Thursday, April 16, 2009

Little Legislative Lessons Learned

I did show at the State House hearing that included my tiny bicycle bill. I was wrong that it was probably going to waste my time. This bill (House 2190) may go nowhere, but I ended up with some insights for my next passion and the one after that.

You Too

A big take-away is that our commonwealth makes it very easy for citizens to propose laws. Long before we joined the rush of half the states to add ballot initiatives during the Progressive movements (1890s through 1920s), our constitution provided the right of free petition.

See the commonwealth's primer on how to write bills and get them considered. While your rep or senator doesn't have to submit your bill, they almost always do. It's great voter relations for them and they can even add code phrases, particularly By Request, after their name to ensure the bill goes nowhere.

Sometimes crackpot groups, like MassResistance, work through a lawmaker to pimp political causes. For many years, that group has promised legislation that would remove any Supreme Judicial Court judge who voted for Goodridge (marriage equality), or strip funding for school counseling for gay teens, or mention that same-sex marriage is legal here in any school lesson and blah blah blah. They have a current list they like or have a dirty foot in the mix.

Virtually everything they've done has either failed totally or ended up so watered down it was meaningless. For all their bluster, the tiny organization really only managed to get one bill through, Ch. 71 Sec. 32A, a.k.a. parent notification of sex-ed classes. This copies similar statutes elsewhere that ensures that schools let parents opt out of a curriculum devoted entirely to sex ed. It certainly does not let a parents pick and choose what kids will read or hear in regular classes.

In contrast, a 12-year-old from Hingham seems poised to make a big difference with a requirement for seat belts on school buses. Michaela Brickley testified today with Rep. Garrett Bradley, her sponsor of House 2199 at the hearing of the Joint Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security.

Requiring seat belts in school buses has been posed, sometimes annually, by other legislators for decades. This is a redo and Brickley may be just the necessary catalyst.

She's slight and squeaky voiced, but dreadfully sincere. She has a simple story of seeing real video of a bus rollover, with unrestrained kids tossed about the bus. It's not great insight or scientific research, but she is compelling as a citizen, if not yet a voter, and as a representative of the intended beneficiary class — twice daily yellow-bus riders.

Where's My Garrett?

I ended up testifying today, rather unintentionally. I had not been to one of these omnibus hearings where tons o' bills would be considered. They announced that if anyone wanted to speak for or against a bill, there were sign-up sheets. Rather like how I ended up on my high-school wrestling team after hearing an end-of-day PA announcement, I signed up. I did not see either of my bill sponsors, Rep. Willie Mae Allen (my district) or Rep. Martin Walsh, so I figured it wouldn't hurt to have someone say something.

I noticed several big differences between Michaela and Michael:
  • Her sponsor was there and the committee let him jump the queue, which resulted alert attention to the bill. My sponsors were absent and likely passive.
  • Her bill was familiar in that it had gone through hearings in one form or another numerous times. Mine was new.
  • Hers had financial impact in costing school districts. Mine was revenue neutral.
  • Hers has compelling beneficiaries, everyone's kids. Mine asked for an advantage for a group half the commonwealth seems to despise irrationally, cyclists.
Similarly, the bill with the greatest number of sponsors...and people testifying for it...had a committee insider. Co-Chair Sen. James Timilty clearly favored it. He rounded up another dozen from his chamber to sponsor Senate 998, An Act regulating the sport of mixed martial arts.

While that sounds punitive, it actually promotes this newish blood sport. It seems 37 states regulate mixed martial arts, much as they do boxing. That legitimizes the business and makes it easier to stage events. Timilty is a fan, which he made plain in the hearing. Moreover, a lawyer, a promotion company head and several fighters showed to pitch such aspects as it is safer than boxing (fewer deaths), brings money where it occurs, and is eager for standards of testing, medical care at the bouts and such.

This one looks even more sure to get from committee to chambers' votes this session than even the girl's safety bill.

What Can We Learn?

Easy does it is the rule of this process, even if your bill goes no farther than a committee hearing. At today's session, for example, I walked in, signed up and gave my brief testimony within an hour.

Line up sponsors. I did have two sponsors for mine, but neither appeared, much less spoke up. The committee members were attentive to my remarks about why it made sense to let cyclists roll through and out of intersections with stop signs to clear the way. They didn't ask questions though. I have no doubt having a sponsor present the bill makes more of an impression and likely advances the bill farther.

Looking at Timilty's cohort, I am pretty sure working with your legislator to sign up numerous co-sponsors would be savvy.

Finally, asking your lawmaker and any other co-sponsor to appear at the committee hearing has to be key to advancement.

Be persistent. The seat-belt for buses bill and another one later about letting doctors and others rat out adults who were no longer fit to drive were up for repeats. Apparently out of the thousands of bills filed a session, a relatively small percentage advance beyond committee study. Fewer get an actual floor vote in either chamber. Many that get out of committee languish to the end of the session.

The passionate petitioner apparently views that as part of the hunt and challenge. It may mean more or updated research. It may be chatting up the sponsors to keep them on the list and involved for the next session. It may means tracking down yet more co-sponsors. It may mean practicing your pitch to hit the right emotional and intellectual chords with the legislators.

Apparently some very good bills may have to return for consideration for numerous sessions before becoming law.

I've seen laws debated on the floor of quite a few state and Congressional bodies. I haven't been to many committee hearings. Those I have tended to be on a single, highly controversial bill.

After seeing the benign and non-committal expressions of the committee members today, I have less hope for my bill this session than I did going into A1 of the State House. Yet, I have a clearer sense of the real rules and process, far beyond the primer the commonwealth site offers.

Perhaps each progressive in the state should make it an avocation to define, refine and petition for a law. There's a much higher chance of getting one passed than, say, winning Mega Millions.

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1 comment:

Ann S. Byrns said...

The road needs to be shared with horses, too. Many vehicle operators do not know that they should stop when they encounter a horse on the road, then wait for the rider or handler to signal that it is okay to pass. Cycle riders also don't know what to do when they encounter a horse on the street, and they need to learn how to behave when coming from behind. This week I was leading my horse down a quiet country lane when a silent bike rider came up behind us--we didn't even hear any wheel spinning or gear clicking. My horse ordinarily doesn't spook at bikes but this rider didn't let us know he was there. Surprised, she veered sideways into me, I fell and she stepped on my thigh. It is better for cyclists to announce their presence by calling out "bike behind!" or by ringing your bell. Had this cyclist done so, my horse would not have spooked. Horses are prey animals that react to silent approaches from behind as if it were a mountain lion stalking them. They catch a glimpse of movement and bolt first, identify later. So please, if you are a bike rider, make a bit of noise if you are riding up from behind. That identifies you as NOT a lion. Thanks!