How an Idea Becomes a Bill - Women's Foundation California

School-House-Rock-BillstepsBy Nayantara Mehta, Alliance for Justice
This article was first published on

Working in coalitions requires patience, an ability to disagree without damaging relationships and a balance between the need to hear people out and the need to make decisions. These are some of the biggest lessons I learned during my latest retreat with the Women’s Policy Institute, a program of the Women’s Foundation of California. (Read about our first retreat here.)

My team of five advocates is working on a state bill pertaining to reproductive justice, something we’re all passionate about. Another lesson from the retreat was one I already knew: It pays to practice. More on that below.

We had two goals for the December 2012 retreat:

  1. Arrange meetings with legislators’ staff and legislative committee staff, and
  2. Leave Sacramento with a clear idea of what bill we wanted to advance in the California legislature at the start of the new two-year session this month.

Easier said than done. The good news is that we came out of the four-day retreat with a bill idea that we’re all excited about and which we believe will start an important conversation about the rights of low-income women in California to have control over their reproductive decisions.

The hard part was getting there. We went back and forth; weighing the pros and cons of the three bill ideas we went into the retreat with, keeping in mind the Four M’s (which state that a project should be meaningful, moveable, manageable, and maintainable). We listened respectfully to each other, and got a little impatient with each other, but we finally came to an agreement. It doesn’t hurt that our retreat hotel in Sacramento has a pretty great happy hour.

Identify potential legislative authors

We held meetings with legislative committee staff and aides for a prominent Senator. In deciding whom to meet with, we used a couple of methods—personal connections and cold calls based on research. One of my WPI teammates had an existing relationship with a staffer, who agreed to meet with us to hear out our idea and provide feedback.

For another meeting, the Internet was my friend. I looked up the legislative committee that would likely vote on our bill—the subject matter of our desired bill falls within the purview of the committee—and called that office to ask for an appointment with a legal staffer on the committee. That meeting ended up drawing in three committee staff who wanted to hear about our ideas. Committee staff and aides to individual legislators are used to people calling up and asking for meetings, so getting the appointment was easy.

The biggest factor in the positive reception we received is probably timing. We scheduled our meetings in mid-December, before the start of the 2013 legislative session, so lawmakers were open to ideas and also not distractingly busy.

Gauge support from allies

We talked to potential allies and advocates to assess their support for our various bill ideas. We wanted to know if there was an angle we were missing, or a possibility that the ideas we were considering would have unwanted consequences. We also wanted to know if we could count on partner organizations to support the bill, in whatever way makes sense for them, once it does get introduced.

Make the case for your cause

One of the major lessons of the retreat was: practice matters. As we prepared for our meetings with legislative staff, I thought I knew what I wanted to say in my “elevator speech” to describe both the problem affecting vulnerable women’s reproductive health and access and the proposed legislative solution. But when we held mock meetings to prepare for our real meetings, it became clear that knowing something in my head does not mean it will translate into a coherent statement once it comes out of my mouth.

It was only by honing in on what was really important to convey, and then listening to it out loud, that I could really be confident that it would convince a time-pressed stranger of why he or she should care about my issue. This is a common problem for advocates who know and care a lot about their issues – they sometimes forget that not everyone else is as passionate and that others may not have the patience or interest to be on the receiving end of a monologue.

It’s important to think about what concise points will be compelling to a particular audience, to at least get the conversation started. There will be plenty of time later for presenting comprehensive facts and figures, but an introductory meeting may not be the best occasion. Of course, we still need to be knowledgeable about those facts and figures, in case we get asked questions and have to bolster our pithy statements.

Next steps

Now that we have decided on a bill idea and identified our organizational co-sponsors—ACCESS Women’s Health Justice, the Western Center on Law and Poverty, and the East Bay Community Law Center—the scramble begins. We have to find an author in the legislature. We have approached a potential author in the state Assembly and eagerly await her response. We happen to know that the prospective author is a fan of WPI and its goals, so we hope that her connection to and support of the program will persuade her to work with us.

Our organizational co-sponsors also have great reputations, both in Sacramento and beyond. We submitted proposed bill language to the Assembly member’s office, so that we have time to tweak it before she (hopefully!) submits it later this week to the Office of Legislative Counsel, the agency that drafts legislation.  We’d like to have the process well underway  in time for the 2013 Women’s Policy Summit on January 17, in order to be able to get some publicity for our bill idea, so that is driving our schedule.

To a legislative novice, the timeline, priorities, and terminology can be confusing. Luckily, the Women’s Policy Institute helps us through the process, and the allies we will be working with are pros.  We are all excited to be working together on advancing an issue we think is very important to expanding  reproductive justice. More details to come on our bill idea when we have identified an author.

Nayantara is a senior counsel for Alliance for Justice and is participating this year in the Women’s Policy Institute fellowship program.

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