Legislation – How to Talk to Your Senator or Representative

State legislation and local laws dramatically affect animal control activities.  Therefore, it is imperative that animal control agencies serve as experts in ordinances and laws that address public safety relating to animals.  Too often, well-intentioned legislators will sponsor bills that compromise animal control laws because they aren’t aware of what we do or how we do our work.  You can help forestall these ill-conceived bills by establishing relationships with your local legislators and positioning yourself as an expert in these issues so when something comes up, they give you a call.

Before Legislation Hits the Floor

Visit the district office of your Senator or Representative and introduce yourself.  Explain your work and invite them to your facility.  Leave contact information so that they can reach out to you with questions or concerns.  It’s best to establish a relationship with legislators BEFORE an issue arises so you can capitalize on it when you need to.   Don’t wait for a crisis to reach out to them.  It’s also a good idea to visit the Springfield office whenever you’re in town – just stop in to say hello and keep them up to speed on any legislative matters that may be coming their way.  If they’re not in, speak with their assistant and leave a card.

Less effective than a personal visit, but still an alternative, is a handwritten letter or note to your legislator introducing yourself and again, perhaps, inviting them to your facility.  After an election, send a personal note of congratulations.  Identify yourself as an animal control official and offer to be a resource for them on animal and public safety issues.

A note about legislative staff – they can be your best ally.  Be sure to treat them as professionals and with dignity and respect.  Introduce yourself and explain what you need to relay to the legislator.   Be sure to give your name, contact number, and tell them you’re a constituent.

The ultimate goal is for your elected officials to think of you when faced with a bill that addresses animals and/or public safety.  Ideally, your legislator will call you for your position on proposed legislation and will take your opinions into consideration.  The only way to ensure this occurs is to set the stage by establishing a relationship before something comes up.   If you live in one district and work in another, establish these relationships with the elected officials in both districts – you’ll have twice the influence!

What to Do When A Bill Gets Introduced

When a bill has been introduced and is moving through the legislative process, you may want to contact your elected officials and ask that they support or oppose a particular bill.  This is much easier than it sounds – particularly if you already have an established relationship.  Some simple tips to keep in mind when contacting legislators:

DO:

  • Personally visit the district office or Capitol office to speak with the legislator.  If that’s not possible, call the Capitol office and district office.
  • When your representative is not available, leave a detailed message with the his assistant.  You can also fax a note or send an e-mail, but personal contact is always preferred.
  • Identify the bill number and subject matter that’s at issue.  Be specific about what action you want your legislator to take (i.e. Please support HB 7781 or Vote NO on HB 7781.)  Indicate whether or not you’re a constituent.
  • If you have a position statement, share it with them.  A one-page document that outlines important points (either in support or opposition) is very helpful to busy officials.
  • Be prepared to explain your position if asked.  If you don’t know an answer to a question, tell them you don’t know but will find out.  Then, get that answer and call the legislator back.  If you have a position statement or bullet points on this issue, get that information to them via e-mail or fax.
  • Treat the legislator as a friendly, intelligent person who is trying to make good decisions.  Send a thank you note for their consideration.
  • Follow up on the legislation so you know how they voted after your contact – it’s important to be aware of how your representatives vote on your issues.  Communicate with them to let them know you’re paying attention to how they vote.
  • Fill out a witness slip!!!  When bills are in committee, witness slips are often read into the committee minutes.  Here’s your chance to state your position without having to travel to the Capitol.  For information on completing a witness slip, see our Legislation – Get Involved page.

DON’T:

  • Don’t start your conversation with “I’m a taxpayer” or “As a concerned citizen”.  Legislators know you pay taxes and are a citizen.
  • Don’t apologize for visiting, writing or calling.  Listening to citizens is a huge part of their job.  Just be sure your communication is short, on point, and clear.
  • Don’t be rude, disrespectful, or threatening.  Don’t suggest that you will not vote for the legislator if they don’t do what you want; don’t threaten to withdraw contributions or support.
  • Don’t get frustrated if a legislator is late to a meeting or not in their office.  Our elected officials face many demands on their time and do their best to keep appointments.  It may not always be possible.  Work with their staff on how best to get a few moments of their time.  If you’re visiting in the Capitol, the only time you may get with your Senator or Representative is as they walk from their office to the Capitol – but at least you’ll have their attention.
  • Don’t answer a question that you don’t know the answer to – offer to find out and get back to them.  “I don’t know, but I’ll find out” is always acceptable as long as you follow up with the answer.

Finally, the most important thing to remember when speaking with your legislators is to be professional, honest, forthright, and helpful.  And, while it may seem overwhelming to introduce yourself and start this relationship – it will pay off in many ways in the long run.  And, legislators expect – even appreciate hearing from their constituents.  So, reach out and tell them about yourself and your work!