Thursday, September 11, 2008

A meeting of non-partisan minds

“Hot fuel” came under the spotlight before two members of the Tennessee General Assembly recently at a town hall to discuss energy use and conservation.

Yours truly jumped at the chance to bring up the topic in a public forum, and, although passing legislation is always a crapshoot, at least one of the representatives said she was considering legislation for 2009 to address the issue.

Hot fuel is an issue raised originally by OOIDA that is steadily gaining traction at the state and federal level. For a couple of months, I have been communicating with state Rep. Debra Maggart about the issue, sending her links to information about the concern, and she kindly alerted me to the meeting called by her and state Rep. Susan Lynn.

Lynn said she had attended an energy conference recently and, earlier this summer, had an op-ed published in The Wall Street Journal supporting expanded oil exploration and drilling.

Their panel included representatives of the oil industry, convenience stores and gas stations, natural gas, alternative fuels and new energy technologies. In the open mic portion of the meeting, various speakers urged more support for alternative energies, lower taxes on fuel, and more incentives for home-generated electricity.

When my turn came, I spent my few minutes giving an overview of the hot fuel issue. I was armed with facts from the http://www.turndownhotfuel.com/, OOIDA’s hot fuel Web site.

At one point, Rep. Lynn said she had been informed at that earlier energy conference that morning is the best time of day to gas up. I politely disagreed, and gave her the Web address to further educate her.

After the meeting, I spoke with a representative from the Tennessee Oil Marketers Association (TOMA.org), which represents C-stores, gas stations and petroleum jobbers. Her perspective on the issue was that there wasn’t much difference in quantity – about a teaspoon – between fuel at 60F and hotter fuel. She also said that the issue was currently being examined by scientific panels, and they were waiting for the conclusions, and that in any case consumers would be confused and upset over variations in quantity of fuel purchased based on temperature.

She also argued that it would be enormously expensive to refit all dispensers – some places still have mechanical pumps – with temperature compensation devices. We also agreed to disagree, as you likely will disagree with her when you read the facts vs. myths of hot fuel.

It was an interesting and oddly exciting experience to step from covering an issue to, in effect, lobbying for it. But as citizens, we have the obligation as well as the right to do just that.

You should never pass up an opportunity to meet your lawmakers, regardless of whether their politics agree with yours. Likewise, you should never pass up an opportunity to contact them about issues important to you. And you are well advised to avoid accusing them of partisanship or other shenanigans if you want serious consideration of your specific issue.

I saw a demonstration of this today: One speaker came armed with grievances and spent most of his time railing about the representatives’ partisanship and partisanship in general. He didn't really have a specific issue he wanted addressed – or if so, it got lost in the complaints.

At the end of his comments, the reps thanked him graciously and went on smoothly. He’d had the satisfaction of venting, but had not accomplished anything else. In fact, he was from outside their districts and apparently had driven more than 40 miles one-way to have his say – that’s energy conservation for ya.

Besides leaving your politics at home, other tips to effectively address lawmakers include:

  • Be prepared. Research the issue you want to address. Research both sides. Master the most important facts and counter-arguments.
  • Write out what you plan to say. Having a written presentation with bullet points will help ensure you don't leave out an important, possibly crucial, fact. This also helps you with the next point …
  • Be brief. Whether in an informal session, town-hall meeting or face-to-face conversation, you won't have a lot of time to make your points. The more concise you can be, the more likely you are to present the important elements of your case and capture the lawmaker’s attention. You can always follow up with additional material for the lawmaker or staff.
  • Be polite. Thank the lawmaker for his or her time at the start and end of your comments. If you disagree with the lawmaker on a point, do so politely and move on. You may have different politics, but a worthy issue can bridge the political aisle.
  • Follow up. After the meeting, e-mail or mail the lawmakers a note thanking them again for their time, for listening to what you had to say and considering it. If appropriate, send along supporting material to amplify your point.