Jerry Kopel

"Lack of courtesy and lack of commitment." That's how a dozen long-time lobbyists, six Republicans and six Democrats, described new legislators and new lobbyists. I questioned the dozen, promising anonymity about their perceptions of new men and women at the capitol. They consistently gave the same response. Some were outraged. Others were just sad.

All provided exceptions, speaking in glowing terms about a few new legislators who study bills and spend time learning the process. And they liked new lobbyists who were part of the "family", sons and daughters of long-time lobbyists now learning the trade at mom or dad's side.

"Lack of courtesy?" It's an unwritten rule at the legislature that when one lobbyist is speaking to a legislator, other lobbyists do NOT interrupt and begin their own conversation. That makes sense. There is only limited time to make a case for or against a bill. If you want other lobbyists to respect your time with a legislator, you must show them the same courtesy.

"Lack of commitment?" Once upon a time, all you needed was a handshake to either have a lobbyist agree to help you, or to have a legislator promise to vote for or against a bill. Today? Forget it.

In a Bill Clintonish way, new legislators and lobbyists renege on promises made without ever letting the promisee know in advance. The result may not actually be too bad: Predictions are worthless and lobbyists now have to wait until votes are actually cast.

Part of the problem is the sheer number of lobbyists standing near entrances to the House and Senate chambers. If you have ever toured a third-world country, you know what it's like to walk through a bazaar, hands plucking at your sleeves, inviting you into the market stall or holding watches, rings and necklaces in front of your face.

Now imagine leaving the House or Senate chambers and trying to avoid lobbyists clamoring for your attention. Saying "ok" or "fine" may simply be an attempt to move on and not a real commitment. John Irwin, a three-term Republican representative had a simple way of dealing with lobbyists. He wouldn't talk to them. That drove them crazy. My approach in the House was to leave by a unguarded side door.

Lobbyists I interviewed described the large majority of new legislators as "shallow", lacking knowledge or desire to learn. One lobbyist called them "one-termers" who ran because of a particular issue. He predicted many won't run for a second term.

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Gov. Bill Owens recently vetoed HB 1209, a bill allowing liquor stores to offer customers free samples on special liquor-tasting days. One Denver journalist pondered in print whether Owens had been influenced by the state's beer barons. I found the suggestion hilarious, remembering that State Rep. Owens had cost them millions of dollars in profits.

In 1986, Owens reintroduced his 1985 bill to raise the beer drinking age from 18 to 21, effectively wiping out sales of 3.2 beer to that age group. The House still had a Rules Committee to schedule bills passed by regular committees. Rules Committee did what House Speaker Bev Bledsoe wanted done.

Imagine Rules Committee as a pinball machine, with Owens bill as a steel ball. The bill passed State Affairs, which sent it to Finance, which passed it to Rules, which sent it to Appropriations, which passed it back to Rules, which deadlocked on sending the bill to the House for a vote. Instead, Rules sent it again to State Affairs which had earlier voted unanimously for the measure. This time the committee voted "tilt".

Owens took the defeat calmly, never blasting away at his fellow Republicans. In 1987, he got the bill passed.

In 1991, Owens was one of 14 senators to vote against a House bill giving franchised beer distributors the right to have the franchise survive forever within their family. Gov. Romer vetoed the enacted bill.

Jerry Kopel served 22 years in the Colorado House of Representatives.

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Copyright 2015 Jerry Kopel & David Kopel