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Now is the time to influence lawmakers, legislative process



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By Andy Brack
SC Statehouse Report

JULY 13, 2003 - Perhaps the biggest untold secret of the General Assembly is about timing.

You might not think it, but the best time to influence the legislative process is now - - during the legislative "off season."

From January to June every year, lawmakers in Columbia are pummeled by people trying to push their views on various proposals. People try to twist arms. Grassroots advocates work feverishly to promote or kill bills. And other lawmakers seek to corral members of the House and Senate to get them to support pet projects or initiatives.

For the first six months of the year, the Statehouse is a busy, frenetic place filled with lawmakers, lobbyists, staffers, constituents, reporters, state officials and advocacy groups. Because all of these people come together in one place over a period of time, there's a lot of work that gets done and a lot of influence that's felt. But because there's so much commotion, it may not be the best time for anyone to make a reasoned pitch for a new idea.

That's where the "off season" from June to January comes in.

It's a cleanup period - - a time to cross the t's and dot the i's from the flurry of legislation passed in previous months. Staffers need the "down time" to unravel the big knots that have clogged the legislative process for the past few months.

But the very best lobbyists know something else about this period and use it to their advantage. Unlike many citizens and advocacy groups who stay away from the Statehouse in the off season, good lobbyists know it's a better time to prepare staff members for coming battles and educate them about important issues.

"We actually have time to review things" in the off season, one senior Senate staffer said. "We don't have the time to review anything beyond one page during the session."

Staffers have a lot of sway with what happens. They do a lot of the research behind legislative matters. They contact interest groups to get input. They meet with lobbyists and advocates. They coordinate hearings and work to promote the agendas of the lawmaker that employs them.

Nine times out of 10, if you can get a staffer on your side, you will get your positioned aired when it counts. You might not win, but at least your position will be at the bargaining table.

But remember, the folks who make the decisions are the staffers' bosses - - our elected state representatives and senators.

The off season also provides people with golden opportunities to visit at home with lawmakers, who don't feel the constant pressure of lobbyists and the whole Statehouse crowd.

"There are hundreds - - thousands - - of ideas presented to them," note a veteran House committee staffer who asked not to be identified. "They can only become an authority on so much.

"But when you present an idea to them [in the off season], a lightbulb may go off if it's a good idea. If you educate them enough in language they can identify with, they can lead it through the process to final passage."

Bottom line: The legislative off season is a chance for you to sow the seeds of ideas with staffers and lawmakers. By January when the session starts, the idea may sprout. And if you're lucky, you'll be able to harvest it by the time the session ends in June.



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