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PASA Conference: Working with Commonwealth Legislators

  • Subject: [cg] PASA Conference: Working with Commonwealth Legislators
  • From: Alliums <garlicgrower@earthlink.net>
  • Date: Wed, 20 Feb 2002 08:24:45 -0500


Hi, Folks!

Here's my final article on the PASA Conference.  I retain copywrite, but if anyone want to publish it, let me know.  My fame is *booming* (gosh, have I got books to review!), but alas, cash is not so ready. . .Someday, this will make me rich! ;-D

Dorene

Working with Commonwealth Legislators:
A Workshop with Rep. Bob Bastian, District 69-Somerset and Rep. Sara Steelman, District 62-Indiana
Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture Conference
February 8, 2002; State College, PA
 
by Dorene Pasekoff, Coordinator
St. John’s United Church of Christ Organic Community Garden
Phoenixville, PA

“Legislators are like cantaloupes in the supermarket,” says Rep. Steelman. “You have to thump them until you find the right one.”  For the next 45 minutes, Steelman and Bastian gave practical advice about how to deliver the most effective thumps to influence legislation in Harrisburg.

Bastian and Steelman agreed the most effective strategy is to develop an on-going, cordial relationship with your own legislator and/or those who serve on committees that decide issues you care about.  Find out who they are and how they prefer to be contacted  Steelman loves her e-mail but knows many legislators who prefer phone calls or short letters.  Both agreed that regular ½ hour face to face visits in the district (rather than in Harrisburg where many legislators are too harried to pay proper attention) are the most effective.  These visits give you time to provide complete and accurate background information on issues (which legislators genuinely appreciate as they rarely have time to be fully briefed on all issues) and to discuss how the legislation will affect you.  If your group is holding an open house or other community event, “invite them!” says Steelman.  “Especially if you make it into a photo op. Legislators love photo ops!”

Legislators may not always agree with your opinions, but if you express your views without hostility, they should respect your opinion and welcome hearing them.  Bastian had nothing but contempt for a State College area legislator who refused to discuss a road project with concerned Penn State students.  “Embarrass him by sitting in his office until he agrees to meet with you.” Bastian told the student.  “There’s no excuse for ignoring your constituents” especially if you are polite.  With re-election every two years, it behooves a legislator to know what’s important to the people they represent, even if there are areas of honest disagreement.

However, since 95% of incumbent Pennsylvania legislators are re-elected every year, Bastian and Steelman believe that if Pennsylvania residents are unhappy with their representation, they need to be more active at the ballot box.  “Vote them out!” says Steelman, if a legislator consistently does not represent your views.  “Give politicians money and help them in their campaigns,” says Bastian.  “It’s an ethical and moral thing to do.”  Or, Bastain suggests, “Run for office yourself!” as Bastian himself did to “finish my career” after 35 years as a large animal veterinarian in Somerset County.  Having lived and worked in the county for so many years, Bastian believes he has more perspective than those who "begin their careers” with political office.

Unfortunately, with 62,000 constituents per legislator in Pennsylvania, legislators don’t always have the time to deal with constituents or issues in as much depth as they would like.  Both Steelman and Bastian were frank that they rely on “proven” lobbyists for information on important issues.  “We know it’s biased information,” says Steelman, “but if the person has proven themselves a reliable, accurate source of information, we’ll use them.”  The antidote to lobbyists is for constituents to build personal relationships such that they become reliable information sources for their legislators.  Demonstrations in Harrisburg “don’t work,” says Steelman.  “Most of us just walk around them.”  Both agreed that a single page letter mentioning the issue and how it affects you directly is far more significant, especially if you write regularly.

 If your own legislator continues to disagree with you on issues, find out who chairs the committee which deals with your issues and cultivate a relationship with them.  Committee chairs are a powerful position bestowed upon favored legislators by the majority party.   Chairs influence how legislation is written and if bills will ever come out of committee to be voted on by the entire House or Senate.  If the chair is unresponsive, “thump on the committee members until you find a champion” says Steelman.

Bastian illustrated these points with his own experience being at the PASA Conference and serving on the House Agriculture Committee.  “Sustainable agriculture has a very low profile on the state agriculture committee,” he says. The majority of its members belong to the majority (Republican) party and “sincerely believe that contract [factory] farming is the only way to save agriculture in Pennsylvania.”  To change that perception, those that care about sustainable agriculture “need to convince these legislators that folks can make money in sustainable agriculture” either by contacting them as interested individuals and/or as part of a respected group with a proven track record such as PennFuture (Citizens for Pennsylvania’s Future at http://www.pennfuture.org).

Bastian also believes that the 95% re-election rate for incumbents has made House leadership complacent and willing to cut corners for their own benefit.  “Ghost voting,” which allows someone else to vote for a Representative when they are not present (by pressing their voting button for them) is buried as part of the “House Rules” which the majority party presents to the entire House for a vote as “operating instructions” until the next election.  If more constituents knew about the practice and its abuses, Bastian believes, legislators who defend the practice wouldn’t last through the next election.

Finally, “don’t forget to say thank you if we helped!’ says Steelman.  A press release or public announcement gives legislators more reason to help you in the future.  The process is frustrating and often very slow, says Bastian.  “But don’t give up” if you want life in Pennsylvania to change.




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