The mission of the Public Access Room of the Hawaii State Legislature is to assist the public in learning how best to influence state legislators during the passage of a bill.
“As far as we can tell, we’re the only full-service public office to do so,” says Virginia Beck, coordinator of the Public Access Room. “Washington and Alaska have something that comes close, and a lot of states have a place that prints off bills for you to pick up.”
But perhaps nowhere else in the country does a state pay to coach its citizens year-round on how to influence legislation. And “[w]hen you think about democracy and power being vested in the people, you have to give people the opportunity to use that power,” Beck says, “whether it’s a physical space, a place to provide testimony, or knowledge of how the process works.”
“Testimony,” by the way, is — at least in this sphere — “communication that you make before a committee when that committee has asked for public input,” per Beck’s definition. “It happens in the committee process, during session.” In short, it’s anything you formally tell your state rep or senator as they consider amending, debating, or voting on a bill.
Most of what the PAR does is familiarize the public with the process of submitting testimony to a legislative committee. “When you see the wide range of things we ask the legislature to make decisions on,” Beck says, “it’s absurd to think they don’t get input from the people who are going to be affected by this legislation.”
One of the PAR’s success stories that Beck cites is Kat Brady, a self-described “community advocate for justice” and coordinator of the Community Alliance on Prisons (CAP). Brady helped write, and testify for the passage of, House Bill No. 2363, a reentry pilot project for non-violent, low-risk drug offenders, which passed the Hawaii legislature in 2007. “I try to be the vessel, the conduit, for the inmates I meet and talk to,” Brady tells me of her approach. “All of the bills that I’ve proposed, they’re informed by what I hear from the inside.”
Brady says the PAR is crucial in helping the public identify when and how to provide input. “There are just so many nuances to the process of testifying and knowing how the process works,” she says, “and they’re really good at deconstructing that process for people.”
So what are some of the “nuances” to the process of testifying? Michigan State Representative Jeff Irwin (D-Ann Arbor) says they often boil down to form.
“Some legislators are moved by facts,” Irwin tells me, “and some are moved by anecdotes. A compelling personal story usually has a greater effect than numbers in the context of testimony.”
That comports with what went recently went down in California. This month, the Golden State became just the fifth in the country to legalize physician-assisted suicide, or the so-called “right-to-die,” and the fourth to sign legislation into law. (Montana’s state supreme court found the practice of assisted suicide constitutional, sort of like how gay marriage was found constitutional, versus enactment through legislation.)
In California’s case, the right-to-die decision was influenced by a compelling personal story of the most heart-rending order. Brittany Maynard, a California resident diagnosed with a virulent form of brain cancer, made headlines when she relocated to Oregon to take advantage of that state’s access to assisted suicide relief. Her story was credited with re-starting a conversation about “death with dignity” that began when Michigan pathologist Jack Kevorkian began euthanizing terminally ill patients in the early ‘90s.
Maynard’s personal story also played an integral role in the passage of right-to-die legislation, which passed in the California legislature and was signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown earlier this month, over the objections of right-to-die opponents.
“I do not know what I would do if I were dying in prolonged and excruciating pain,” Brown wrote in a letter to the California legislature upon the bill’s signing. “I am certain, however, that it would be a comfort to be able to consider the options afforded by this bill. And I wouldn’t deny that right to others.”
In that letter, Brown said heartfelt pleas from Maynard’s family factored into his decision.
As Irwin says, it isn’t always about the facts alone. And the Michigan representative has a few other suggestions for how best to approach your legislator.
“The gold standard is to make personal contact,” he says. “Legislators are people. As such, the personal touch is most effective. That can be accomplished by scheduling a meeting with the Representative or by attending a town hall, coffee hour or other public event with the legislator.”
The effectiveness of the personal touch is echoed in a terrific answer by Adam Nyhan, a former Congressional staffer, on Quora about getting a state law passed.
“The vast majority [of legislators] are not corrupt, but they are subject to political influences that will push them toward a vote for or against your proposed law independently of their views on the pure merits of the policy,” he writes. “So you have to research the political landscape [first].”
Granted, not every piece of legislation is as headline-grabbing — or as divisive — as assisted suicide, and we definitely shouldn’t rely on the media to make the right point, or take the correct side. But approaching your legislator in a spirit of conciliation and compromise, rather than vitriol or a presumption that they won’t help, can go a long way to getting your ideas across.
Personally, it sounds to me like more Public Access Rooms would go a long way. And considering that the yearly budget for the Public Access Room (factoring in staff) is a little over $150,000, the price tag isn’t prohibitive.
So in the course of writing this article, I emailed my state legislator asking for him to consider authoring legislation establishing a Public Access Room in the state of Michigan so citizens can understand how to influence legislation. And you know what the bastard did?
He wrote me back! See, there still are some give-a-shits out there in the world. Testify.