Where legislation happens, advocacy follows. And in case you hadn’t noticed there’s not a whole lot going through Congress these last few years.
In the states it’s a different story. For most states, the period of lawmaking is far more condensed and usually far more intense.
That means if you’re restricting your influence to when the states are in session, you’re severely limiting your advocacy.
During the 2015-16 biennial session, the states were 17 times more productive than Congress.
And we didn’t just pluck that number out of thin air for dramatic effect
The states approved nearly 29,122 of the approximately 171,608 bills introduced. Compare that to Congress who introduced 10,916 bills and resolutions – and passed only 199 of them.
That’s a lot of bills distilled into what for some states can be just a two-month (or less) session. So, logic would follow that by the time state lawmakers get themselves to the state capitol, and become acquainted with the issues, it’s already too late to impact their legislation.
If you want to get ahead of what their doing, you need to start conditioning them long before they get to the statehouses for actual sessions.
That’s why now is prime advocacy season for state legislation.
Here’s How To Go About It
Mick Bullock, Director of Public Affairs at the National Conference of State Legislatures says: “It’s extremely important for individuals who are advocating for something to begin early. Going back to my previous job, there were many times advocacy organizations would spend the first year educating the state lawmakers on a particular issue or problem.”
(Bullock was previously communications director for Mississippi Governor, Phil Bryant, and served roles as the legislative liaison when the Governor was lieutenant governor)
“Often times there would be legislation drafted that first year, but it was really the second or third year that it caught fire. It really goes back to informing those elected officials about that particular cause or problem.
So, what can you do if you want to hit the ground running and get your issue attention, and hopefully action, in that first year.
Luckily, there are several ways.
Use Your Advocates to Condition State Lawmakers
One way is by getting your advocates to jump in early. State lawmakers, just like federal ones, need to get and stay elected. They’re always likely to pay attention to constituents who message them en masse – regardless of whether they’re in session, or not. Plus, if your issue captures their attention in the down period before sessions, they’ll be knowledgeable about it when they do go into session.
We dug into CQ’s Engage advocacy tool files to see what times of year were most popular to run state advocacy campaigns, and then looked at the months organizations got their supporters to take action at the state level by writing letters.
While February, March, April, May and June had slight edges on state-based advocacy campaigns, October, November and December were also popular months, in the past two years, in particular.
That indicates several organizations have already picked up on the trend of getting out ahead of the posse with their state campaigns.
Not all were huge, multi-state campaigns, either. Several were small highly focused ones, where organizations knew legislation that would affect them was coming up on the docket, or in policy discussions in upcoming sessions.
By encouraging their advocates to write to state and local lawmakers out of session, using either CQ’s Engage platform or with an even more micro- and geo-targeted digital ad campaign courtesy of CQ’s Advocate Acquisition Program (AAP) they got their issue front and center in lawmakers minds.
That gave them a head start with educating lawmakers while they were still in their districts.
That pre-gaming could be the difference between winning and losing.
Keeping Time Constraints Front And Center
“Many state lawmakers around the country are citizen lawmakers like you and me, and have regular jobs as well, so they’re under a lot of time constraints,” says Bullock.
“Plus, many state legislatures are 60 or 90 day sessions, so they’re cramming a lot of information very quickly. The more you can do out of session, is key.”
Add to that the fact that several states allow for pre-filing, so you can already see the importance of getting ahead of the curve.
But micro-targeted digital advocacy campaigns that reach a handful of state lawmakers or sweep multiple states, aren’t the only route open to those trying to influence legislation in the off-period.
Building That All-Important Relationship
It’s also a great time for face-to-face meetings when legislators have time to actually listen to you, and take on-board your concerns.
“Many state legislators provide town hall meetings and will have staff there taking notes. Some great ideas have come out of those meetings.”
Bullock also recommends setting up appointments with your lawmaker.
“The more you can get face time with that elected official the better. Down the line they might be in a committee hearing, and it triggers something you’ve mentioned. I’ve seen occurrences where a legislator will say ‘you know, I just met with someone while we were out of session on that particular issue.’”
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Educating Ahead Of Time Is Key
In Bullock’s previous role, meeting advocacy pros was a constant and useful endeavor.
“We had advocacy organizations and individuals that met with us both in and out of session. I know as a staffer it was extremely important and helpful when they came in and met with us. Like a lot of states, we really did not have a research staff, so basically they were helping us out, because they had all this research we could tap into. When you’re elected, or when you work for an elected official, those meetings are part of the job.”
The Added Drama Of An Election Year
Matt Sutton is Vice President of Government Affairs & Public Policy for the California Restaurant Association (CRA), which represents approximately 90,000 businesses employing 1.6 million people statewide. He says his organization doesn’t let the grass grow under its feet when the statehouse isn’t in session.
Note: California is the first state in the country to go into session.
“Our legislature adjourns the last day of August. We immediately start prioritizing what to do next year in terms of policies and strategies. By the end of September, we were already planning for 2017.”
This being an election year, the CRA is expecting to see some new faces, and they have identified “four or five question marks” among legislators it has established relationships with, so the outcome of those elections could influence pre-session strategies.
That means getting in front of new members, fast, in meet and greet type events, not necessarily to ask for anything, but to explain the restaurant community.
“We look for an opportunity to get them under the hood” and meet the people in the industry, says Sutton.
A key component of this pre-session strategy is to get clients – restaurant owners and operators – face-to-face with elected officials. “They are very active. What’s interesting about the restaurant community is there are restaurants in every legislative district in the state. That’s not true for every industry. We have an amazing footprint – and we utilize that.”
These pre-session meetings are immensely valuable when Sutton’s knocking on doors in Sacramento, once the legislature is in session.
“Hearing from an operator on the ground has impact. It’s important that they hear from all of us – the individual members and the association.”
Doing that early and often means they don’t have problems gaining access when it’s necessary.
“It’s been very successful,” says Sutton.
The Race To Day One
Ryan Spiller, a founding partner of Capitol Connection, and a 20-year lobbyist in the Washington statehouse and Senate, representing clients ranging from Alcoa, the Equal Justice Coalition, the Washington Fire Commissioners Association, and the Alliance of Auto Manufacturers, is also busy preparing for the 2017 sessions.
“The Washington state legislature convenes the second Monday of January, so we’re in the last quarter of preparing for the new session. And it’s election time,” he says.
For Spiller that offers a “dual path” to getting prepared:
1) Preparing for legislation that will be introduced.
2) Introducing themselves to new legislators.
Spiller points out that in the weeks before an election, there are numerous opportunities to attend fundraisers and other functions hosted by both parties, where you can meet numerous incumbents and challengers.
It pays to make a new legislative friend, before they are elected, he says, because as they gain influence, they may not be as approachable.
He advises finding “a handful you like and give them advice,” not necessarily on your specific issues, but on handling advocacy and whatever else they need input on, and what they can expect in the statehouse.
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“Hopefully, they do get elected, and they become a good alliance” for your clients.
Afterwards there are often pre-session caucuses where new legislators are provided an orientation of sorts.
“I will meet with as many (new and re-elected lawmakers) as possible, and it makes it a little easier when you try to get a formal sit-down with them later.”
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