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A Citizen's Guide to the General Assembly 2018

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How to track bills, make your voice heard and contact representatives

Landmark News Service & Staff Reports

Professional lobbyists aren’t the only ones who can have a voice at the General Assembly in Richmond. Thanks to the internet, you can see what legislators are up to and share your opinions.

Here’s a guide to the basics for this year’s session, which runs through February:

Do Your Homework

Become familiar with the legislation beyond what you read or hear.

You can go to the General Assembly’s home page (virginiageneralassembly.gov), and in the “Search Legislation with LIS” section on the lower right of the home page, you can use the Legislative Information System (LIS) to call up the number of the bill you want, or click “2018 Regular Session Tracking” and search for bills by subject or patron.

For the House, email ics@house.virginia.gov or call toll-free (877)-391-3228; for the Senate, email information@senate.virginia.gov or call toll-free (888) 892-6948.

Just because you’ve read the bill once doesn’t mean you’re done. It can change in committee or on the floors of the House of Delegates and Senate.

The bill summary lists actions taken on the bill and includes the text of amendments or new versions of the bill. When you read the text of a bill, be aware that only the words in italics are new. Old language also might be crossed out.

The General Assembly’s Lobbyist-in-a-Box (lis.virginia.gov/cgi-bin/legp608.exe?171+uu1+000000) tool will track as many as five bills for you at no charge.

Make Contact

Start with the bill’s patron. Then find out which committee the bill has been referred to – it’s on the bill summary, available online – and who’s on that committee. Then contact them. If the bill is approved by the committee, it goes to the House or Senate floor, where all legislators in that chamber will have a chance to vote on it.

You could contact every single patron, but that’s probably not necessary. The most important people to contact are your representatives, because they know you can help keep them in office.

From the General Assembly home page, click on “Members and Session” on the upper left of the home page to learn how to find your representatives — or see the guide to local legislators with this article. Your voter registration card lists your House and Senate districts. If you’ve lost your voter registration card, call your city or county voter registration office.

Contact the governor’s office, too, especially if it becomes apparent that the bill will make it to his desk, where he can choose to sign it, veto it or recommend changes.

You also can contact the appropriate cabinet secretary for the issue; get the name and phone number from the governor’s office at (804) 786-2211. Cabinet secretaries also are listed on the governor’s website (governor.virginia.gov/).

Make Your Case

Having a clear, concise and compelling message is key.

Make your best case for how a proposed law would help or hurt you and other Virginians. Don’t send form letters. Anyone can put 50 form letters in the mail or copy several people on the same email.

Address your letter to The Honorable Senator _____ or The Honorable Delegate ______.

Explain briefly what legislation you’re writing about; how it will affect people like you, your family and your community; and how you hope he or she will vote on the matter. If you have a previous relationship with the legislator – maybe you’ve worked on or contributed money to a campaign – it is appropriate to mention it.

For phone calls, the rules are the same – simply say, “Hello, Senator _____” or “Hello, Delegate _____,” introduce yourself, and start talking.

Legislators are extremely busy with meetings during the session, so don’t be surprised or offended if you can’t speak to them directly.

Just leave your concise message with an aide or secretary. Don’t be hostile with the legislators, their staff members or any other people you hope to influence.

In Richmond, it pays to be polite. Passion, not pushiness, is effective.

Wait! There’s a Shortcut

Looks like a lot of work, doesn’t it?

That’s where special-interest groups come in. Industry associations and nonprofit groups use lobbyists.

Supporting such groups with your money and membership gives you an indirect voice in the process. If you want to speak out as an individual, these groups can help you by telling you which bills in the General Assembly might interest you, whom to contact and when.

The secretary of the commonwealth provides a searchable database of registered lobbyists online (solutions.virginia.gov/Lobbyist/Reports/Database). It allows you to find out who represents certain organizations.

Take Your Case to Richmond

Calls and letters are great, but there’s still nothing like being there. Be warned, though: Going to the General Assembly requires careful planning, and things change quickly.

The hearing where you want to testify could be postponed or canceled. You can testify in committee and subcommittee meetings.

To find out when a bill is expected to come up in that committee, call the patron’s office.

Getting There

From the Twin Counties, take Interstate 77 North to Interstate 81 North, then take Interstate 64 West to Richmond. Once you get there, things will be a little different in 2018.

This year, the former General Assembly Building, located at the northwest corner of Capitol Square, is closed to the public as construction continues on a new building.

General Assembly members and staff have been temporarily relocated to the Pocahontas Building, located at 900 East Main Street. The Pocahontas Building is housing the individual offices for the 140 members of the General Assembly, as well as committee rooms and offices for legislative staff.

One legislative agency, JLARC, will be relocated to the SunTrust Building.

The Meeting

Get there before it begins, ask questions of the staff if needed and sign the speaker sign-in sheet if there is one.

When your name is called, get up and make your point just as you would in a letter or a telephone call. (No belligerence, be concise – two minutes or less – and tell a compelling personal story.)

If you’re providing information, it never hurts to have copies of your comments and supporting facts – including your name and telephone number – for the legislators. (Reporters like them, too.)

If the bill survives committee and is approved on the floor of the House or Senate, it goes to the opposite chamber to go through the whole committee review process again. Don’t assume that success in one chamber will be repeated in the other: A bill can fly through one chamber and drop dead when it hits the other side.