Capitol Notebook: What to expect - the fiscal-gap years

Posted: Sunday, May 12, 2002

When it comes to the Legislature of a young state, constituents have few absolutes - one being, of course, that every legislator needs to be watched carefully.

Bill McAllister can be reached at

There is no single right way to guide and instruct legislators, and constituents can use these pointers to supplement and support rather than supplant their own instincts.

No one knows your Legislature as well as you do, so try to discover what works best in your state.

Lying. There are several reasons why legislators sometimes lie.

They get carried away with what they're doing and don't realize that they've crossed over from hyperbole to mendacity. They want to avoid facing consequences. They might seek to deflect attention from other issues. Or perhaps they even have difficulty distinguishing fully between reality and fantasy.

Make it easy for legislators to tell the truth. For example, when they say a fast ferry is coming out of a "sole-source contract," calmly but firmly point out that DOT went out for bids twice on the project.

Secretiveness. Sometimes your Legislature will want to tell you as little as possible about what it's doing. This is because it's afraid of being reprimanded. You must point out that certain oblique phrases - such as, "On lines 25-30, I move the House numbers" - ask others to do too much work figuring out what it's up to.

Encourage complete and voter-friendly debate on the budget conference committee. Make assurances that you're willing to listen to any reasonable argument for spending choices. Emphasize that doors are to remain open at all times.

Food fights. Remind your Legislature that everyone has to eat, and we all need healthy bodies, and it's not OK to allow the spread of illnesses. Make the point that eliminating food inspections should not be used to "get even" on other issues.

Temper tantrums. Your Legislature will want to say repeatedly how much it "hates" taxes. Sometimes it will say taxes are "despicable" and "punish success." You will have to be patient.

But you can point out that all the other little states pay broad-based taxes, and all the big ones, too, and their economies aren't ruined. Taxes are a fact of life, and grown-up legislatures learn to live with them.

Favoritism. Let your Legislature know that it doesn't look good to play favorites. If it eliminates "hold harmless" provisions in the welfare program in regard to permanent fund dividends, and at the same time it offers $600 million in tax breaks to multinational pipeline developers, it might give the false impression that it likes rich people more than poor people.

Promises. If a minority caucus of your Legislature says a long-range fiscal plan is a top priority and then changes its mind, be sure to point out that people don't like quitters. If a project is worth generating hundreds of headlines statewide, it's also worth using a CBR vote to get it. Legislators should never start something they're not willing to finish.

Rewarding good behavior. When one house of your Legislature faces up to a problem and deals with it, be sure to give plenty of praise. This is especially important when the house knows that it will be teased and called bad names by the other house, as when it passes a $900 million revenue package. Let legislators know it's more important to do what they think is right than to be popular.

At the same time, appreciate your more difficult house for the special legislative body that it is, and look for and cultivate its positive traits, if any.

Fighting. Your Legislature is prone to expressing hostility at the media. This is normal; don't panic. At its age, your Legislature understandably has trouble with the concept that scrutiny and parody provide constituent relief. But do explain that lunging at reporters isn't a good idea.

In general, tell your Legislature that smart-aleck columnists who think they're more clever than the state's decent, hard-working elected officials are playing out some trauma from their past, and are more to be pitied than hated.

Bill McAllister, who's dealing with the "terrible twos" at home and at work, can be reached at

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