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Getting your way in the Legislature

From the Ground Up

Summer is upon us and the Mississippi Legislature went out of session only weeks ago. It hardly seems the time to deal with the topic of what small businesses need to know about the Legislature. Yet the Legislature is never really out of session because of committee work, and because this is a political year, the subject might be more timely than one would think.

When it comes to influencing the State Legislature businesses generally have four options: (1) Hire a professional lobbyist; (2) Work through a trade association group; (3) Work through a pro-business group such as the Mississippi Economic Council, Mississippi Manufacturers Association or local Chamber of Commerce; (4) Do it themselves. The size of the business has a big impact on which option will be used, but even the smallest businesses can benefit from the last three alternatives.

Regardless of which option or combination of options a business might choose, there are certain basic things that should be understood when dealing with the Legislature. Ten are listed here.

1. Members of the Mississippi Legislature really do want to hear from you. This is especially true in those issues where they are uncertain about how their constituents feel. Also, they are more interested in knowing your opinion on matters where a close vote is involved.

2. There are thousands of bills introduced each year. In 1999 there were only about 2,200 bills introduced. Normally, the number is more than 3,500. Imagine how long it would take just to read 3,500 bills. Now one can see why the committee system is needed just to filter the mass.

3. Your bill needs a champion in the House and the Senate. A champion is a member of the Legislature who will guide the bill through the process and always know its status. Stay in touch with your champion.

4. Members of the Legislature will introduce bills on behalf of constituents. If you want a bill merely introduced in the Legislature, you will find that many members will accommodate you. That doesn’t mean they will support the bill. Also, when a bill is tagged as introduced on behalf of a constituent, it sometimes means that there is really no support for it.

5. There are “games” (strategies) that are played. For example, the House of Representatives might pass a bill knowing that it will die in the Senate. Another “game” is the assignment of a bill to a committee where it will surely die. Then there is the adding of untenable amendments onto a bill so that even supporters oppose it.

6. If there is controversy in your industry, the bill will probably die. When members of the Legislature get mixed messages, they will probably defeat the bill. This is extremely frustrating for trade associations that have legislative committees that go through a lengthy process gaining support from their members only to have someone in the industry call the committee chairperson and say, “Just want you to know that not everybody in our industry supports this bill.”

7. Go to www.ls.state.ms.us. This is the Internet Web site for the Mississippi Legislature. It contains a bill status system and a wealth of information about the legislative process and the members.

8. Honor your champion. Even if your bill doesn’t become law, or if the legislation you opposed passed, honor and recognize the member who worked for you. Have a banquet or reception; give him or her an award recognizing the effort.

9. Work for your champion. Once your champion is identified, keep him or her in office. Get involved in the political campaign. Yes, raise money and make a monetary contribution.

10. The tide is turning against business in the Mississippi Legislature. This is probably the most important thing business in Mississippi should know. In the past there were a small anti-business group, a small, staunchly pro-business group and a large middle group in the Mississippi Legislature. Today, the anti-business and the pro-business groups have grown, but the middle has shrunken. This means that overall the pro-business group has less overall support on many issues.

In closing, one should never assume anything. It ain’t even over even when it’s over. Special sessions can always be called.

Phil Hardwick’s column appears regularly in the Mississippi Business Journal. His e-mail address is hardwickp@aol.com.

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