Legislature makes news even during recess

September 8, 2015

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t’s March 1. The Legislature is in full swing. Your newsroom is primed to follow every twist and turn in the legislative hallways. As the saying goes, “The lawmakers are back. Protect your pocketbooks.” Newsrooms are on full alert to follow and translate the impact of legislative decisions on your readers’ everyday lives.

Fast forward to Aug. 1. The Legislature is the last thing on your newsroom’s radar, right?

Wrong.

The dog days of summer provide an excellent opportunity to check in on the actions of policy-makers as new laws take effect. It’s a chance to inform and educate your readers as well as hold your legislators accountable. Consider these two recent reports from Minnesota newspapers:

• From the Minneapolis Star Tribune: “After a two-year delay, Minnesota’s much hated 1989 sales tax rebate program for capital equipment purchases ended last week. The change is a major coup for small businesses and the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, which lobbied hard for legislators to rescind a law many considered an unnecessary hardship.” The story details the practical impact of the law change on the ability of businesses to reinvest this money into their operations.

• From the Worthington Daily Globe: “After much debate on both sides of the aisle, legislation to establish 110,000 acres of new water quality buffer zones across Minnesota took effect July 1. The measure will result in nearly 1,700 acres in additional conservation land in Nobles County.” The story examines and explains the rules for compliance.

Hundreds of new state laws take effect in July. Around the nation, July 1 marks the beginning of a new fiscal year and the date recently passed legislation goes on the books.

New laws in Minnesota covered the spectrum from agriculture, environment and education to health care, jobs and transportation. Here is a sampling:

• Money is allocated to implement the new teacher evaluation system in school districts that don’t participate in the Q-Comp alternative teacher compensation program.

• Manufacturers must equip phones with an antitheft function.

• Victims of domestic abuse, criminal sexual conduct or stalking, who fear for their safety will receive some protection from eviction if they need to terminate a lease early.

The range of new laws is likely similar in most other states. Localizing their impact is a great way to underscore that what happens at the Capitol affects your readers in many ways.

Newsrooms shouldn’t stop there, however. A periodic check of new laws is a reminder that election coverage should not take a permanent back seat until the next filing period opens. Reviewing laws can be done in concert with holding your elected policy-makers and their respective governing bodies accountable. For example:

• Prepare periodic scorecards of how your lawmakers are performing, especially with regard to their campaign pledges. Review their objectives and offer appropriate editorial commentary.

• Elections can produce new voting blocs and, as a result, a change in the dynamics of governmental bodies. Not all may be recognizable to readers. Reporters are in excellent position to provide analysis on a regular basis.

Election coverage is an exhaustive and painstaking process that commands your newsroom’s attention for months. The unfortunate result is that many newsrooms put election coverage in the rearview mirror as soon as they record the “votes and quotes” of election night.

Election editions may close the books on one election cycle. But they also provide the springboard for the next cycle. It’s a worthwhile exercise for staffs to review the election edition periodically and refresh themselves about what the voters said and what the victors promised.

Many candidates mostly receive a free pass on answering the tough policy questions as press releases are exchanged during the churn of election campaigns. Reporters have a better opportunity to follow and analyze actions once the winners have been seated and the dynamics of the governing bodies take shape. These stories will hold lawmakers and governing bodies accountable and will provide meaningful coverage for your readers. © Jim Pumarlo 2015

 

Jim Pumarlo writes, speaks and provides training on community newsroom success strategies. He is author of “Journalism Primer: A Guide to Community News Coverage,” “Votes and Quotes: A Guide to Outstanding Election Coverage” and “Bad News and Good Judgment: A Guide to Reporting on Sensitive Issues in Small-Town Newspapers.” He can be reached at www.pumarlo.com and welcomes comments and questions at jim@pumarlo.com.

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