Jerry Kopel

Unwritten Rules for New Legislators

January 20, 2007

By Jerry Kopel  

There are 30 new faces in the legislature including  recent replacements for Sen. Jim Dyer (R)  and Rep. Mark Cloer (R). For each freshman group over the past 14 years, I have set out "unwritten rules" to help them through the early process.
When some raise their hands to take the oath of office, they might wonder how they will be able to cope with the magnitude of the work. Don't worry. In about three weeks, you will wonder how the "veterans" managed to stay in office as long as they have.
This is personality time. Legislators are forced to be close during floor work and even closer during committee work. If any of you served in the military, it is similar to "basic training" and your first barracks. You can't disguise personality in such close quarters.
The first bills you introduce, your first appearance in front of the body will establish a major perception that might be difficult to overcome during the rest of the session. In other words, you can be "pegged" for good or bad.
Rule No. 1: Don't go to the front to speak and merely state "I'm going to vote for this bill." Go to the front to speak for the first time when you have studied the bill being debated, can explain its merits and defects, and can produce some suggestions that the other legislators might find useful.
Rule No. 2: For your early bills (if not too controversial) you can have more success with a bill labeled "NFI" (no fiscal impact). That doesn't make your bill less important. It just means your bill doesn't have to go through Appropriations Committee and appear later in the session.
My favorite "no fiscal impact" bill was a successful one in 1976 by me and then-State Sen. Hank Brown. It permitted consumers to purchase equivalent drugs under the drug's generic name unless the doctor ordered otherwise. It had major lobbyist opposition, but no fiscal impact on state or local government.
Rule No. 3: Do your homework. There is nothing more frustrating for those legislators who have studied the measures to be heard in committee or on the floor than the blank look on the faces of legislators who haven't the vaguest idea of what is being discussed. You don't have to lug the bills home. They will be on your laptop.
Rule No. 4: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. This is something I didn't do well. If you have an amendment to offer to a bill, let the sponsor know what it is. He or she may have an answer you were not aware of. You will likely get the same courtesy in return. That is different from interrogation in committee or at the mike when you oppose a bill. 
Rule No. 5: Try to make yourself an expert in one or two areas in which you feel comfortable. Don't be afraid to study the history of the subject in House and Senate Journals or in documents you can obtain from Legislative Council. You can assign your assistant the job of listening to debate on the issue from prior years and making a copy at state archives you can listen to later. This is especially important since term limits have removed your living sources from the legislature.
You know you have made your mark as an expert when other legislators sit or stand on request for a count on second reading or vote "yes" or "no" electronically following your comments. This marks you as a leader and not a follower. Lobbyists will note that and go to you for advice or assistance on particular bills.
Rule No. 6: "If you don't want to read about it in the newspapers tomorrow morning , then don't do it."
That was the advice to me from Chuck Green, then of the Denver Post, who covered the legislature. The small-town atmosphere at the Legislature means a steady round of gossip. If you haven't heard the latest, someone is sure to voluntarily tell you. If you are the subject of the gossip, someone is sure to tell your spouse.
Gossip at the Legislature is a source of information and jokes. Weaknesses are exaggerated through jokes in a mean fashion. One lobbyist always referred to a certain legislator "as having the intelligence of a blade of grass."
Rule No. 7: Don't usurp someone else's seat in the House or Senate Committee. During the first few meetings of a committee, you will find legislators trying out different seats. But soon a certain seat seems to belong to one legislator. If you diagram a seating arrangement in the middle of February, you will often find it is still accurate in May.
Rule No. 8: Learn about your senior compatriots. Read their biographies in past legislative directories, since a new one won't be available right at the beginning of the session. Have your assistant find biographical materials on the other new members.
Rule No. 9: Don't be afraid to cross the aisle to the other side to shake hands and make small talk. After all, you DID walk door to door to successfully get here. Legislative friendships are like other friendships. Someone has to take the first step. If you are going to lunch, do it often with someone from the other party.
When legislative friendships occur, do they affect bills? Of course they do, especially when it is a close call on a non-partisan issue. This is something every astute lobbyist knows when he or she decides whom to ask to carry a bill.
Serving in the legislature is your chance to make a difference for the residents of Colorado. Do it well and you will never forget the experience.
(Jerry Kopel , an award winning columnist, served 22 years in the Colorado House.) 

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