May 2, 2007 12:00
A beginner's guide to making your voice heard during the upcoming legislative session.
Randy Lanctot had only been a resident of Baton Rouge for four years when he first visited the State Capitol to get lawmakers interested in the agenda of the Louisiana Wildlife Federation. That was back in 1980, when the first term of former Gov. Edwin Edwards ' now in federal prison for racketeering ' was coming to a close, and radical changes to the state Constitution made for emotional, political theater. Lanctot, then a 30-year-old transplant from Illinois who knew more about Honest Abe than the Kingfish, had spent his preceding years traveling the country by motorcycle, finishing his master's degree and working on offshore rigs.

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."

Making Contact

If personal interactions with lawmakers leave you cold, here are the traditional ways of reaching out to lawmakers and keeping tabs on them:

Louisiana Senate
Post Office Box 94183
Baton Rouge, LA 70804
(225) 342-2040

Louisiana House
Post Office Box 94062
Baton Rouge, LA 70804
(225) 342-6945

Governor's Office
Post Office Box 94004
Baton Rouge, LA 70804
(866) 366-1121

The Legislature's Web site:

www.legis.state.la.us

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.