A Capitol divided by money 

Nonprofit, human rights lobbyists look in from the outside

Twenty-two-year-old David Edward Hardy, who has spina bifida, stations himself near the elevator doors in the north wing of the Capitol's third floor. He and three other mental health advocates -- all in wheelchairs -- pass out papers that explain their opposition to House Bill 498.

The bill would abolish the 13 regional boards that provide mental health services across the state and bring control of mental health services back under state control.

"We don't want them to take mental health services away from the local level and bring it up to the state level," says Eric Jacobson, one of the advocates who is also executive director of the Governor's Council on Developmental Disabilities. "That would eliminate the ability that the regional boards have to quickly respond to the needs of mental health consumers."

Later that day, the bill will be debated in committee. Jacobson and more than 100 others will be on hand to show their opposition. But they already have one strike against them. Jacobson and lobbyists like him are on the wrong side of an invisible wall that divides the third floor of the Capitol.

The wall keeps those in the political inner circle closer to the epicenter of power. It divides the lobbyists representing businesses with money from lobbyists like Jacobson, who represent causes for those with no money.

Lobbyists working for the mentally disabled, poor, unemployed, homeless, children in foster care and civil service groups hang out in the north wing, usually gathering near the elevators. Corporate lobbyists for some of the biggest companies in the state -- BellSouth, Delta, Georgia-Pacific, Southern Company -- are found in the south lobbies, never too far from House Speaker Tom Murphy's office.

Without any political leverage, Jacobson and his colleagues are forced to depend on grassroots lobbying: passing out pamphlets, circulating petitions, and hoping that the sheer volume of their many voices will counter the few powerful voices that oppose them.

State law prohibits nonprofits from making campaign contributions. For that reason, most human services lobbyists rely on the media to pressure lawmakers to support what some dismiss as "bleeding-heart" causes.

The ones without media-hyped issues hover in the periphery, both by location within the Capitol and in the minds of most lawmakers.

"It's almost like the other lobbyists, and even the legislators, treat us like a different species," says one child care lobbyist who wished to remain anonymous. "They [lawmakers] need to know our information and what we think would work for these children, but what these children don't have is a powerful voice. Think about it. They can't vote, they don't make money, they don't pay taxes, they don't contribute to political campaigns and the people who are advocating for them down at the Capitol aren't well-funded like industries, hospital authorities [and] businesses."

In the hours leading up to the committee meeting, Jacobson, Hardy and other volunteers pass out more papers and talk with anyone who'll listen.

The bill's sponsor is Murphy himself, easily one of the most powerful lawmakers in the General Assembly. When the Human Relations & Aging meeting convenes, room 406 in the Legislative Office Building is overflowing. Every seat is occupied; others stand in the aisles and in the back of the room. Hardy is there, sitting in his wheelchair, occasionally snacking on Valentine red hot candies.

One after the other, mental health supporters step up to the wooden podium facing the six representatives on the committee and argue passionately against the bill.

The testimony goes on for two and a half hours, with more than 30 people speaking out against the bill. Only two people, one of them being Murphy, asks the committee to pass it.

Community Friendship Inc. Executive Director Jean Toole is one of the last to speak. She tells the committee about all the people her organization helps, and how that wouldn't be possible without the regional mental health boards. "Please," she says, "let all of our voices ring just as loud as Mr. Murphy's."

They don't. The bill passes 4-2. Defeated but not out of the game yet, Jacobson goes back to the north wing lobby on the third floor.

"Obviously we were upset about the bill passing the committee," Jacobson says. "We also recognize that this was just the first step, and we'll continue to work the process."

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