SALT LAKE CITY — It's that time of year, when lawmakers return to Capitol Hill from their winter break and begin the process of passing a multi-billion dollar budget and hundreds of bills.
This year, they'll deal with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, water conservation, Utah's exploding growth and explore tax cuts. In the aftermath of the highly contentious redistricting process, some feel the legislature doesn't listen to them.
"I think cynicism is real. I feel it in my communications with people," said Katie Wright, the executive director of Better Boundaries, which passed Proposition 4, the citizen ballot initiative that created an independent redistricting commission.
Even though the legislature rejected all of the independent commission's proposed maps, Wright said people cannot opt-out of dealing with the legislature.
"We’re all Americans and our duty is to participate in democracy," she said. "It doesn’t work unless we show up. We vote, we give public comment, we write emails. It’s very important."
Wright said she will be back on Capitol Hill for the 45-day legislative session (Better Boundaries is also advocating and watching some voting legislation). She's among a number of activists, advocates and lawmakers FOX 13 spoke with about best practices for engaging with the legislature.
"It’s super hard because a lot of times the legislature doesn’t listen to us. Our mayor doesn’t listen to us. Sometimes, our governor, he doesn’t listen to us," Rae Duckworth, the operations director for Utah's Black Lives Matter chapter, told FOX 13. "I understand that. It’s super frustrating. But I love that people get frustrated because that means they’re just passionate, right?"
Duckworth said she wants people to channel their frustrations into action, even if they don't want to step foot on Capitol Hill.
"If I can steer them into being passionate and still participating. Even if they’re not up there at the legislature, but they’re willing to talk about these bills and call and email, that’s still protesting within itself," Duckworth said.
Calls, emails and texts do reach lawmakers. Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, said she tries to respond to all of them. But she said form emails are not nearly as effective as personal communications from constituents who share how a piece of legislation might affect them.
"It’s important to engage with elected officials and let them know where you stand on issues. Bills like mine, if it gets that extra push from the public, can pass," she said.
Wright said start with your elected lawmakers. You can look up who represents you at le.utah.gov and click on "My Legislators." Lawmakers FOX 13 spoke with say sign up for their newsletters and visit their town hall meetings (usually held on weekends during the legislative session).
"I recommend people start with their representatives and start a relationship," Wright said.
You can also use the legislature's website to track bills, watch committee hearings and floor debates.
Rep. Keven Stratton, R-Orem, said identify yourself if you live in his district, so he knows you're a constituent (some recommend including your address). While he welcomes emails and texts from all over the state, he said he and other lawmakers do pay particular attention to comments from constituents.
"Let’s have a good discussion," he said.
But don't be a jerk in your communications.
"If it’s not a constructive conversation, I’m not going to engage," said Rep. Romero.
If you come to Capitol Hill, you can send in a note to speak briefly with lawmakers when they have breaks. It's something lobbyists and advocates do frequently. As a result of COVID-19, the Utah State Legislature will again offer an online component of committee hearings to vet bills.
"Vetting and asking questions and then in a respectful, civil manner get to the bottom and make sure we have good information," said Rep. Stratton.
Advocates say it's actually made it easier to get involved, because you can listen to the hearing and offer public comment from the comfort of your home. You sign up on the legislature's website when the committee hearing begins and click "raise your hand" to speak. The online component of the committee hearing also gives rural Utah residents some support: If public testimony gets reduced because of time, it's saved them a four or five hour drive for 30 seconds of comment. This year, the Utah State Senate said some committee chairs may ask people to turn on their cameras (since it technically is testimony in a legislative hearing).
You can also join organizations that regularly advocate in the Utah State Legislature.
"Find an organization with areas you’re interested in," said Rep. Romero. "There’s a lot of issues out there, whether it’s the Sierra Club or Eagle Forum, that can connect you with your elected officials."
After the legislative session is over, keep the lines of communications open, Wright said. She also recommended sending "thank you" emails to lawmakers.
"Finally, consider running yourself or volunteering for a political campaign," Wright told FOX 13. "One way to change the make up of the legislature is to vote some people out and some people in. By being on the ground with campaigns, you really have the opportunity to make some change."
The 2022 legislative session starts Tuesday and will run through March 4.