The 2012 legislative session is gearing up to be a busy one, particularly when it comes to fiscal issues. Federal stimulus dollars are drying up, revenue is down, and most states are increasingly strapped for cash. In an election year when these factors are sure to be politically polarizing, having access to the right lawmakers and staff can mean a world of difference and provide a key competitive advantage. During my time in the Florida State House I witnessed certain practices that are determinative of the success or failure of an advocate’s legislative agenda.
For three years, I served as a legislative aide to a Florida State Representative. There were many days that, despite all planning and preparation, I observed the familiar and controlled chaos of the legislative session. Some lobbyists came and executed with laser-like precision. They excelled at what they did, and were known throughout the capitol for their ability to get things done. On the other hand, I also saw lobbyists and advocates that were ill-prepared or who had misjudged the local political environment. More often than not their lack of preparation committed them and their issues to legislative failure. On a daily basis, our office would be bombarded with government relations professionals that advocated on behalf of numerous and varied issues. I learned first-hand that in order to pursue a successful legislative agenda, there are four things most worth remembering: time, relationships, local voice and coalition mobilization.
One of the first realizations I had in the State House was that there are hundreds of issues that each have their own nuances. This gives little time for an elected official to consider a given amendment or bill. From day one to day sixty of the respective session, our office was inundated with requests for meetings. My advice for lobbyists and issue managers is to remember that your cause is one of many. Get in, make the case for your issues and get out. Many lobbyists operated like car salespeople; it was clear they believed that the longer they talked, the more likely they were to make the sale. The opposite held true more often than not. The Representative I worked for always appreciated when a lobbyist could convey his point in less than 10 minutes and kept talking points and handouts to no more than one page. Keep it brief and to the point.
The way to keep your bill high on someone’s priority list without consuming valuable time on his or her agenda is to follow up with frequent reminders and updates. In many instances, members have one staffer to handle an entire legislative office. Checking in with that staff member can help more than many realize. Spend your time getting to know the staff before you meet with the lawmaker.
It may seem obvious, but it bears repeating – make sure you and your bill sponsor are on the same page and working together. Committee chairmen take notice when lobbyists advocate for issues under their committee’s jurisdiction, however it is just as important that the chairmen see the bill sponsor doing his/her part too.
While party leaders and rank and file members are important, in each state legislature there is also a group of people that both aides and lobbyists tend to forget—the lifelong staffers. These staffers often eclipse their bosses in issue knowledge and tenure in the state house. Professional committee and caucus staffs also learn the complex and often archaic rules of a chamber. It is easy for newly elected members to misinterpret or misunderstand these rules and be ineffective. Knowledge of how to stall a vote, add a last minute amendment, tally votes, or how to pass legislation is not only priceless but can be the difference between watching the Governor sign a bill into a law and watching a bill hit the round-file.
Local Face and Voice
If possible, give your cause a face and a voice. Whether it is the Speaker of the House, or a newly elected freshman, each member has a constituency that he or she represents. Successful lobbyists know how to utilize the constituents of the members they target and they often bring them in for issue advocacy days with their lawmakers. During the 2009 legislative session, one of our constituents came to us with a very emotional and important issue. Their daughter had been killed in a tragic accident because she was not wearing a helmet while at a horseback riding lesson. Despite having a very equestrian-friendly district and having the U.S. Polo Grounds in our boundaries, we were able to pass a bill with unanimous support to mandate any individual 13 years of age and younger wear a helmet while riding. Throughout the process the family proved to be valuable allies in testifying at hearings and ultimately convincing the Governor to sign the bill. Personalizing a cause and rallying constituent support will always help improve your chances at being successful.
If you can’t get a local constituent to push an issue, as we did, find strength in the numbers behind a coalition. During the 2011 Florida legislative session, I witnessed a bill that was top priority for the Governor pass the House but get voted down in the Senate because by the time it reached the second chamber there was a groundswell of opposition to the bill. This was primarily thanks to one of the lobbyists that took the time to bring in hundreds of students and teachers to testify against it. The lobbyist went above and beyond in coordinating with committee staff to make sure that each person had one minute of speaking time and was even able to include testimony from constituents throughout the state, making the testimony relevant for every member of the Senate.
While every state has a unique legislative process, most successful advocacy techniques are transferable. In the face of the demanding 2012 legislative sessions, lobbyists everywhere will need to maintain a competitive edge. I recommend maximizing your time, working those relationships and mobilizing a coalition in support of your issues in order to come out ahead in your next lobbying effort.