MFPC’s challenge: How to reach legislators in a ‘virtual’ session

The biggest challenge facing the Maine Forest Products Council right now, along with every organization in the state, is how to advocate for members during the first “virtual” session of 130th Legislature. As with so many things right now, we are uncharted territory. Here’s what I know now, but keep in mind things are changing rapidly all the time.

Don’t expect to be in a committee room with legislators around the horseshoe this session. Instead everybody will be looking through a computer screen.

Due to the pandemic, this legislative session is going to be totally remote. The State House is closed to the public, and pretty much closed to legislators. There will be no legislative sessions or joint sessions of the House and Senate until much later in the spring. Since we can’t talk to them in the halls, legislators are going to be overwhelmed with information from alternative sources, such as calls, emails, texts etc., from various interest groups across the state.

The Legislature’s intent is to begin the session slowly, so it didn’t start Jan. 6 as it normally would.  Bill titles are all we have to work with right now, but the Office of the Revisor Of Statutes has been authorized to print the bills. They will then be sent to the Clerk of the House and the Secretary of the Senate for direct referral to committees. Normally, bills and papers would have been referred through the House and the Senate.

Once bills are printed, committees will begin to do their work on a virtual platform, which at this point is expected to be Zoom. They will go through orientation as new committees, have presentations from various stakeholders, starting with the administration and state agencies, and briefings on materials relevant to what’s before the various committees. They’ll also go through briefings on protocols and expectations, especially with this new platform.

It’s going to be an incredibly different dynamic for both legislators and our members and we will have to work hard to communicate and advocate, especially since not everyone has access to broadband and high speed internet.

I’ve been doing an enormous amount of outreach with legislators, including committee chairs, and here’s where we have some opportunities.  

First, the analysts and staff of the committees will be central to this entire process. Imagine being a legislator on multiple committees, watching hearings on a computer screen for entire days or even into the evening. We know people are going to get saturated. So legislators will rely heavily on the staff, especially the analysts for information. It’s our job to provide them with timely, accurate and succinct testimony and other information.

The Council also has a real advantage because the forest products industry is a statewide constituency that we can tap into. The greatest messengers we have are our members, from individuals to companies, because you have the greatest impact on legislators who will be voting on bills. MFPC members have always worked hard for our industry’s interests, but this time we need them to engage in ways beyond what we’ve asked in the past.

Having said that, the MFPC staff and lobbyist we will do anything everything we can to help with messaging and also help you to feel comfortable communicating directly with legislators.

Don’t forget that at the end of the day, the people who represent you at the legislature are your neighbors. They not only need to hear from you, they will welcome your ideas and insights.