January 20th was an exciting day to be at the Capitol! The Statewide Independent Living Council and Montana’s four Centers for Independent Living (Summit, NCILS, MILP, and LIFFT) sponsored this year’s Legislative Day event during the 2011 Legislative Session, which was held in the Capitol Rotunda. Approximately 100 people participated in Legislative Day this year, traveling to Helena with one of the four independent living centers.
In the morning, a workshop was held to present various strategies for lobbying legislators as well as how to best convey our message to them. Two former legislators, Eve Franklin and Mignon Waterman, shared with us their experiences in the legislature. The knowledge proved beneficial for helping us determine how to best capture a legislator’s attention. They shared with us that legislators are bombarded with a multitude of requests, at all hours of every day, during the short session, so, it is best to hone our information to about three main points—and be direct yet polite. They also shared the value of sending thank you correspondence when a legislator does something that is positive because so often they only hear from people who are angry about an action.
Most importantly, the former legislators expressed how vital personal contact with constituents is to the democratic process. While legislators are human and have real-world experience, they cannot be experts on every subject. Furthermore, they need to know that they are voting for something their constituents support. Legislators are often faced with tough decisions that will affect thousands of people. At times it may be easy to overlook the voices that aren’t present in favor of a different proposal. So, when constituents are willing to stand before them and share their heartfelt experiences it can be powerful enough to sway even the staunchest of opponents.
After the workshop, participants traveled to the Capitol Rotunda where a luncheon was arranged. The Rotunda was bustling with activity and legislators (along with other government officials) were treated to lunch while sitting down to talk with constituents. Constituents from the independent living centers arranged literature and signage that highlighted our issues. Tables were labeled by geographic location so that legislators could meet with people specifically from their districts.
Volunteers stood at all entry points with packets and talked with most every legislator who traveled through the Rotunda. While responses were varied, most all people were receptive to speaking with us or at least taking an information packet. We made contact with approximately 35 legislators. Many legislators sat with us and discussed our issues, with some asking questions to gather more information.
Before the end of the day, a press conference showcased several speakers from the various independent living centers. During the debriefing phase of our visit, it was rewarding to listen to the excited recollections that fellow visitors shared of their experiences. The event was very successful. There were number of legislators who not only took information packets but also took the time to speak directly with constituents. While no one can guarantee how a legislator will vote, it is these very actions that have the potential to influence the legislative process in a meaningful way.