Now is the Time to Make the Legislature Listen

When the 2018 Legislative Session opened on January 9 in Tallahassee, the Florida Legislature had 60 days to pull together and pass an approximately $80 billion budget – the one action it’s required to take. Accompanying that task are now 958 bills in the Senate, 2,145 in the House, and, according to PolitiFact Florida, around 955 registered lobbyists. That’s a ton of bills and paid efforts to influence the views and votes of just 154 legislators. (The number should be 160, but six seats remain unfilled after resignations and deaths since the last session.)

It’s all the more reason your views are crucial. While most bills don’t make it through the process (an estimated 7.5 percent in 2017), the ones that do get passed and the governor signs into law affect our lives in myriad ways. Headlining this year’s slate are proposals to use taxpayer dollars for “crisis pregnancy centers,” extend the categories of those who can carry guns without permits, provide annual appropriations to the Florida Forever Trust Fund for conservation, and many more.

Every citizen has the constitutional right to contact government at all levels. If you’ve wanted to speak up but weren’t quite sure how you should know it’s never been easier to get savvy on issues and reach out to decision-makers. Here’s how:

Check your information. Legislators’ names, contact info, bios and committee memberships are at your fingertips. You can simply ask Google or go to the Legislature site Find Your Elected Officials in Florida where typing in your home address brings up your representatives in State House, State Senate, U.S. House and U.S. Senate. Also, the Miami-Dade County Board of Commissioners’ website has Miami-Dade’s 2018-2020 Legislative Delegation.

Use credible sources to ensure your take on an issue is accurate, and you’ll be effective in presenting a position or argument. Know the bill’s number, title, and sponsor. The State House and Senate websites have searchable databases of 2018 bills that show status. You can sign up for a bill tracker if you’d like emailed updates on particular bills.

Choose one or more contact methods. The best, fastest and easiest: a phone call. Email is less personal, takes time to write, edit, and spell check, and lands in a crammed mailbox. Before calling, write a short script with your name and hometown, bill/issue name, where you stand and why it’s important to you/Florida, ask the legislator to support or oppose, and add a thank you. You’ll be delivering this message to a staffer (by and large amiable and receptive) or voice mail. Either is fine. If you belong to a group that’s taken a stand on a particular issue, it can be effective to coordinate group calls to representatives.

A letter also is effective. If it is succinct and to the point, the whole thing will be read. Address it to one person; if you want to send to others, create individual letters, e.g., one to your representative, one to bill’s sponsor, one to the chair of the committee considering the bill, etc. Some quick tips for maximum impact:

  • Do include the bill name, number, and sponsor.
  • Do use your own words; personal expression beats form letters every time. Simple is best; stuffy words and jargon don’t impress.
  • Do include your name and contact information. Therefore, writing a clear, concise letter takes attention! (“I didn't have time to write a short letter,” said Mark Twain, “so I wrote a long one instead.”)

Caution: If the issue is time-sensitive and you must get your view to the Legislature fast, this isn’t the route.

If all you do is email, that’s OK. Your position will be noted—at some point. You may also consider using social media to follow your representatives and comment on their posts – politely and error-free!

And, of course, if you can, consider showing up at the Capitol to personally lobby legislators or to testify at committee hearings.

Remember: Your voice matters! Keep in mind that legislators work for you. Your voice cuts through the miasma cloaking the Capitol with political pressures, special interests, wining, dining, hustle, and noise. It keeps representatives grounded in reality with a better chance of understanding how issues affect people like you. We’re in this state together!

Colee Splichal, Ph.D., is a former Associate Professor at the University of Miami School of Communication.