SALT LAKE CITY — This year's Utah State Legislature is going to be weird.
Already, plans to re-open the Utah State Capitol to the public have been put on hold out of concerns for violent demonstrations and the spread of COVID-19. The building will still be closed when the 2021 legislative session gets under way.
When it does re-open, there will be bag checks and more security and health measures will be strict.
"Everything will be physical distanced, six feet apart, masks required," said Aundrea Peterson, the director of communications for the Utah State Senate. "But that’s where the online engagement is going to be key."
So consider this your handy guide to getting involved in the Utah State Legislature during these wild times.
Sign up online-
Lawmakers still need public comment on bills that can become laws and ultimately affect Utahns. So they've pivoted to taking comment online.
This year, you will be able to watch live video streams of all committee hearings where bills are heard. Once you create an account on the legislature's website, just like in a Zoom or WebEx meeting, you can "raise your hand" function to comment on a bill.
"There’s a request button to speak and the chair will be notified as if you’re in a meeting, you sign your name if you want to do it," Peterson said.
Public comment in a traditional legislative session involves signing a roster, and you'll do that digitally. But instead of driving to the Capitol, struggling to find a parking spot, then waiting through a slew of other bills before they get to the issues you care about, you can multitask like a lobbyist!
Peterson would like to see this method continue post-pandemic.
"We’re actually hoping to see even more engagement from everybody across the state. Hopefully, this is something that can stick around to make it a more convenient and more extensive review process for everybody," she said.
How to talk to your lawmaker (because you must) -
For years now, I've published this guide with little tips and tricks from some of the Utah State Capitol's most known faces. They influence public policy in different ways.
But all agree it is something everyone can do. This year, I talked with Christine Stenquist, the founder of Together for Responsible Use and Cannabis Education (TRUCE), and Troy Williams, the executive director of the LGBTQ advocacy group Equality Utah.
For starters, both say it's important to know who your elected representative and senator are. You can find out by plugging in your address at the Utah State Legislature's website. Visit your lawmaker's page to get their contact info and sign up for their session newsletter for town hall meetings.
"If there is a bill that’s coming up that is on the hill that you’re watching and babysitting, it is important that you reach out to your legislator," said Stenquist.
She paused and added: "YOUR legislator."
It's recommended you start with your elected lawmaker, before moving on to others. You can call, text or email (but know that emails are the preferred method of communication during the 45-day session). Don't forget to let them know that you live in their district by including your contact info. It sometimes takes a bit to hear back, especially during the session, but constituent emails are prioritized above others.
Keep the communication simple. Advocates warn against long-winded emails or copy/paste jobs to rant at a lawmaker about a particular bill or issue. Using bots to contact lawmakers is also considered largely ineffective by Capitol Hill staffers.
And don't just limit your contact to your lawmaker during the 45-day legislative session, said Williams. Some of the best policy work is done outside the 45-day crunch.
"Shoot ‘em a text. Let them know who you are, where you live, let them know the issues that are important to you," Williams said.
Making friends -
Williams said when talking to lawmakers, it is important to maintain a respectful dialogue. Policy making can be emotional, and there is a little give and take in the process of making a bill a law.
"If you want to make progress, if you want to make change, you have to develop relationships with lawmakers who may not share your ideological beliefs, right?" he said. "So be willing to have your heart open and go in with an open mind and maybe they’ll have an open mind back with you."
Stenquist said it's important to have allies.
"Find other groups that are babysitting this issue. If cannabis is your issue? Find TRUCE. Find UPC [Utah Patients Coalition]. Find other groups that are working on this issue so you can watch what they’re doing and add your input to it," she said, adding that social media can be a great tool to find groups and other people just as passionate about your cause.
Stenquist offered other tips on citizen lobbying on cannabis issues via Americans for Safe Access.
Where did the bill go? -
Remember the legislative website I told you about? (Scroll up if you missed that part.)
It has more handy functions. On the front page, you can click on the calendar to see when a committee meets and there are hyperlinks to numbered bills when they're considered.
"Read the bill, you can track each bill and they’ll email you updates as they start moving through the process," Williams said.
When you click on the bill, there's a feature off to the side that says "track this." When you create an account on the legislature's website, you can also sign up for email alerts about a bill you're interested in. It will tell you whenever something's changed on the bill and where it is.
Bills have a lot of legal language, but Williams said it's important you pay attention.
We've got another handy tip. If you use Chrome, there's an extension that was designed by Connor Boyack, the president of the libertarian-leaning Libertas Institute. It highlights new parts in a bill as yellow, and stuff being removed as red.