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How to Talk to Your Legislator


Election season has come and gone, to the relief of many. But your chance to participate in this democracy didn't end on Nov. 2. In fact, you may have a better shot at getting heard now, with the opening of the 2005 legislative session on Jan. 19. Your elected officials are hungry for a mandate and you can give them one. Propose new laws. Denounce old and dumb ones. Let lawmakers know what's important to you.

Pat Mau-Shimizu, chief clerk of the House of Representatives, says public participation has a tremendous impact on what happens at the legislature. "If the chairs in the House put up a bill for hearing and nobody comes to testify yes or no, they'll hold it. If there's no interest from the public, the bill is not a priority and we'll move to the next one," she says.

The first step is knowing what's happening down at the Capitol, and when. One of the best resources is the Legislature's official Web site: www.capitol.hawaii.gov. Here you'll find the status and full texts of proposed bills, committee schedules and deadlines, contact information for all senators and representatives and more. Having trouble with the legalese? Visit the public access room on the fourth floor of the Capitol, where staff members can explain the intricacies of the system.

Illustration: Mike Austin

The next step is to get your voice heard, and the most effective way to do this is to speak with the appropriate committee chair. A committee is the basic mechanism for developing and researching a proposed piece of legislation, and it's the chair who decides which bills stay alive. Find out which one is handling your bill on the Web site, and give him or her a call. Really-just call them. Or do it in person. Legislators often have mailing lists announcing when they'll be making public appearances, so you can meet them face to face.

Once a bill wins a public hearing, you can testify for or against it, either in person or in writing. Written testimony is the most convenient method. You don't even have to find parking; there are drop-off boxes in the underground turnaround area at the end of Miller Street. The Capitol Web site has a suggested outline for composing written testimony, under its informative Citizen's Guide. Two things to watch for: All written testimony must be submitted at least 24 hours before the hearing, and you may be required to submit a minimum number of copies for distribution to the committee.

You can also give oral testimony at a bill's public hearing. The key here is to be engaging, concise and polite. Legislators are people, too. Committee members may ask you questions about your testimony, but no one expects you to be omniscient, so don't fake it; if you don't know the answer to a question, you can always do further research and get back to them later. It's recommended, though not required, that you provide the committee with a written copy of your testimony.

Even more effective, in terms of demonstrating public sentiment, is assembling a group of people to testify, as long as the group is organized and submits a consolidated testimony. "I wouldn't recommend canned testimony, where 50 people submit the same comments and just change the name at the top," Mau-Shimizu says. "It's just not that effective, because it's boring for the legislators and exasperating at crunch time."

Once you've made your opinions known, it's up to the House and the Senate to decide the bill's fate. Of course, if your representatives aren't doing what you want, there's always the satisfaction of voting against them in two years.

Official Legislature web site:

House Clerk’s Office and Office of Information and Complaint: 586-6400

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