View Point

By Marilyn Lee

Friday, August 29, 1997

Legislators get a lesson
in public perceptions

What do lawmakers do
at those conferences? They share ideas
and learn the importance of public trust

Sunshine and unseasonably cool weather greeted thousands of state legislators from across the nation gathered for the National Conference of State Legislatures in Philadelphia during the first week of August.

As a freshman legislator, participation in the conference was an exciting prospect. I have plenty to learn.

Philadelphia was not a disappointment. Our days there were jammed with a wide variety of seminars and lectures on a host of subjects.

The city of Philadelphia has changed a lot since I last visited more than 25 years ago. Redevelopment of the historic area is impressive, including a visitor center and a glass enclosure housing the Liberty Bell. The streets are clean; the restaurants seem to be thriving. The convention center is built conveniently next to Chinatown, and within walking distance of Independence Hall. There is obviously an active cultural life.

If there was a dominant theme to the conference, it was the public perception of legislators, lobbyists and the legislative process itself.

In a session titled "Legislators and Lobbyists in the Trenches: Restoring Public Confidence," we heard David Boldt, Philadelphia Inquirer columnist; Minnesota Sen. Amber Junge; Jayne Campbell, Cuyahoga County commissioner; and NCSL Director William Pound discuss the media's responsibility in developing public perception, and the need for a change in public perception of both the people and the process involved in legislation.

Campbell said people feel politics is a closed society to which they don't have access. She asked how we can bring the public closer to an understanding of the process, and suggested that one way may be explaining in plain language how legislation affects their lives. I thought about the many bills that are written not in plain language, but in "lawyerese."

Boldt cited the growing disagreement between legislation and public opinion: "Citizens feel lobbyists have power beyond the public interest." He was also critical of journalists, whose esteem in the public eye has "fallen as fast as politicians." Citing a lost sense of community, he reminded us that "we are all in this together."

Senator Junge offered several suggestions on how trust can be rebuilt:

A code of civility needs to be set -- despite partisan differences; working together is a positive to the community.

The public needs to be educated about the process, and looked upon as partners.

We need to include everybody at the table.

In the companion session on campaign finance the speaker was former Illinois Sen. Paul Simon, one of my longtime favorites. Simon, who spent 22 years in Congress, made the point that "we need to make government responsive to people's needs, and not to the whims of those who pass out the dollars."

Dr. William Pound made a memorable statement about legislators' obligation to strengthen the institution, and that everyone suffers from "short-term gain." "If it ain't gonna read good tomorrow, don't do it today," and "don't destroy the institution you are a part of."

As a member of the Consumer Protection Committee, I made an effort to attend a session on auto insurance reform. This was interesting because Pennsylvania has enacted recent reforms similar to ours, and they seem to be working.

I also made some excellent contacts through the Women's Network, which will be helpful to me as one of the co-chairwomen of the Women's Caucus. This was an exceptional opportunity to share ideas with women legislators from around the country and to network with others about the challenges women face nationwide.

I could not attend the session on economic incentives in attracting investments, but my husband (who paid his own way to the conference) did, and reported on an excellent discussion featuring Professor William Fox of the University of Tennessee, president of the National Tax Foundation; the counsel for state taxes from General Electric; and the legislative director of the Committee for State Taxation (a Fortune 500 membership group).

They all agreed on the most important factors related to business decisions -- location and market, good labor supply, regulation and tax equity. Their recommendation to the states was investment in education, including community colleges.

Fox was critical of states bidding for investments, citing Alabama paying $168,667 in incentives for each job from Mercedes-Benz in 1993. In 1980, Tennessee won Nissan with a $33 million package over a billion-dollar offer from Minnesota, the key being location close to markets. The Tenneessee cost was $11,000 per job.

Fox, once a visiting professor at the University of Hawaii, will come to Hawaii next month for consultations with the state on economic incentives.

Before the conference began, I was able to tour the historic city area and to make short trips to both Valley Forge and the Amish area near Lancaster. Obviously, tourism is booming in Pennsylvania, and I was impressed with the friendliness and hospitality of the people and their open celebration of what is uniquely theirs.

Marilyn B. Lee, a Democrat,
represents the 38th House District (Mililani-Waipio).

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