in advance of any floor vote. If the bill is in the first house, you can always continue negotiations over the bill language in the second house. If you commit to take amendments in the second house, be sure that you fulfill that commitment. If you are in the second house, you will need to be clear on amendment deadlines and other logistical issues.

Finally, as the floor vote nears, your author and staff will want to review your vote card. This is an opportunity for you to ask the bill’s author to speak with his or her colleagues that you have identified as needing some additional lobbying. With controversial bills, legislative leaders are likely to insist on reviewing a bill’s vote card before allowing the measure to be brought up on the floor. At that point, the bill is ready for debate and a vote on the floor of the California Legislature.

Editor’s Note: Robert Moutrie, Laura Curtis and Chris Micheli are attorneys and lobbyists in Sacramento. They can be reached at laura.curtis8@gmail.comrobert.moutrie@calchamber.com, and cmicheli@apreamicheli.com.

 


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