The primary reasons animal protection bills fail to become law are due to unrealistic ideas about how the legislative process works, as well as unrealistic expectations about the time and energy it takes to pass a bill.
We hope to assist advocates for animals in planning and carrying through a well-conceived, effective legislative campaign. Although the legislative process varies from state to state and from town to town, the guidelines in this publication can be used in almost every type of governmental process to introduce, lobby for, and pass bills or ordinances affecting animals.
For specifics on how your town, city, or state government works, contact your local League of Women Voters, State House, or Town or City Hall. View our webpage for a summary of the legislative process in Massachusetts.
Successful Legislative Campaigns
Many animal protection bills have never moved beyond the draft or introduction stage simply because the individual or organization that offered the bill to its elected officials failed to look at it as a campaign. We will take you step by step through a successful legislative campaign. Although we cannot guarantee that everyone who follows these steps will succeed in having a bill passed, we can guarantee that you will reduce the amount of frustration and heartache you suffer when using this guide. You will also gain respect among the elected officials you worked with which may lead to success the next time.
Before Filing a Bill
Before you even attempt to file a bill, it is imperative that you define and document the problem. Start by collecting data that illustrates the problem. For instance: if you are trying to outlaw the carrying of unsecured dogs in the back of open pick-up trucks, start with the veterinary community in your area. Ask them how many animals they treat each year that have been thrown from or jump out of moving pick-up trucks. What is the extent of injuries suffered by the animals? How much did it cost to treat the animal? Were the costs so high and the injuries so extensive that the owners chose to euthanize the pets? You might try sending out a survey to your local or state veterinary association’s members asking them to help you document the problem. Ask yourself if there is another way of resolving the problem.
Passing new laws is usually a long and tedious process. Can regulations be amended instead? Could the affected industry’s policies or guidelines be changed? Could a public relations or education campaign put enough pressure on the offending parties to make them change? Try other approaches before you decide to go the legislative route. Document your attempts to handle things by non-legislative means. You will usually be asked by your bill’s potential sponsors if you have attempted other avenues of resolution.
If you decide to file legislation, contact surrounding states or towns to find out if they already have a law on the issue. If they do, ask them to send you copies. Elected officials sometimes shy away from being the “first” to try out a new concept. If you can document that other states or localities have already passed similar legislation, your elected officials may feel more comfortable filing or supporting your bill.
Determine who will be impacted by a new law. If there are other communities that might support your legislative endeavors, identify them early in the campaign. Broad-based coalitions not only impress sponsors and carry more weight, they help spread the work around. Even though you may not agree with other organizations on some issues, if you can find common ground in one area, work together toward that shared goal.
You need not only to know who your allies are, but also who potential adversaries are on an issue. Knowing your opposition’s objections to your proposal in advance allows you time to counter their arguments. In some instances, you may be able to make small changes that will appease the opposition or negate their arguments.
Drafting a Bill
It’s not always necessary to reinvent the wheel when drafting legislation. Start by taking a look at statutes that are similar. To find these laws, visit the library and look in the law book section. Most libraries will have not only your own state’s laws, but of surrounding or neighboring states as well. If you can’t find anything in your library, contact a law school near your home to see if they can help out.
If you are fortunate enough to be connected to an on-line computer service such as Westlaw or Lexis, you can track many more laws than you can by visiting a library. But on-line services are expensive, and unless you have funding for the service charge, seek information elsewhere. Most national humane organizations, including the MSPCA, are familiar with animal protection laws in the United States and will gladly share information with you.
Contact other humane societies or animal control facilities who sponsored similar laws. Ask them for their experience in lobbying for passage of the law. Who were their allies? Who were their opponents? How long did it take to pass the bill? How has the enforcement of the law gone? Have there been any legal challenges to the law? How much has it cost to administer the law? All of these questions are important but none more so than the ones relative to costs. Legislators are extremely reluctant to pass any new law which carries even a small fiscal note. And asking the state or county or city to pay for a new animal control or protection program is virtually impossible, even if you have a dedicated revenue source built into the bill. Bills that have a fiscal note are also likely destined to be heard by an additional committee during the legislative process.
If your bill will cost the state or local government money, look for creative ways to pay for the program and include the review source in the bill. For instance, if you are trying to establish a low cost spay/neuter program for your area, there are a variety of ways to pay for the program. Many states have special automobile license plates that can be purchased for a slightly higher fee than the normal plate costs. The additional revenue is dedicated to a spay/neuter fund. Other states have laws which require adopters from shelters and humane societies to post a deposit to insure that animals are spayed or neutered. Unclaimed deposits and fines for failure to comply with spay/neuter laws are channeled to a low cost spay/neuter program. Some areas have used differential license fee’s revenue to pay for sterilization programs.
Whether you include a revenue scheme in your bill or not, make sure you thoroughly review the fiscal note assigned to it by the finance or ways and means committee. Many a bill has been killed outright by an inflated fiscal note which may be highly exaggerated. If you find that the estimated cost to implement your bill has been grossly overstated, you can sometimes get the committee to rewrite the fiscal note if you offer documented proof of the correct costs.
Once you have a completed your homework on the details of the bill and the cost, if any, to implement it, share a draft of the bill and your findings with coalition members. Ask for their comments and make sure you include any agreed upon changes in the draft.
Finding a Sponsor
Your sponsor is the one person who will walk the bill through every step in the legislative process. If he or she is not committed to the bill and/or is unwilling to do battle with opponents when any controversy arises, your bill won’t stand a chance.
Finding a sponsor and getting a commitment from him or her to work with you is one of the most important task you must undertake in your campaign to pass a law. Start with the chairman of the committee that your bill will probably be assigned to or look for a high ranking member of that committee. By having a sponsor who is in a leadership position on the committee or a committee member, your bill stands a greater chance of getting the attention it needs for hearings, mark-up and passage.
Make sure that your sponsor is well educated on the issue. Share with him or her any and all data you have secured in documenting the need for a new law. This includes keeping the sponsor informed of potential opposition and their reasons for opposing the bill. Don’t keep information — even negative information — from your sponsor in hopes that he won’t find out. You will not only lose support on your bill, you may also lose vital support from this individual in the future.
If your sponsor has a staff, get to know them and develop a good working relationship. In some states, it is the staff person who will be your primary contact on legislation. He or she will be responsible for conducting research on the issue and making recommendations to the elected official on what position to take on the bill. Because elected officials have hundreds and sometimes thousands of bills to review each session, they rely heavily on their staff people assigned to the issue to brief them on the pros and cons of the bills, the costs to implement, and the politics of the issue.
Keep the sponsor or the staff member informed of press questions, opposition from other elected officials, and new supporters. Make sure that your sponsor is not caught off guard by new revelations.
Education and Public Relations
Some issues are so important and so newsworthy, they warrant a press conference. If the research you have conducted on your issue generates data which is quite remarkable, consider holding a press conference to announce the findings. You can also use that opportunity to let the public know that you will be seeking legislation to address the problem. Make sure your sponsor is included in the planning of and participation in the actual press briefing if you have already identified a sponsor.
If a press conference is not called for or too difficult for you to coordinate, you should still send out a press release on your findings or your investigation. Getting information out to the broadest audience possible will aid you in your campaign to influence elected officials’ opinions on the issue. Newspaper articles and editorials can then be used in your lobbying material to demonstrate broad based support.
Your own supporters can be kept informed on the issue through legislative alerts or articles in your newsletter. Include a good representative story that personalizes the issue. If you are attempting to pass a law which would increase the penalties for animal abuse, focus on one specific case and demonstrate how the penalty didn’t fit the crime. By personalizing an issue, your readers and members can more easily identify with the issue than if you simply gave them statistics.
Education materials on your issue should be tailored to fit all age groups. Prepare something for school children which can involve them in both a civics lesson as well as one on animal protection. Have hand out material such as fact sheets through your shelter or office. You want to encourage members and the general public to write on the issue.
If you don’t already have a legislative team, create one and involve an organization, like the MSPCA, that has an existing network of advocates. A simple sign up form should be displayed at your shelter or office and included in your newsletter. Give members a variety of participation options to choose from and then build teams within your group. Some may only commit to writing letters. Others may be willing to make phone calls. Some may volunteer to attend meetings or hearings. Be creative in the ways they can help.
Finalizing a Bill
You’d like to pass a law that no one else in the United States has ever attempted to pass before. (Or, at least you think no one else has attempted to pass it.) For this, you need to make sure you have the wording correct, the statute reference correct and that nothing in your proposed law is unconstitutional. Get an attorney! If you don’t have a board member, staff member or good friend who will donate his or her services to do the legal work for you, look to the legislative counsel of the elected body for assistance. Don’t attempt to this on your own. You want to make sure that what you take to your sponsor is constitutionally correct. Give the attorney a rough draft of the bill and ask him or her to review it for correctness. If you are not sure of the exact wording you want in the bill, give the attorney the documentation of the problem and a suggested solution. Then, work closely to craft your ideas into bill format. You may also have access to the legislative counsel of your sponsor.
If there is similar legislation in other states or cities, write the bill based on those statutes and then work with legislative counsel or a private attorney to make sure you have referenced the proper area of law. Show them the statutes from other states or towns as well as the documentation you have developed from your own area.
Submitting a Bill
Many jurisdictions have filing deadlines for new legislation. Some also limit the number of bills a legislator may file in a session. Know what the rules are in your legislative arena and prepare a schedule to help you meet deadlines and rules.
Giving your sponsor the time it takes to work the bill through the legislative process starts with filing the bill well in advance of the session’s adjournment.
Meet with your sponsor with the drafted bill and set a date for filing. If you agree to have it coincide with a press release or press conference, allow time to notify the media. Make sure your sponsor’s office have plenty of copies of data or support material to send out with copies of the bill if contacted by the media or other elected representatives.
If you’ve never attended a hearing on a proposed new law or ordinance, you will probably be dazed by the whole experience.
Most legislative bodies deal with many bills in one hearing, sometimes as many as fifty at a time. This leaves little time to go in-depth on any one bill. If your bill is controversial, it may be separated out from others and a special hearing might be scheduled on it alone.
Touch base with your sponsor to make sure he will be there. If your sponsor can’t attend, make sure a co-sponsor can. If you have no one on the committee as a sponsor or co-sponsor, it is important that at least one non-committee co-sponsor show up for the hearing.
Prepare suggested questions for committee members who are supporters of the bill. Although most legislative bodies limit the amount of time you have to testify for or against a bill, the questioning period, during which committee members may ask direct questions of those who have come to testify, is generally not limited. This is a great time for you to address some of the myths surrounding your bill which may not have been addressed in your oral presentation. You may also give them questions to ask of the bill’s opponents.
Line up expert witnesses to testify on your bill. Veterinarians might talk about the type and extent of injuries they have treated on dogs who have jumped or been thrown from the back of pick-up trucks. Animal control officers can speak about the number of unwanted litters picked up during kitten season. But, try to secure experts from your own area. A wise old legislator from Tennessee once asked, “Don’t you have anyone here from our state? We were not elected by people from Arizona or New York.”
At the Hearing
Let the chairperson of the committee and your sponsor know who you have brought in to testify and what in order you would like for them to speak. In some states, proponents of the bill go first, and opponents go last. In other states, proponents and opponents are alternated.
Keep your oral testimony brief. You can make your written testimony longer, and you can include back up documentation such as surveys, scientific papers, news articles, etc., to bolster your case. But, don’t get carried away. Be concise.
During the questioning period, stick to the issue. Don’t engage a hostile legislator in debate and don’t argue points for which you don’t have solid statistics. If you don’t know the answer to a question, say so. Respond back to the questioner after the hearing once you have the correct information.
Visit our webpage on tips for testifying with additional information on this part of the process.
After the Hearing
Remember to write a short note to all those who supported you at the hearing. Also, send out any additional information you promised to committee members or media. If there is any new information that is helpful to your position that surfaces after the hearing, send that to committee members.
Call your sponsor after the hearing and ask if there is anything else he or she wants you to do. Are there any committee members who may be undecided? Would a personal visit help? What suggestions does he or she have on where to go from here?
Lobbying your Bill
You’ve found a committed sponsor, you’ve conferred with an attorney, you’ve drafted a bill, your sponsor has filed it, and you’ve held a press conference. Congratulations! Now the hard work starts.
Find the most comfortable shoes in the world because you’ll really need them as you begin to do “Halls and Walls.”
Halls and Walls is the process of visiting all the elected officials and/or their staff who will be voting on your bill. And by all, we do mean ALL. You will need to reach out to everyone, even those you know in advance who will oppose your efforts.
The first step is to assemble lobbying packets. The packets should be short and concise. A one page fact sheet that lays out the arguments for your position and helps to dispel myths is always helpful. Include in your packet any news articles, editorials, or op-ed pieces which support your bill or position. Op-ed pieces or letters to the editor are particularly influential with elected officials. As one very powerful U.S. Senator stated, “I skip the newspaper’s editorials and go directly to the letters section. I already know what the paper thinks, I want to know what my constituents think!”
Be prepared to counter arguments from your opposition. In some cases, you may want to include their arguments in your written material and give your rebuttal as well. In other cases, it’s best not to raise the opposition’s stand but to be ready to rebut it once the argument is raised.
Meetings with Elected Officials
Call in advance to arrange a meeting with elected officials or their staff. A prearranged meeting gives you more time to discuss the issue than the chance meeting in the hall or a “drop-by” meeting.
During meetings, remember to always be polite. Even if the legislator is opposed to your bill, politely explain your points and listen to his/her opposition. You may find that you aren’t that far apart on the issue.
Arrange to see the members of the committee that will hear your bill first. Try to get a personal appointment. If that is not possible, leave an information packet and follow through with a phone call to see if he/she has any questions.
After your meeting, send a thank you note to the legislator or staff for their time and attention to your issue. Remember to send any additional information or data they requested.
During your meetings, do not lie, exaggerate or make up information. If you don’t know the answer to question, say so. You can always get back to them with the correct information at a later date.
Lobbying Through the Media and Membership
Time for more press releases! Now you can add the bill’s number and sponsors name as well as any new coalition members you may have picked up along the way. But don’t send out a press release with your sponsor’s name on until you have cleared it with their office. Run a draft through the media person or whoever handles press for your sponsor. Once you’ve received the go ahead, make sure you send the sponsor the final press release as well as copies of articles picked up by the media.
Send out another round of legislative alerts to your members. Inform them of the bill’s number, sponsor, and status and let them know what they can do to help the bill along. Leave extra copies of the alert out on the counter of your shelter or in information racks in public areas of your office. Everyone interested in this issue needs to be a lobbyist for the bill. Educate members and supporters through any avenue you have available.
Voting on the Bill
The names used for the hearing at which legislators vote can vary quite a bit. Congress refers to it as “marking up a bill.” Some state bodies call it an “Executive Session.” Others refer to it as simply “a vote.” Whatever the name, the process is usually standard.
The time for voting on a bill varies from state to state and from municipality to municipality. Be sure you know the schedule and rules governing the particular legislative body that is handling your bill. However, when a vote is finally scheduled, make sure you attend.
In most committee hearings in which a vote is taken, the public is not allowed to comment. Discussion may sometimes take place among the committee members and questions may be asked for which your sponsor doesn’t readily have the answer. Work with the sponsor and their staff to anticipate questions and try to develop a system of getting the correct information to your sponsor as the questions are asked.
Take notes on the questions asked and get back to the questioners with current information on the subject. Check with your sponsor or other supportive committee members to see what concerns haven’t been addressed and how you might accommodate those concerns.
If your bill survives the markup and gets a favorable vote, go celebrate. The vast majority of bills are killed in committee, either outright or by referral to another committee or to a study. Few bills ever survive a study committee.
Fiscal Review Committees
Bills that have any sort of financial impact on a governmental body are usually destined for yet another committee. As mentioned earlier, it is very important for you to know the fiscal impact of your bill and to follow through with the correct cost figures if an incorrect amount has been assigned to your bill.
Once the bill goes to the fiscal review committee, check to see that the correct cost figures go with it. Be ready to defend the cost to administer your bill and substantiate the revenue you anticipate from its passage. If you are not providing a new revenue source for the administration of your bill, give creative, but realistic, suggestions as to where the money may come from. Work with all members of the fiscal review committee to substantiate the need for your bill and why funds should be taken from another programs to pay for yours.
Many governments have additional committees that review bills in the legislative process. Some of these committees look at the bill to make sure they are constitutional and reference the correct section of law. Other committees schedule bills for a vote. Be sure to become familiar with the legislative process in your area. Work with your sponsor to insure the bill doesn’t become lost in the myriad of committees it may have to pass through prior to passage.
On the Floor
Your bill has survived all the committees, withstood the fiscal review, and is now on its way to the floor of the chamber in which it was introduced. Pat yourself on the back, and get back to lobbying. You must now reach every member of the chamber who will vote on your bill. Try to arrange personal appointments with each member. If that is not possible, try to meet with the staff member. In any case, you need to drop off an information packet with a personal note telling the members that you appreciate their busy schedule but hope they will take a minute to look over your material. Invite them to contact you if they have questions. If you know the date of the hearing, include it in the information packet, and ask for their votes on that day.
Day of the Vote
When the bill does come up for a vote on the chamber floor, be there. It’s always comforting for your sponsor to know that you care enough about the bill to follow it all the way through the process. It also lets other legislators know that you are monitoring the voting on your bill.
A bill can be stalled on the floor as well as voted up or down. Watch for parliamentary moves that send your bill into never-never land. It isn’t necessary to memorize Robert Rules of Order but it is helpful to know at least a few of the key parliamentary moves used by legislators to delay bills.
Regardless of what happens to your bill, try to remain calm. Even if the bill is voted down, it may not mean the death knell for your issue. Confer with your sponsor and ask advice on what to do next.
If your bill passes, be a gracious winner, and remember that you will have to repeat the process in another chamber if your bill is on the state level. Savor your victory, and rest up for the lobbying of the other chamber.
The Art of Compromise
Few bills are ever passed into law with the original language still intact. When initially drafting the bill, you should consider which issues are negotiable and which ones aren’t. Have a clear bottom line and let your sponsor know what that is.
Following your bill throughout the process gives you the ability to track any change which may be detrimental. Often, you can negotiate with the sponsor of an amendment to rewrite it in such a way that you both still win.
Let’s say you wrote a bill that would substantially increase the penalty for cruelty to animals. The current statute makes cruelty a misdemeanor with a 30 day jail term and/or a maximum fine of $100, regardless of the severity of the crime. You want to change the law to make it a felony provision and a fine of up to $5000 and/or five years in prison.
Many legislators shy away from increased penalties for cruelty to animals when they can’t even move their bills on stiffer penalties for child abuse or spouse abuse. Negotiating a compromise on this issue might mean defining which acts of cruelty fall under a misdemeanor provision and which would be considered a felony under the proposed bill.
If a legislator wants to exempt a certain industry or some species of animals from the law in order to pass your bill, draw the line. Adding any sort of exemption to a law where none currently exists would drastically reduce any gains you make by increasing the penalty
Surviving a Conference Committee
The two chambers of your state Legislature have passed a version of your bill.
Unfortunately, they are not the same. One chamber passed it the way you wrote it. The other added three weakening amendments, including one that moves the effective date back one year.
What Do You Do Now?
Don’t panic. Your sponsor can help you smooth out the problems, particularly if they sit on the conference committee. Again, you need to let the sponsor know your bottom line. You might be able to live with a delayed effective date if they can manage to delete the industry exemption amendment.
Find out who sits on the conference committee and lobby them to support your bill with whatever amendments you can live with. Spell out the detrimental effect any amendments would have, and ask for their support to override the amendments. Thank them for past support and provide them with any additional information they may need to maintain their support of your bill.
If the conference committee issues a report that would drastically change the intent of your bill and your prospects for overriding the report in either chamber looks dim, it is time to consider pulling your bill. Discuss with your sponsor the realistic prospects of salvaging the bill and whether it should be pulled.
Lobbying the Governor
Remember to ALWAYS lobby the governor, as he or she will sign your bill into law. Get the governor on your side early in the game, and once the bill has been filed, be sure key staff received the following:
- a brief notice on your bill, its number
- a description of what the bill does
- a fact sheet on the bill
Once the bill has passed the legislature, write a letter to the governor outlining what your bill does and who its supporters are. Let the governor know of the broad based support for your bill. Address any continuing opposition up front, and share that you are available to answer any questions they or staff may have. Ask the governor to sign your bill into law.
If the governor does sign your bill, be sure to say thanks both personally and publicly. Send out a press release that recognizes your sponsor, the governor, and all of the supporters of your bill.
Never hang your heart or your hat on a bill. Few bills ever pass the first or the second time around.
Even the most seasoned veteran of the legislature has watched a favorite bill go down to defeat. If you are easily discouraged by defeat or have little stamina, you might want to consider staying out of the legislative arena.
Don’t forget that there is always next year. You may find that when you try again, you have your facts more substantiated and there are more supporters for your position.
Minding Your Manners
Say “thank you” to any and all individuals who worked with you on your bill. Remember to do this regardless of the outcome. You will need them again in the future, so even if you lose, you want them to know that you appreciate their support and work on the bill. Thank you messages should be extended to everyone who worked on your bill. This list includes legislative staff, media, other organizations, your own volunteers and members, as well as elected officials.
Lobbying on a Shoestring by Judith Meredith.