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All eyes on the State House

Lawmakers, lobbyists, and activists offer insights into the new legislative session
By PHOENIX GUESTS  |  January 20, 2014



Cartoons were a Saturday morning treat when I was growing up, before there were whole channels dedicated to them. If you remember those golden years, too, then you may recall Schoolhouse Rock!’s “Just a Bill” musical civics lesson interrupting your favorite shows. It’s the animated story of a frumpy singing roll of paper towels who wants to become a law. He talks about going through committees, negotiations, and voting. (Spoiler alert: at the end he does become a law.)

It’s a decent little video, and the wisdom it imparts likely exceeds the average citizen’s grasp of civics. But if you go back and watch, “Bill” glosses naively over how he was drafted into being. He shows a bunch of random do-gooders asking a Congressman to make their ideas into legislation, and he immediately sits down with pen and paper to get it done.

I hate to bust up the myth and nostalgia, but that’s not the way bills come about. Sure, some old-fashioned legislators out there might still be writing legislation, but they are the exceptions. Most legislation comes from lobbyists, like me, who represent all manner of organizations, from small grassroots groups like neighborhood associations on up to multinational corporations like Monsanto and the front groups they pay to represent them, like ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council.

So far, I’ve written two bills in my career. One creates a Complete Streets council to help state agencies coordinate with cities and towns and transportation advocacy groups to implement Rhode Island’s Complete Streets law, passed in 2011 to make the state more bikeable and walkable. The other is a bill that places a referendum on the November 2014 ballot asking Rhode Islanders if we want to amend our state constitution to say corporations (and other legal entities like unions and non-profits) aren’t “people” and that political spending isn’t protected speech. This effort is a response to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United vs. FEC decision that has allowed unlimited campaign spending by corporations and so-called “social welfare” groups like Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS. I call this the “We The People” bill.

For me, the trick in writing legislation (and you can use this trick too!) is not to reinvent the wheel. For most of what we might want to do — say, banning genetically modified organisms or raising the minimum wage — someone is already doing it in another state or at the federal level. Sometimes, there is even already a template written. In my case, I patterned the Complete Streets Council bill off of the enabling legislation for the Rhode Island Greenways Council, the advisory council that has helped the state preserve corridors of protected land for wildlife and recreation. For “We The People,” I worked from the amendment that the Move To Amend Coalition first proposed for the federal constitution in 2013. In each case, I had to make substantial edits, but they were straightforward. I asked some lawyer friends to read my work for any glaring errors, and when they found none, I went looking for legislators to sponsor the bills.

It’s not as hard as you might think to find a sponsor for a bill that you’ve written. Each of us is a constituent of a couple lawmakers and they’ll probably introduce it for you. However, you may want to be discriminating and seek a legislator who cares about your issue and who will put effort into getting your bill a good hearing. Think about a sponsor who has seniority on the committee that your bill is likely to get sent to or who is in the good graces of leadership. Since no single legislator might fit all these criteria, you can try to round up co-sponsors who combine to meet them all. I was fortunate with We The People to have a passionate sponsor in Representative Art Handy (D-Cranston), who sought out four co-sponsors of the bill who serve on the House Judiciary Committee, the most likely of the eleven committees to which it could be sent.

From there, it’s a matter of patience and diligent lobbying. The State House is the people’s house. Every citizen has the right to come up to the floor of the House or Senate and talk to legislators about the laws they want passed. Each of us can turn up at the committee hearings to give testimony for bills we care about. Look for allies, petition, and in general raise a ruckus. That’s what democracy should be all about.

Yes, it’s easier said than done, but nobody said changing the law should be easy. The point is, laws don’t just appear on the steps of the State House singing civics lessons; someone writes them. It’s not difficult or complicated, and it’s not only corporate big-money “people” who can do it.

Abel Collins is the Program Manager for the Rhode Island Chapter of the Sierra Club. He is a lifelong resident of Matunuck, where he lives with his wife, Amber, and their five children. 


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