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New online tool helps businesses navigate lawmaking process

Bonnie Alexander in the rotunda of the Idaho Capital Building. Photo by Pete Grady.

Bonnie Alexander in the rotunda of the Idaho Capitol Building. Photo by Pete Grady.

A former clerk for the Idaho House of Representatives has created an online education tool to help business owners and lobbyists better navigate the legislative process.

After serving as chief administrative officer in the Idaho House for nine years, Bonnie Alexander stepped down in March to create Inside the Dome, a service that has online training videos for navigating the halls of the Statehouse.

Alexander launched her main service in September – a website with interactive training modules called The Legislative Learning Lab where users can explore topics such as “who’s who in the Statehouse,” “how to read bills,” and “mastering the website.”

“Anyone that is a player in the Capitol building needs to understand the procedures to be effective,” Alexander said. “I spent nine years at the podium and I saw that the people who knew the process worked more effectively within the system.”

Alexander’s job at the Legislature was to track the information passing between House committees, the House itself and the Senate, and then ensuring that information was released to the public.

When she saw people visit the Statehouse to check on legislation, she could tell many didn’t know how to locate and track bills.

“Even though the government does a good job releasing the information, that doesn’t mean people can understand it,” Alexander said.

Her new service also offers media consulting and performance coaching. The consulting and coaching services are billed per project and access to the website costs about $500 a year.

There are other services available to help businesses navigate the Legislature. Trade associations such as the Idaho Retailers Association and the Idaho Lodging and Restaurant Association monitor legislation and call members’ attention to bills that affect members.

But Kevin Settles, owner of the restaurant and distillery Bardenay, said there aren’t many resources for business owners trying to go it alone. He said when he first started monitoring issues at the Statehouse, he had to feel his way around and slowly learn where to look.

“When I first started doing it, the internet wasn’t that prevalent so I would work through my Chamber of Commerce and then I started asking legislators questions directly,” Settles said. “Eventually I learned enough to ask for bill titles so I could follow the ones I wanted.”

Settles now pays $700 a year for his three restaurant locations to be part of the Idaho Lodging and Restaurant Association as well as the National Restaurant Association.

Kevin Settles

Kevin Settles

“The association doesn’t have a tremendous amount of membership even though it is a great resource,” Settles said. “It is hard to get people to understand the value of it and it is common for people to get blindsided by legislation they didn’t see coming and then cry about it.”

When she was designing the training courses, Alexander drew heavily from her own experiences at the Statehouse. Alexander was hired as the chief administrative officer of the House without any prior legislative experience after working in technology and data processing.

“I came to the job with no institutional knowledge,” Alexander said. “I have a large amount of empathy for those who come to the Statehouse without that experience, but who want to be effective.

“This way if you ask a legislator where their bill is and they tell you it is engrossing (a legislative process where the bill is updated), you can go to the website and learn what that means in three minutes,” she said.

Alexander is the only employee at Inside the Dome. She contracts out media consulting services to the company Kompass Concepts.

Navigating the process

Hundreds of bills are voted on every legislative session and many affect business. The 2016 session saw more than 30 bills that would have changed policies regarding tax code, wage requirements, healthcare costs and business regulations. Several were carried through several readings before the House or Senate killed them or allowed them to become law.

One example of how nuanced the inner workings of the Statehouse are is House Bill 633 – a bill proposal from the 2016 session that would have created a system for collecting sales taxes on online purchases.

Several small business owners such as Laura Delaney, co-owner of Rediscovered Books in Downtown Boise, supported the bill. Delaney argued she’s at a disadvantage to companies like Amazon that don’t have an Idaho store and don’t have to charge customers sales tax.

Business owners and associations testified in favor of the bill before one of the House committees. Lawmakers in favor said it would generate about $20 million a year for the state.

Before the bill was sent to the full body of the House for a vote, however, House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, requested that he be allowed to attach to the bill a tax cut he had failed to pass earlier in the session.

Rep. Mike Moyle

Rep. Mike Moyle

The committee granted Moyle’s request and House Bill 633 was transferred to an amending order where lawmakers added the tax cut proposal. About a week later, the bill was transferred back to the original House Committee which voted to send the bill to full body of the House for a vote – this time without public testimony because the session was ending in the coming week.

Lawmakers never voted on the bill because the Senate had already voted against the tax cuts in it, and the House chose to focus on other issues.

Business owners can track a bill through the Legislature’s website, but the information is spread across several areas. Parts of the website dedicated to bill tracking share which committee a bill is assigned to,  but often don’t state when the issue will be taken up. Users can contact the secretary of that committee to see if a date has been set to discuss the bill or they can continually check the agenda pages for the House and Senate committees which are updated every day.

If a committee decides to send the bill on for a full vote, information about the bill is attached to the Senate or House’s agenda page on the website, but both bodies often fail to make it through their agenda in a single day so many lobbyists who want to watch a specific vote will call secretaries or lawmakers to see if a bill is likely to be taken up the day it is scheduled for.

About Benton Alexander Smith

Benton Alexander Smith is a reporter for the Idaho Business Review, covering the Idaho Legislature, new business, technology and financial services.