What Owners Need to Know About Influencing Legislation – Amy Volk

Amy Volk shares with us exactly how, when, and where you can influence and change the laws coming out of Augusta.

Rich: My guest today is a four-term former lawmaker who currently serves as Director of Communications and Public Relations for Volk Packaging Corporation in Biddeford. While serving in the legislature, she chaired the labor, commerce, research, and economic development committees. Now today we’re going to dive into what business owners need to know about affecting laws and legislations in Augusta, with the honorable Amy Volk. Amy, welcome to the show.

Amy: Thank you so much, Rich.

Rich: So this is actually the first episode where I’m flying solo. I don’t have Yury by my side and his level of enthusiasm, so I’m going to have to make it up on my own. So I thought we’d start with something new here. Amy, what was your first job?

Amy: My first job, my first real job I would say I was a cashier at Bradlee’s. And anybody who is from Southern Maine might remember Bradlee’s.

Rich: I grew up in Massachusetts. I do remember Bradlee’s, but it is so far in my past. I can’t even remember what the logo looks like anymore. Very cool. All right. So beyond you being the first guest on the Fast Forward Maine podcast where I’m starting to be the solo host, you’re also the first current or former lawmaker we’ve ever had on the show. And you’re also one half of the first married couple that’s been interviewed on the show since we interviewed Derek a few weeks ago or a few months ago, how to hire an executive assistant. And you’ve always been on the forefront of change.

Amy: I would say, no.

Rich: I’m glad that I could have so many firsts with you then. All right. I am excited to dive into this because I feel like a lot of business owners have no idea what goes on in Augusta, or what type of impact they could have on the process for business owners who feel like their responsibility or influence on legislation starts and stops at the voting booth. What would you say to those people?

Amy: I would say that lawmakers, particularly in the state of Maine because it’s such a small state, really can be influenced in a powerful way by not just the voices of employers, but the voices of all of their constituents. I mean, in Maine we really have ready access to our lawmakers because of our small population.

Rich: So if somebody is, whether they’re an owner or a business leader or what have you, if they want to reach out to their elected officials, what’s the best way to get started?

Amy: Sure. The best way to get started, honestly, is if you don’t know who they are, it’s pretty easy to go onto the legislative website for the state of Maine and to look it up. It’s actually, lawmakers are listed alphabetically by town that they represent. And so you want to look up both your House rep and your State Senator. And then if you are a business owner, your business may be located in a different municipality or a different district than where you live. So business owners actually have the advantage of being able to also reach out to the House rep and the Senator in the district that’s covered by the business that they own as well.

Rich: Amy, in the bio I mentioned that you served on labor, commerce, research, and economic development, all these different committees. Is the first step always our personal legislators for where we work in and where we live, or are there times where we should be going directly to a committee member?

Amy: Rich, that is such a good question. And I feel like that is actually the thing that most business leaders don’t actually know the most about. And so you are completely correct that the time to really be able to influence a bill is the time that it’s in the committee, when it’s at the committee level. And when a bill is at the committee level, you should not feel at all hesitant to reach out to every single member of that committee and let them know how that bill is going to impact you directly personally, or your business or your employees, or your customers, whatever the situation is. Every single one of those committee members is going to be taking a keen interest in that legislation.

So then in addition to that, you can also reach out to the bill sponsor, the primary sponsor, and also any co-sponsors on the bill and request a meeting, request a phone call. Don’t hesitate to do that. That’s really the time to reach out and be able to shape a bill. And I think that a lot of people would be very, very surprised at how receptive a lot of lawmakers are to a personal contact like that.

Rich: So let’s take a step back. And for those of us whose civics education began and ended with School House Rock, so just walk us through the process. So some lawmaker decides that a law needs to be created or changed or whatever the case may be, and they bring it to the floor. What happens then? What are the steps where it starts at an idea and actually becomes a law?

Amy: Sure. So every law begins with an idea.

And so a lot of times when I was in office, especially after my first term, when I got reelected in my second term, I actually had a lot of people, um, organizations, um, individual constituents reach out to me and say, “Hey, would you sponsor this legislation? I have this idea.’ All the lawmaker has to do to submit legislation initially is basically submit a title and a very rough idea, not even a rough draft, just a rough idea of what they want that legislation will do. Sometimes they’ll even just put a title in and say that it’s a concept draft, which basically means it’s a title that doesn’t mean and have an idea. So there’s literally, uh, dozens and dozens of times in each session of the legislature.

So then they will work with what’s called the Revisers Office, which is a team of attorneys that specialize, they’re employed by the Maine legislature and they specialize in writing legislation. They know Maine statute inside and out. They have different specialties. So the lawmaker will then sit down with the reviser, who’s an attorney, and the Reviser’s office draws up the legislation. But in cooperation with the lawmaker, the lawmaker doesn’t drop the legislation themselves. I mean, that might happen occasionally if someone is an attorney or has a ton of experience, but in my experience that’s not how it works.

So then that legislation is assigned to a committee. The committee then schedules it for a hearing, and that is a public hearing. So right now, unfortunately all of the public hearings are being held on Zoom. It’s fortunate and it’s unfortunate. It’s actually a good thing for those of us in the business world now. I think there’s a lot lost with lawmakers, not being able to look each other in the eye in person and not being able to have those conversations in the hallways, and all of that teamwork stuff that goes on behind the scenes. But for the general public, I’ve now testified two or three separate times. It’s easy because I can monitor the whole thing while I’m working from my desk. I don’t have to drive up to Augusta and wait around for what can be hours and hours before I go in and give my two minutes of testimony.

So, what you want to do is if there is a bill that has been brought to your attention or that you have been following on your own, you would want to at that point, reach out to all of those committee members and let them know that you have an interest in this bill and that you would like to testify. Currently you have to go on to the committee website and register to submit the ledger. You can send your testimony in ahead of time so that all the committee members can view that testimony as you’re talking, and you can just decide whether you want to sort of wait in line that day online virtually just like a zoom call.

And then at some point in time you’re un-muted and they call on you, you read your testimony, you offer to answer any questions. Typically most legislators are not going to grill a business owner or a member of the public who is up there submitting testimony, trying to take an interest in the process. It might happen occasionally, but typically those things are very respectful.

Rich: Once things have gone into committee and there’s conversation around it, what happens next?

Amy: So what happens after the hearing? So typically proponents go first, then opponents, then those testifying neither for nor against. After that the committee will schedule a work session. And the work session is not an opportunity for the public to offer testimony unless they have been specifically invited by the committee chairs to do so. Sometimes committees will at the hearing say, “We would like you to bring more information to us to the work session, or to send us more information for the work session.” That’s fine. If that is the case, then you may be called upon during the work session, you may not be.

The work session is really an opportunity for the legislators to discuss it amongst each other with the bill sponsor. The bill sponsor may have an amendment that they bring with them to the work session. There may or may not be a vote at the end of that work session. Sometimes the committee chairs will decide we’re not quite there yet, we want to have another work session. So you can have an infinite number of work sessions, in my experience. There’s not usually more than one, two or three work sessions, even on bills that are complicated. A lot of that stuff will happen sort of behind the scenes in terms of different stakeholders discussing it with particularly the committee chairs.

The committee chairs really have quite a bit of control over what happens in the committee, how quickly things happen in the committee. They’re the ones that schedule everything. They really do play a really big role in shaping the legislation for their particular committee.

So once it’s been voted on in committee at the work session, at the end of the work session, it will have either a divided report or a unanimous report. And that’s exactly how it sounds. Unanimous means everyone on the committee agreed, divided report is often party lines. Unfortunately not always, but often party lines. And that will be all of the Republicans for it, all the Democrats against it. Or there may be one or two token that went one way or the other, then that report is put onto the calendar. So if the bill was sponsored primarily by a Senator, it’ll first go to the Senate calendar. And if it was sponsored by a House rep, it’ll first go to the House calendar and it’ll be scheduled for essentially for debate on a particular day, beginning in either the Senate or the House, depending on the sponsor.

It may or may not actually be debated that day. Very often things are put off and then they go to the back of the calendar and that’s typically when there’s still some discussion going on amongst, or some education, even just going on amongst the lawmakers. But it could be voted on.

Rich: Is the public allowed to participate in that, when it gets taken to the Senate floor, the House floor, or that’s all done by a representative?

Amy: Right, right. So that is really the point. So if a bill makes it through committee and it has a divided report in particular. If it’s a unanimous report one way or the other, chances are, it’s just going to go “under the hammer”. And that basically just means it’s going to get passed without a vote.

Unless there is something about the bill where people want to be on record in a particular way, or they want to get other people on record in a particular way, and then they will call for a roll call vote. But typically with a unanimous report, unless it’s something that everybody thinks is a great idea and it’s somehow gotten a lot of press, it will typically just go under the hammer. It happens very quickly and there’s no debate. The public certainly doesn’t have any input in that. The place to have your input for is really at the committee level.

However, If there is a divided report, then that means most likely there will be a vote in both the House and the Senate. So you do want to reach out to your local state rep, state Senator, your business’s state rep, state Senator. You know, it depends on how big a deal the vote is, you know?

Rich: And they will bring in members of the public, whether they’re business owners or just civilians, to weigh in on this or to provide testimony when it does come to that divided recommendation?

Amy: Not in either chamber. But you should reach out to them to let them know that you would like them to vote a certain way. You know, “I am concerned about this bill that passed through the labor committee and I do not support it. It would be bad for my business because XYZ. Please vote against it.”

Rich: Okay. So let me just recap to make sure that I understand. Because that was incredibly helpful, Amy, so thank you. But it sounds like if you’re a business owner, the best times to really get your voice heard would be is, if you have an idea that could be turned into a law, that you reach out to either somebody who might be on the committee or maybe your local representative when something goes to committee and you’re aware of it is that you go to testify for or against it.

And then if it does, if it’s divided when it leaves committee and there’s going to be some debate on the floor, then you reach out to your local representatives. And again, business owners may have the opportunity of talking to multiple people in this case and let them know how you feel the impact it’s going to have on your business pro or con.

Amy: Absolutely. And you would be amazed how few people bother to ever do that. So don’t ever feel like, “Oh, well they’re not willing to be interested in hearing from me because I’m sure they’re getting tons of phone calls, tons of emails.” Chances are no, they’re not. So you sometimes get a lot of emails and a lot of phone calls, but they are form emails or auto-generated phone calls, and we legislators know when that’s happening and so they’re essentially completely discarded, disregarded entirely.

Rich: Yeah, I get emails that say something like, “I noticed that there are some errors on your website. For X number of dollars we can fix them.” I’m like, yeah, not, that’s a kind of form.

Amy: Yeah, right.

Rich: To that, you kind of mentioned that you recently “went to Augusta” as a private citizen to testify. So what was that experience like for you? And obviously you know what it’s like on the other side. Maybe just talk a little bit about the Zoom experience in general.

Amy: Sure. So the Zoom experience right now, testifying in front of the legislature is, very, very simple. The hardest thing about it is, I find it even though I’ve done it now, I found it a little bit hard to find where to indicate that I wanted to testify. But once you find that link – and again, you go to the legislative website and then you go to the committee that the bill is going to be heard in front of – and then you check their calendar, and you can submit your testimony. You just upload it. You know, we’re all used to uploading documents at this point in time, you can upload it and then there’s a little checkbox that says that you want to deliver your testimony live.

And then it’s like a Zoom meeting, it really is. You see all the members of the committee on their own little screens, and then when they are calling upon you, you’re automatically un-muted. They keep you muted until it’s your turn, essentially. And then you have your opportunity to speak. Don’t forget to ask them if they have any questions or say I’m available for questions and be respectful. I think that’s one of the most important things, in my experience. Most people are but address the committee chairs first and then. And then you can just say, “and other members of the transportation committee” or whatever committee it is. And then you also need to identify yourself; your name and your place of residence, or the business that you’re representing and where that business is located.

Rich: Amy, if somebody wants to kind of see this in action before they’re willing to stand up and speak on their own, is there a place we can go and just kind of watch some of these committee meetings since so much stuff is happening via Zoom and other platforms these days?

Amy: Absolutely. And I mean, all of those meetings are open to the public to view. So you don’t have to be somebody who’s planning on testifying in order to view a committee meeting. Committee meetings by law are open to the public.

Rich: And we’re going to put some links in the show notes. So if you’re listening right now and you’re curious about where to find these things online, we’ll put those all into the show notes today.

Now Amy, you’ve been on both sides obviously of the table when it comes to these kinds of conversations as a Legislator. What are you looking for as far as testimony goes, what matters to you? And what do you find is just unimportant?

Amy: So what matters? Respect was always very important. Originality, I would say. To not feel as though you’re simply there at the behest of some organization or some lobbyists with canned, a testimony that was written for you. So don’t be afraid to get personal about how legislation is going to impact your life, your family’s life, or your business, or your employees. Those are all really important details and I think it helps. Tell the story, so to speak, of the legislation and what its impact could be one way or the other.

Rich: Now you mentioned lobbyists briefly. What role do lobbyists play in everything that we’ve talked about so far?

Amy: So lobbyists play a pretty large role in shaping legislation. And certain organizations that hire lobbyists have more influence than others, unfortunately, just to be truthful. But I’m also not somebody that wants to give all lobbyists a bad name. I think they tend to get a bad name and they get a lot of bad press. But I think really that is more because people view the federal level and lobbyists in Washington, and that sort of what they’re thinking of when they hear the word ‘lobbyist’. The lobbyists in Augusta that I worked with, I often found to be really, really knowledgeable, to be really passionate about the causes that they were championing.

And a lot of them, especially in Maine because we have term limits, a lot of people like the term limits. But term limits mean that unless you’re somebody like Bill Diamond or Representative Martin out of Aroostook County, who’s been in the legislature for like 40 years or something, or longer than that even, I think. Some people will do their four terms in the House, and then they run for Senate. They serve four terms in the Senate, and then they go back, and they serve four terms in the House, and then they go back to this. So I mean, there are certain people that have done that. Those people have a ton of institutional knowledge, but for a lawmaker who is in their freshmen or even their sophomore term, they haven’t built up that institutional knowledge.

And let me tell you, I was just at the point where I felt like I had that to offer, and then I got taken out of office. And if I had stayed in the House, I would have been termed out anyway.

As it was, I served two terms in the House and then two terms in the Senate, and then I lost in 2018. But if you’re going to have term limits like that, then guess who the experts are. It’s the lobbyist. So there’s really a double-edged sword up and in Augusta and our state. And so a lot of the lobbyists just, they know a lot about previous legislation, previous attempts to pass similar legislation. They know a lot about the industries that they’re representing, and they can be a really good source of information. Of course, all that information needs to be taken with a grain of salt and weighed against the people who have the opposing view. But that’s what your committee work is for.

Rich: All right. Amy, what do you wish people knew about legislators and maybe even just the legislation process that people generally don’t know?

Amy: So I’d say a couple of things. One thing is that in Maine you are paid less than minimum wage to serve in the legislature. So I would get these emails that were talking about legislators as though we had the same sorts of benefits that people who serve in Washington receive. No, no, no, not at all the case. So that’s one thing. It’s not a get rich scheme in the Maine legislature at all. It’s basically a voluntary position that people are doing out of love for their state, love their community.

That said, most of them have the right intentions. You know, even the people that I ardently disagreed with on issues, most of the time – with very few exceptions – I felt like they just had a different way of viewing the world. And so we came to different conclusions on some of the issues. That said there’s really not as much nasty bickering as it would appear. That’s the stuff that gets covered in the press and covered on social media. It’s not necessarily the reality day in and day out. It’s probably a little worse now because you’re not getting that in-person comradery. And again, that’s one of the things that’s lost in this age of quarantine that we seem to be trapped in.

And then the other thing that I wanted to make sure I mentioned is the importance of industry groups. That kind of goes back to the previous question about the lobbyists, but industry groups are sort of a different animal. So like the state Chamber of Commerce, even your local Chambers of Commerce, we are very active with Manufacturers Association of Maine. Those industry groups are the industry groups that are watching legislation and if they communicate to you that a bill is important and they want you to testify, or you should pay attention and you should follow that lead. If that issue is important to you and your business because they are serving as basically that funnel for, there’s 2,000 bills but these 20 could impact your business, could you please pay attention and weigh in on them?

Rich: That’s a great point because we’ve done some business with a number of organizations in Maine that do speak for their members in Augusta, they have a lobbying arm. If you don’t belong to an organization like that, do you have any recommendations for how people can stay on top of legislature? Just if they’re generally curious, because they might want to have their 2 cents when it comes to the committee.

Amy: Sure. So you can actually ask to be placed on committee’ email lists, and that way you will get the daily rundown of the whole week schedules worth of what bills are having hearings, what bills are having work sessions, what bills are having a second work session. So for example, if you were an oil dealer, you might want to get put on the email list for the Energy committee and probably for Transportation, because you’ve got trucks out on the road all the time. And then possibly on the Labor committee or something like that. Just about every business should be paying attention to the Labor committee, especially in this session of the legislature. I’m just going to put that out there.

Rich: Great advice. Amy, we ask one question of all of our guests here on the podcast. What one thing would you change if you could to improve the business ecosystem here in Maine?

Amy: Oh gosh. If I had a magic wand, I think the most important thing that we could do, honestly, as a state would be to somehow keep more of our young people here and attract more young people here. Our aging population, as concerned as I am about the rising minimum wage and a lot of the other rising costs and workers’ comp costs that are insane in our industry. And as a manufacturer, that is probably the toughest nut to crack, the aging population.

Rich: Amy, this has been great, very helpful. Where can we find you online if we want to learn more about you and say Volk boxes?

Amy: Sure. So our business page is Volk Packaging Fans, and we’re fairly active on both Facebook and Instagram. You can find me on Facebook and Instagram at Amy Murchison Volk, that’s my full name.

And then I do still post on Honorable Amy Volk. It was my legislative page, and then they allowed me to change the title after I went out of office and now it’s just “Honorable”. So I do get political. Well, I get political on my personal page and on that page.

Rich: Awesome. Amy, thank you so much. I really appreciate your time and expertise today.

Amy: Well, it’s my pleasure. And I really encourage businesspeople to pay attention.

Rich:  Well, my first solo episode of the Fast Forward Maine podcast is in the can. And I certainly miss having Yury by my side, his energy and enthusiasm was second to none. But everybody here all wishes him the best on the next phase of his entrepreneurial journey. I really enjoyed my conversation with Amy. I hope you got out of as much of it as I did. And for all the transcripts and all the links that Amy mentioned, you can find them all in the show notes. Just head on over to fastforwardmaine.com/76.

At the end of every episode, Yury and I would sit down and figure out what our ‘fast takes’ were. And I’d like to continue that tradition, because I always think that if you could just take one big idea away from a blog post, or a podcast, or video, or presentation, then it was worth it.

So what’s my ‘fast take’ for today? I think my ‘fast take’ was, it’s critical that we understand the legislative process and those moments where we can exert influence over the legislation that’s being passed. And Amy did a great job breaking it down for us. So, first off, it’s just in reaching out to your legislator. If you have an idea for a law that’s going to make life better here, the business ecosystem or your personal life, better in Maine.

And another one is to stay on top of what’s going on in these committees. And then when an opportunity arises where you feel that you have a point of view that needs to be heard, to reach out and be able to testify either for or against the law that’s being considered. After that, you certainly can reach out to your legislator when it comes to the actual vote. But it sounded from Amy’s perspective at that point, a lot of the work has already been done and you’re unlikely to have that influence that you might enjoy earlier. So make sure you know when and how to reach out to your legislator to make the biggest impact.

As I continue on for the time being as a solo show, I would love to hear from you. Consider this to be your committee meeting. If you have ideas of guests, or topics, or any changes or additions you’d like to see on the show, I’d love to hear from you. Just reach out to me. I am @TheRichBrooks on all social media channels, or just go to the Fast Forward Maine website, fill out the contact form, and let me know your thoughts, your opinions. I really want to make this the best possible show for Maine business owners and leaders looking to grow their business here in the state. Thanks.