You’ve no doubt been reading about all of the bills senators and representatives have been working on for the regular session that convenes April 8. But they’re not alone in their work—legislative staffers, department heads and attorneys for the state are the people doing most of the legislation writing.
There are also pages who deliver paperwork on the floors of the House and Senate, cashiers who keep lunch plates moving, janitors who keep the floors clean and tour guides who open up the mysteries of the Capitol for school children. For nearly two decades I’ve also seen folks come and go, testifying on bills and peppering lawmakers with questions, and I still have no idea why they’re there or if they represent anyone.
In short, it takes a village to operate a legislative session, and that includes other journalists like me and lobbyists who make the real money. For reporters, many of them agree that the biggest stories of this regular session may have nothing to do with the session at all. As for lobbyists, many of them believe this session is more about the fall’s re-election bids.
The Reporter’s Perspective
When there’s not much to talk about, people will still find something to talk about, according to Greg Hilburn, the veteran political reporter for the USA Today Network of Louisiana Newspapers. That line of thought, of course, applies to the upcoming regular session and how some journalists may be forced to cover the happening.
“I think it’ll be more about the elections than the session,” Hilburn predicts of the coverage to come. “You won’t see anyone too interested in pursuing controversial legislation in an election year. The governor will continue to push his same priorities, Republicans will work to unseat the governor and that’s the story, probably.”
Hilburn says he’ll be on the hunt this session for legislation, profiles and features that speak directly of the work of the session and the people who fuel it, specially any yarns that appeal to the brand audiences the network papers reach.
“I’m looking already for individual issues that resonate, because I don’t think we’ll be writing about sweeping reforms or changes, nor significant taxes,” he says. “I’m writing about the death penalty, sports betting and the quirky stuff that comes up. And Rep. Sam Jenkins has that road rage bill (HB6). That’ll be interesting to cover.”
So what are lawmakers talking about these days? To no one’s surprise, they’re talking internal politics, or the kind of material mainstream reporters once shied away from, due to the concentrated focus of interest from mainly insiders.
“Every time I talk to someone in the House they’re talking about the speaker’s election,” says Hilburn. “People are already jockeying around. I’ll be writing about that.”
The Lobbyist’s Perspective
For the month of March alone, as of this week at least, state representatives and senators have placed 71 fundraisers on the legislative calendar. The events are all part of a pre-session ritual where deference is granted to the Law Almighty, which has declared any policymaking gathering of the Legislature to be free of fundraising.
Long-time lobbyists believe that could be a record, but few are actually impressed. “It’s going to be really expensive to be me this year,” says one government relations pro with a laugh.
Volume isn’t the only trend influencing the way members of the state lobbying corps will do their jobs this legislative cycle, as lawmakers on average, particularly those from the lower chamber, are also asking for more money than usual.
“Some representatives are asking for $500,” says another lobbyist. “It used to be $250, so now senators and representatives are pushing for the same thing.”
It’s a little too early to tell if this newfound aggressiveness will lead to smaller checks, but an in-house corporate lobbyist says it may force some of his colleagues to be pickier about which members get the enhanced checks.
From the perspective of legislators, campaign expenses are on the rise as tactics become more sophisticated. Lawmakers in rural districts that once boasted little need for billboard advertising—”You do it door to door! With family and friends!”—suddenly have data needs, polling benchmarks and consulting costs.
As for the policy side, an association lobbyist says the uptick in fundraising is why his clients know this coming session won’t amount to much in terms of controversial votes. “My clients are used to being proactive, so sometimes a re-election year session can be challenging,” the lobbyist says. “But it’s about keeping a distance, so to speak, while keeping your eye on the ball. The fortunate ones will be back next year. That’s why some of these fundraisers are just as important politically as some of those committee meetings they’ll be holding.”
So, will the regular session be much ado about nothing? We’ll get our first taste of that answer in less than two weeks.