CHEYENNE — In the age of cell phones, email and text messages, first-time visitors to Wyoming’s capitol are often delighted to learn that constituents can ask to meet with a legislator using the decidedly low-tech method of having the doorman pass along a handwritten note. If the lawmaker is free, even during a floor session, he or she may step into the lobby for a brief chat.
But only a small fraction of constituents ever take the time to visit their elected representatives in Cheyenne. Instead, it is often lobbyists waiting in the lobby, which explains how the profession got its name.
Though residents in Wyoming enjoy virtually unparalleled access to their elected representatives, participating in person during the annual winter sessions is often hampered by weather, distance, timing and other factors, leaving paid professional lobbyists wielding disproportionate influence over the process.
Sharing an opinion with a lawmaker can be as easy as dashing off an email. But for those willing to take the time, learning to lobby like a pro can help ordinary citizens play a more influential and fulfilling role in shaping the laws that govern their own lives.
“For me, it’s been a real learning experience, but it’s also been a lot of fun,” said Paul Paad, volunteer legislative representative for Wyoming Central ABATE, a motorcyclist rights group whose acronym stands for A Brotherhood Against Totalitarian Enactments.
Paad was one of about 50 people who last month attended a so-called “citizen lobbyist” training session organized by the Equality State Policy Center, a nonprofit government accountability group.
The daylong workshops, held in Cheyenne each year at the start of the legislative session, are a crash course on the fine points of lobbying, tailored for ordinary citizens and advocates from groups that can’t afford professional lobbyists.
“We do this because we think it’s important that legislators hear different points of view from everyone in the state when they’re considering bills,” said Dan Neal, ESPC executive director.
Constituents representing only themselves are not considered lobbyists, but state law requires that those paid to lobby for any group must pay a $25 fee and register with the Wyoming Secretary of State’s Office. Unpaid advocates working for nonprofit groups must still register, but pay a fee of only $5.
Small but influential
Last year, more than 12,000 registered lobbyists active at the federal level spent $2.6 billion on influencing national lawmakers. By comparison, Wyoming’s 325 lobbyists registered for the current legislative session might seem insignificant.
But during the fast and furious scrum that has already seen more than 400 bills introduced after 15 days of a 40-day session, many of those 325 lobbyists have enjoyed a level of influence and access that most ordinary Wyoming residents will never experience.
Under the Wyoming process, bills are assigned to committees — where powerful committee chairs can either bury or promote them. It is typically only after being approved by a committee that a bill may move to the floor of the House of Representatives or Senate for discussion and a vote.
Because a committee may announce, for instance, at 4:30 p.m. on a Tuesday that it will hear testimony on a particular bill at 8 a.m. on Wednesday, paid lobbyists living in Cheyenne are in a much better position to react than constituents in far-off towns like Bondurant or Lovell, who must drive 400 miles over rural roads in the heart of winter.
“That’s been a real problem for us. Living in Laramie, it’s tough sometimes to find out when a committee is hearing a bill in time to get people over there, and sometimes the (highway) pass isn’t always in the best condition,” said Andrew Simons, who attended the citizen lobbyist training.
Simons, a part-time student at the University of Wyoming, ran unsuccessfully last year as the Democratic candidate for secretary of state, and has worked with a group promoting bills related to recognizing same-sex marriages and holding open primaries.
“We’ve got a number of supporters spread across the state, and the best advice we’ve been able to give them is to email their legislators,” he said.
“I was struck with how easy it is to give testimony. We have an incredible amount of access to our legislators, but sometimes getting over there and being able to take advantage of it is difficult,” Simons said.
Sarah Gorin, ESPC research director and longtime lobbyist, said that just showing up at a committee meeting isn’t always enough. If you expect to speak in one of the capitol’s cramped committee meeting rooms, arrive 30 minutes early to claim one of what may be only a dozen available seats, she said.
It’s not uncommon for lobbyists, reporters and capitol insiders to occupy many of the seats in a tiny committee meeting room, leaving only a few spots for everyday constituents hoping to speak.
That was the case during recent testimony before the Senate Minerals, Business and Economic Development Committee, where landowners came to speak in support of a bill that would require higher bonds from energy developers operating on split estates. The bill was voted down while some landowners who had traveled hours in hopes of testifying were still standing in the hallway, straining to hear the debate.
Because committee chairs have complete discretion over how a bill may advance, Gorin said, “you have to keep close tabs on what’s going on with committees.”
Despite the cramped quarters and frenetic pace, legislators and their nonpartisan Legislative Service Office staff members are usually happy to hear from “real people,” as opposed to professional lobbyists, Gorin said.
“Don’t be afraid to ask for help. People are very friendly,” she said, adding that most of the debate in Wyoming’s Legislature has historically followed local fault lines, rather than along strictly partisan lines.
Relying on lobbyists
Legislators often get much of their information on complex issues from lobbyists, said Jim Rose, a former House Dist. 13 representative who now serves as executive director of the Wyoming Community College Commission.
“Policymakers are very reliant upon you as a source of information because they don’t have a full-time staff,” Rose told attendees at the workshop.
Rose encouraged advocates to find a legislator who will champion their cause and pitch it to fellow lawmakers.
Many lawmakers are swayed during coffee breaks by information or arguments offered by other legislators, he said.
“You’ll never be privy to the effect it has, but it can have a profound effect,” he said.
Lobbying includes educating legislators about an issue as well as persuading them to vote a certain way, said Suzan Pauling, a lobbyist for the Wyoming Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault.
“Legislators in general don’t know a lot about domestic violence and sexual assault, and they really don’t want to talk about it,” Pauling joked while speaking to workshop attendees.
Mobilizing local constituents to speak to their representatives can make a big difference, especially on touchy issues like domestic violence, she said.
Hearing from just 10 voters in a home district can be a persuasive experience for Wyoming lawmakers, Pauling said.
“That’s all they have to go on, so it makes a huge difference,” she said.
Pauling, Rose and others offered similar advice to citizen lobbyists: Call or send emails, but don’t send mass emails to every legislator, as that tactic can backfire. Be polite and appreciative of a legislator’s time and attention, and never lie or stretch the truth. Once a legislator loses trust in you, it’s unlikely you’ll ever be viewed as a reliable source of information again.
Being passionate about an issue is fine, but losing your cool with a legislator is not helpful, said Rob Zotti, a Rock Springs City Council member who attended the training session.
Zotti said he has had constituents direct their ire at him and other council members, and it isn’t a persuasive technique.
Though most cities and towns in Wyoming lobby the legislature through the Wyoming Association of Municipalities member organization, Rock Springs has left that group for the past few years to lobby on its own, Zotti said.
The city decided that WAM served smaller communities better than larger ones, and the $20,000 or more that Rock Springs paid in annual association dues could be better spent elsewhere. So Zotti and other council members now lobby the Legislature directly.
Rock Springs is backing bills relating to bar and grill liquor licenses, banning an unregulated drug called spice and allowing cities and counties to levy a sales tax on groceries. Like other Wyoming cities, Rock Springs has taken a budget hit after the Legislature repealed sales taxes on groceries in 2006.
Since the training session, Zotti has been watching the legislative calendar, but not doing much direct lobbying, as he has been waiting for the right time to speak to lawmakers.
Gorin, Pauling and Rose all advised citizen lobbyists to avoid discussing pending bills with legislators until just before they come up for a vote.
Because so many bills are considered each session, legislators typically don’t focus on ones that are several days out on the schedule, they said.
Zotti, Paad and Simons said that their lobbyist training was helpful and that legislators have been courteous and respectful in listening to their concerns. Their efforts so far have had mixed results.
Simons has helped organize email campaigns and public demonstrations against a proposed constitutional amendment stating that same-sex marriages and civil unions are not recognized in Wyoming.
Paad has been lobbying personally and on behalf of his group, ABATE, against bills relating to penalties for not wearing seat belts and allowing certain local smoking restrictions. He has supported a bill allowing the carrying of concealed weapons without a permit.
“I plan on doing more (lobbying) this year,” he said. “I’m pretty sure I’ll stay with doing it next year, too — even if I’m not doing it with ABATE, just doing it on my own.”
Gorin encouraged aspiring citizen lobbyists to stick with it, even if their efforts aren’t successful at first.
“Democracy is messy and complicated,” she said.
She also offered a bit of preemptive advice for anyone considering asking a legislator to draft a bill: “If you can find a solution to your problem that doesn’t involve legislation, do it.”
Contact Ruffin Prevost at 307-213-9321 or [email protected]