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5 tips to help you communicate with your legislators

Does all of the talk coming from the state Capitol have you angry about the possible fate of your pensions? Largely due to underfunding issues in a couple of big cities, pensions have become a hot topic during the state's legislative session. Bills run the gamut from moving defined benefits of certain public employees in specific municipalities to 401 (k)-like defined contribution plans to requiring the public to vote on whether or not local municipalities should seek bonds to address funding concerns. Now is the time for your system to contact state senators and representatives. Here are some steps to take to voice your system's pension trepidations with elected officials. Better yet, share these suggestions with your system members to start a grass roots campaign.

1.    Research: Which legislators you target matters. Legislators care about what their constituents have to say. That means you will need to know who represents you. The internet provides you with several sources allowing you to find out your national, state and local representatives quickly. One handy tool is www.fyi.legis.state.tx.us. Just type in your address, and the site will generate a list of U.S. and state senators and representatives in your district. For this effort, let's focus on your local elected officials. You can use the list to access the websites of your state legislators as well as obtain the addresses and phones numbers of their district offices. Consider using the list to contact your local representative under the pension system's name and encourage each board member and system beneficiary to use the site to reach out to their legislators to build a mass outreach initiative.

2.    Email: The fastest way to contact your representative is via email. Now that you have your list of state legislators, you can use it to visit their websites. Each site should have a link inviting you to email your representative. If you don't see that, look for a “contact us” link. The link should take you to a page where you can fill out your name and contact information along with a message. Be sure to include your full name and address, so they will know a constituent from their district is reaching them. You will be required to provide your email address in case the official wants to follow up with you. Although providing your phone number often isn't required, it wouldn't hurt to provide it in case your message inspired them to reach out to you directly. You will probably receive an automated email stating that your elected official has received your message. Don't expect a personal email response from your legislators. They don't have the time to respond or read them all. Often, a legislator's staff will review the emails. That's not a bad thing as they are the eyes and ears of their bosses and often draft the proposed bills on behalf of their bosses.

3.    Snail Mail: Although email is faster, an old fashion handwritten letter – or typed on a computer and signed by you – still matters. In fact, before hitting send on the email message to your legislator, consider typing your letter first. Then copy and paste it into your email. Also, typing in a word processing program with spell check can help you make sure your message looks professional. Print enough copies to mail your letter to each of your senate and house representatives. Before stuffing them in envelopes, be certain you have addressed each letter to the individual representatives.

4.    Phone: Your list of state officials also will include a phone number to their district offices. Don't be afraid to pick up your phone and dial your legislator personally. You probably will be prompted to leave a message, but that is okay. Keep an extra copy of your typed letter handy for talking points.

5.    Message: What you say matters. Don't only encourage your legislators to stand up for public employee pensions. Tell them why they should secure retirement. If there is a particular bill your retirement system is primarily concerned about, mention it. Is there a particularly moving story about one of your pension system beneficiaries that highlight how important defined benefits are, share it. Or, share your personal story. Often, emotional examples can be more impactful than simply sharing data that support your stance. Also, let them know how long a pension system has been around, how many members the system has, what public service you have provided and how long you have been in the position. When writing your message, refrain from antagonizing your representatives with threats of voting them out of office during the next election. If they have made statements that you do not agree with, it is okay to say you don't, but explain why you disagree and, if possible, provide a bit of data that contradicts their statements. You can find research on TEXPERS' website that could come in handy. And, be sure to thank your elected officials for their service. Don't make your letters too long, either. They nor their staffs have time to read two-, three- or four-page dissertations on why defined contributions would result in fewer returns. Be concise and respect their time. Worried about your grammar skills? It also wouldn't hurt to let someone read over your letter before sending it out to your legislators to check for spelling and grammar mistakes. Or, consider writing a draft of your message in your word processing program and then visiting www.grammarly.com where you can paste a copy of it and have the site automatically check it for grammar mistakes. The site will also tell you if you are too repetitive with words and suggest alternative words to use.
 

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