by Joseph H. Quick, WSPRA Board Member, WASB Government Relations Specialist
When most bills are debated in the Legislature, it is typical for a lawmaker to stand before his or her colleagues to tell a story about how a constituent might be affected by the legislative proposal before the body. Legislators tell stories-you should, too.
Let legislators know how a property tax “freeze” would adversely affect your schools. Don’t talk merely in terms of dollar amount cuts, but put a human face on what those cuts will mean?larger class sizes, fewer academic and extracurricular opportunities for students, reduced teaching staff that translates into fewer opportunities for one-on-one tutoring to help struggling students.
There are just a few important guidelines to follow when communicating with lawmakers.
- Be specific and pointed in your comments to legislators. Focus on a handful of issues-yes, all programs are important, but your district has set priorities and it’s best to narrow your request list to those issues most essential for your schools.
- Keep written information concise. Legislators are inundated by material from advocates for a wide array of state government-funded programs. If you’re writing a letter or e-mail note, again, tailor your concerns to select issues?and don’t send a form letter to which you just sign your name; form letters have minimal influence.
- You don’t have to be a lobbyist to influence your legislators; in fact, sometimes parents’ heartfelt comments can have dramatic impact.Always ask if they support your position, and with written communication, indicate you look forward to their response.
- Use the phone. If you can’t meet personally, call them at home on Friday or Monday, when they are usually in their legislative district. Express your concerns and ask them if they will support the issue important to you.
- Be respectful. You wouldn’t want someone shouting at you if they disagreed with you, so don’t do it in your communication to legislators. Let them know you’re following what they do and will talk to people in your community about the importance of the issues.
- Avoid ultimatums and threats. You won’t get far with, “If you don’t support (your issue), I’ll never vote for you again.” This type of attitude closes off all hope of future communication. The next issue you’re advocating for might be something your legislator can be swayed on-with your input.
- Consider organizing a meeting for your legislators to visit a school. Showcase some of your stellar programs and then invite the legislators to sit down and discuss local budget/program issues with parents, students, educators, school board members and community members active in your schools. Invite your local media to report on the meeting. Stories from parents, students and local business people are more apt to stick with a legislator than budget numbers?but both are important. Your goal should be to have regularly scheduled meetings with your legislators to talk about important school issues.
- Talking to staff is not a brush-off. Sen. Luther Olsen (R-Ripon) told WSPRA members at the fall conference a few years ago that you should not to be put off if you have to talk to legislative staff and can’t immediately connect with the legislator. “You aren’t getting blown off,” Olsen said. “They are an extension of us.” Politics is about relationships and in an ideal world your end-goal should be for your legislator to call you unsolicited for your input on education issues. This happens with persistence, a willingness to listen to the legislator’s perspective and oftentimes being willing to disagree.
- Know your legislators. Finally, you have to know who your legislators are to connect with them. If you don’t know, use the Internet (http://waml.legis.state.wi.us/), or call the Legislative Hotline (1-800-362-9472) and you can be patched directly to your legislators’ offices.