Lobbyists as Information Providers and Information Seekers

… Or, Blackberries Were merely Fruit Ten Years Ago

Phil Griffin, a long-time health care lobbyist,  feels the amendment process has deteriorated, with the propensity for members to add many, many amendments in only slightly different versions.  It’s hard to track and is burdensome to the staff members who help with drafting.  It would be better if bills were more fully processed at the committee level.

TV and the internet have had the effect of connecting his clients all the time.  He held up his Iphone – “my leash,” he noted.  Clients watch the proceedings all the time too, oftentimes sending them into needless panic states.  They don’t understand that sometimes words can be political posturing, or bills and amendments can be introduced that have little chance of passage.

Iris Freeman and Phil Griffin

Iris Freeman and Phil Griffin

Iris Freeman lobbies primarily for nonprofits, on long-term care and Alzheimers policy.  She  commented that even with all of the speed that comes with technology, and the openness of proceedings to the public, that, “Immediacy doesn’t mean we’ve gotten rid of illusion,” and that much of what goes on at the Legislature relies on illusion.

She also said she calls the largely-unpaid lobbying done by nonprofits and academics “applied advocacy.”

“It’s the teacher in me,” Iris said, “I have a handout for you.”  It is a fascinating comparison of  how technology was used during the process of passing a bill in 1980, 1995, and 2009.  For example, snail mail letters were sent to mobilize supporters in the late 70s; email bulletins and a wiki kept supporters in contact this year.

Iris noted that with the speed of technology, there are higher expectations for lobbyists to know everything, all of the time.

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John Tuma

John Tuma is a former legislator who now lobbies on behalf of the Minnesota Environmental Partnership and other clients. He described some of the sophisticated marketing and tracking techniques used by the Minnesota Environmental Partnership to identify supporters of the groups’ issues.  He said that about the time he began lobbying was the end of the mass blast lobbying efforts, times when groups instructed  large groups of their supporters to send a postcard or phone call to legislators, basically form letters.  Groups realize now that legislators are more attuned to the messages that come from their own districts, and from “grass tops,” active community leaders whose opinions will be valued by legislators.

All three panelists stressed that personal relationships are still an important part of successful lobbying.  It is getting people engaged in and excited about what you are doing.  They also agreed that the need for access to information, and libraries, is as strong as ever.

Are legislators smarter with increased immediate access to technology and the web?  John Tuma, noted that it might make them dumber in some cases, if they rely on unverified information on the web.  He said that when he was in the Legislature and was a committee chair, he didn’t make any claims without his committee administrator confirming their accuracy.

Ultimately, are the huge changes brought by technology an improvement?  Even though the pace might be accelerated, Phil had two stories to demonstrate…..  One was that he remembered being in a committee hearing at 4:48 a.m. when a handwritten amendment was passed to a chair and added to a bill.  That amendment put his client out of business.  There is too much transparency for the same thing to happen today.  And second, Phil heard a story from one of his lobbying mentors, John Tracy Anderson.  Senator Anderson was a former minority leader who afterwards lobbied for Blue Cross for many years.  He told Phil the story of  about a tax bill, many years ago, being drafted by a secretary – not a legislative secretary, but one at a railroad office.  When Sen. Tracy asked for a copy of the bill, he was told by the majority leader,  “I’ll send you a copy in the mail, after it’s passed.”

Betsy Haugen/Robbie LaFleur

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