Jerry Kopel

1/8 & 15/1999

More than one of every four members of the 1999 legislature has never served a legislative day. In this two-part series devoted to new legislators, I'll provide some rules to follow that may make your transition from public citizen to legislator a little easier.

1.Legislators are close.

You are together for four months. You will probably see each other more than you see your families in those four months. If you have ever served in the military, it is like the closeness that happens in basic training.

You aren't just together during the day. For most of you there are events almost every night, usually financed by a group of lobbyists. They provide you with food and drink. In turn you talk with constituents who employ that lobbyist. There may be possible financial sources present for the next campaign.

Closeness doesn't mean friendship, although lasting friendships are frequent. And once in a while there is a marriage. Closeness means being unable to hide a true personality or lack of actual ability behind a facade.

For better or worse, halfway through a legislator's first year, he or she is pegged at a certain level, and it may take years before original perceptions are discarded.

That makes it important for new legislators to carefully prepare for their first debate or extended remarks at the podium. Sometime during the first two weeks, on a subject being debated that you know something about, get out of your seat and go to the podium.

It's like jumping into the water. Once you are in, the water is fine. It is important to be involved early, but it is also necessary to do well.

The legislature has often been compared, accurately, to a small town. Everyone knows everyone else's business at work or at play in this close environment. And if you don't know the latest, someone is sure to voluntarily tell you. If you have a sexual relationship with another legislator or working staff, the rest of the General Assembly will know about it within a week.

Gossip at the legislature is a source of information and jokes.

Weaknesses are exaggerated through jokes in a mean fashion. And if you don't want to read about your escapade in the morning papers, then don't do it.

Legislative friendships do affect bills, especially when it's 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.

Legislative friendships are like other friendships. Someone has to take the first step. Don't limit making friends to your political party. Make friends on both sides of the aisle. It makes a good impression on a member of the minority party when a member of the majority party asks him or her to lunch.

Take the time to review the biographies and the likes and dislikes of other legislators that were printed in the newspapers prior to the November election. It will make those first connections, especially with someone in the other party, much smoother if you know something about them and recognize the face without having to read the badge.

New legislators will notice one group idiosyncrasy in the House which may or may not be based on closeness. Unlike the Senate, full attendance by members at House committee hearings is normal. During the first few meetings of a House 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 February, you will find it is still accurate in May.

If you take someone else's seat after seating appears solidified, you may make an enemy.

2. Do your homework.

One way to gain respect is to read and understand a bill that is before you on the House or Senate floor or in committee. That may mean sacrificing a feast by lobbyists in order to review tomorrow's work. If you can afford it, buy a second set of the statutes from Bradford Robinson for $220 and keep the set at home or in your rented apartment.

Usually, the only part of a law in a bill you are considering is the part being amended. So you don't know how that amendment affects other parts of the statute unless you look at the entire statute.

There are legislators, especially new ones, who will decide how to vote on an amendment or a bill by how one of the legislators who has been in office for a few years votes on the measure. That is really dumb, especially when you later discover that legislator was watching someone else's vote before deciding. In the next campaign, you may have to justify your vote and the best way to do that is to know what you are voting for and why.

3. In the House you no longer have a safety net.

You are entering a legislature that has gone through the first phase of term limits. It has had a much greater impact on the House than on the Senate. The impact I'm referring to is the loss of experience.

When I entered the legislature in 1965, more than half of the House had never served one day in the legislature. But we had experienced legislators to guide the new members with historical perspective and with a decade or more of experience.

Is there any way to overcome that loss of experience? I know that both parties try to assign you an experienced legislator to help you learn the ropes. And for day to day activities that is sufficient. But after six years of service, a legislator is equal to a resident at a hospital. He or she knows something, but may not be aware of what they don't know. Try to find a former legislator who has served 12 years or more as an advisor.

To be continued.

Jerry Kopel writes a column for the Statesman based on 22 years past experience as a state legislator.

Here are additional rules for new legislators to supplement those provided in last week's Statesman.

4. Sponsor bills that have no fiscal impact.

If you feel it's important to get bills passed that carry your name as chief sponsor, then introduce bills that have no fiscal impact. That way, your bill skips the Appropriations Committee where it may otherwise be held for a long time while the committee decides which measures could fit into the budget.

Bills that have no fiscal impact can be just as important as ones that do have a fiscal impact. And they are the kinds of bills that give members of the minority party a better chance of success.

Here are a few from the 1998 session that I found in the first few pages of the final status sheet: Rep. Carl Miller's bill reforming prisoner litigation, Rep. Ron Tupa's bill allowing minor political parties access to the ballot, Rep. Gloria Leyba's bill for tobacco free schools, and Rep. Ken Gordon's bill completely revising the state's child custody laws.

Notice they are all by members of the minority party. And Gordon, Leyba, Tupa, and Miller all did the same thing. What was that? They all chose a member of the majority party in the Senate as their co-sponsor.

And there are also good government bills which repeal obsolete laws or laws declared unconstitutional by the courts. When you do these, it reduces the size of the statute books. The Independence Institute in 1997 printed a list of these which is available to you at your request.

There are also statutes that need to be broken up into smaller sections. That may not sound important, but it is impossible, for example, to read or understand Colorado Revised Statutes section 6-1-105, which is one section of a larger law. CRS 6-1-105 is nine pages long.

5. Don't commit early and don't commit often.

As a legislator, you will be confronted by about 600 bills. Two groups are going to seek your commitment and your co-sponsorship:

Fellow legislators and lobbyists. And other legislators and lobbyists will ask you to commit against the same bill.

Unless you are an expert on the subject of the bill, there is no way you will understand the subtle nuances that become exposed during committee hearings.

If you commit early to support a bill, chances are you will have to go to a particular lobbyist or legislator and confess to having changed your position. Lobbyists have become used to this happening. Unlike the 1970s and 1980s, commitments in the 1990s are made and broken daily and most seasoned lobbyists know their head counts are soft. So what they do is bother you again and again, just as they would if you had made no commitment.

At a restaurant, I overheard two lobbyists discussing a legislator. The first lobbyist remarked "As to supporting the bill, he said `I think I can'". The second lobbyist responded: "That's like saying `I think I almost got laid last night.'"

6. Wait to co-sponsor a bill until it passes third reading.

Even if you make a commitment in favor of a bill, if you put your name on a bill and it is changed considerably in committee or on second reading, it may now be a bill you cannot stand. You cannot get your name off the bill until after it passes third reading. And if you are absent when it passes third reading, your name stays on the bill when it goes to the governor, unless the bill comes back to your house with amendments made in the other house.

In the meantime, you may be getting lots of calls and letters from constituents asking how you could be so stupid as to be co-sponsor of that bill. So it is a lot easier to wait until after third reading and if you want to, you can have your name added as a co-sponsor.

7. Learn the House and Senate rules.

There is more to the rule book than the daily routine. You will be amazed to discover how many motions you never knew existed and that are seldom used. On a personal basis, I have killed bills by using up all possible motions, having all the motions defeated, and leaving one bill, as the Denver Rocky Mountain News reported, "like a dead horse in a bathtub".

8. So your bill is dead? Here is what you do to resurrect it.

Even with the single subject rule in effect, it is possible for you to attach your dead bill to another legislator's live bill. First, your bill should be a bill that died in committee, not on the floor of your house. Reason: Why would it pass the second time if it didn't pass the first time?

Second, it is better, but not necessary, to use a bill that already passed the other house. That reduces the number of times you need to defend the addition. Third, you must have the support of the original sponsor of the bill.

Fourth, it must be attached to a bill that has such a broad title that it would be extremely illogical for anyone to claim it is beyond the scope of the title. A title such as "A Bill Concerning Criminal Laws" is always the best.

Fifth, there should be some reason why the original sponsor would allow your bill to be added: Either friendship, or the original bill is controversial and additional allies are needed, or you have sold the original sponsor on the merits of the bill. Sixth, after all the preliminary work has been done, you work the legislature just as you would have on your original bill.

If you follow these eight rules, the next two years can be a lot smoother for you.

Jerry Kopel writes a column for the Statesman based on 22 years past experience as a state legislator.

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