By July 1 only 10 state houses will be in regular session, or set to reconvene. The Oregon Legislature is scheduled to adjourn July 10 and the California Assembly ends its annual session on Sept. 15, leaving eight state legislatures – Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts — either in session, or in recess before resuming sessions in late-summer and fall.
Most state legislatures focus on setting biennium budgets during odd-year sessions, it is not unusual for wrangling to go into overtime. As many as six state legislatures — Alaska, Washington, Louisiana, Florida, West Virginia, North Carolina – were in special session in mid-June as lawmakers haggled over two-year spending plans.
While every session, from statehouse to statehouse, year-after-year, is similar in pace and procedures, many capitol lobbyists say 2017 sessions re-enforced several emerging trends in client-lobbyist relationships, advocacy tactics and the nature of legislators themselves.
Pennsylvania lobbyist Matt Steck, of Greenlee Partners, says in the 30 years he has been working the legislature in Harrisburg, clients have become more results-oriented and often seek professionals to implement a game plan rather than design one. “Clients are more sophisticated – whether it is a Fortune 500 company or a grassroots organization and they have more sophisticated expectations,” he said.
Delaware lobbyist Rhett Ruggerio, of Ruggerio Willson & Associates, said in his nearly 20 years working in Dover, the demand for constant communication and consulting with clients has increased. “The industry is changing,” he said. “Now, you need more engagement with clients, constituents – texting, emails, conferences calls.”
Nebraska lobbyist Bill Mueller, of Mueller & Robak, said this year’s session in Lincoln featured “as partisan a legislature as I have seen in the 30 years I have been there.”
While that is a pervasive national trend at local, state and federal levels, it is significant in Nebraska, which – officially, at least – has nonpartisan elections without party designations in its unicameral legislature, a 49-seat senate.
“It was more ideological – very much so,” Mueller said, noting during last year’s GOP primaries, Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts “was very involved in recruiting candidates to run against incumbent Republicans” who resisted his party line “and they won.”
Although Republicans actually lost three seats to Democrats in November’s general election, they still held a commanding 32-15 majority, with one Independent and one Libertarian. Rather than cross Ricketts, Mueller said, GOP senators “voted in a bloc more than I’ve ever seen before.”
It can be difficult to simultaneously monitor all the moving pieces in the blurred fury of hearings, conferences and floor maneuvers during a legislative session. For those working in the 10 legislatures still in session, or the six – at last count – in special session, there’s no time to pause for evaluation. On-the-fly assessment has to be built into daily tactics.
“In every step of the process, we assess where we are most likely to hit hurdles or achieve success,” said California lobbyist Kate Bell, of Capitol Advocacy, Sacramento.
June 2 was the deadline for bills to pass “out of the house of origin” in the California assembly. That is when it is time to cut bait with stalled measures and focus on those that have moved into the other chamber.
“At this stage,” Bell said, “we have already had a number of victories, either stalling bills in committee or on the floor, as well as by obtaining amendments to resolve issues for our clients.”
Among successes, she said, was derailing a bill – SB 327 – on the Senate floor that would have mandated manufacturers ensure interconnected online devices, including toys, be “secure” from being hacked, by coalescing “a number of associations and individual corporations” into an “opposition coalition” to convince senators there were too many flaws in this “first of its kind” legislation to move the bill over to the assembly.
Now comes the hard part: Pushing for or against bills that have passed the first hurdle over the next three months. Bell said the best way to play defense against a bill clients’ dislike but is apparently going to pass first muster is to chip away at it before it moves to the next chamber.
“For example, on several bills, we kept the vote count low and got an author to commit to future amendments to address our clients’ concern,” she said. “This should lead us to a resolution as bills move to the second house.”
When a bill from a raft of similar proposals moves into the next house, but it isn’t the one clients’ specifically wanted, seek opportunities to “incorporate language or a similar concept” from the favored bill into the surviving proposal. “This works if we get the legislative leadership, committee chairs, and the administration to agree with our solution,” Bell said.
Pennsylvania’s legislature, while technically nearing its constitutional deadline for passing a budget by June 30 and recessing until September, remains active with committee meetings and hearings, Steck said. “I only wish we were like other states that have a 90- or 60-day session,” he said.
But these relatively laid-back summer committee meetings can present opportunities to develop relationships with committee chairs and other influential legislators, especially in states, such as Pennsylvania, that do not have cross-over dates, which gives committees great discretion in snuffing bills without much recourse.
“There are bills that get reintroduced every year but never make it out of committee,” Steck said. “Committee chairmen have a lot of discretion. They can keep things from ever being introduced, even if there is a lot of support.”
As June 30 adjournment neared for the Delaware General Assembly, Ruggerio said year-round “game-planning” bears fruit. “This is a busy time for every lobbyist,” he said. “We are in triage mode now. There are so many bills that are moving” that need to be monitored and tracked on behalf of his firm’s 30 clients.
And, similar to Steck’s advice, Ruggerio said it is imperative to stay on top of late-session committee hearings, where relationships with chairs can mean the difference. “Make sure you have the right testimony,” he said. “There are a lot of things to stay on top of, but committee hearings – you can’t miss them. Missing a committee hearing is what keeps me up at night.”
Minnesota lobbyist H. Theodore Grindal, of Lockridge Grindal Nauen, Minneapolis, said there are three things to contend with when up against session deadlines: “Lack of time. Lack of consensus in the legislature. Lack of consensus between the legislature and the executive branch.”
All three, while pressing hazards, present opportunities if advocacy is narrowed to a fine focus. “You have to analyze from an offensive and defensive perspective,” he said. “Discuss with clients about where would be a good place to invest energy.”
Ruggerio agreed, noting as time runs out, options should be refined. “This is why you have constant contact, constant updates,” he said. “You have to assess where you are. If you have a negative bill with a client, (you ask),’Is this something we can’t live with or will we need to work out something else?’”
And sometimes, that means better luck next year – which, lobbyists say, begins now.
In the hushed finality of adjournment, assessing successes and shortcomings is critical in determining what works and what doesn’t, as well as in plotting strategies and tactics for next year’s session. It may seem far away, but the countdown to convene has begun.
Wait. Except this: “You have to pivot to the executive branch,” said Minnesota lobbyist Tom Hanson, of Winthrop & Weinstine, Minneapolis.
That’s what New Mexico’s Moore, a former state legislator who represents local governments, had to do after the legislature adjourned this year. A bill his clients supported was approved by lawmakers, but vetoed by the Governor.
Not much that can be done, except request an explanation about why it was rejected. Getting such a response can be critical. “We received a detailed veto message that gives us some ideas about restructuring the bill before next session,” Moore said.
Waiting for the Governor’s final nod aside, Moore said, his small firm uses a “variety of metrics” to assess success or failure — namely, of course, did supported bills pass or did they fail?
“We had several pieces of legislation that we supported that failed in the last session for a variety of reasons,” he said. “A couple got started late and ran out of time, so we will take those and run a duplicate bill in the next session. One died on the last day due to a personal fight between a sponsor and leadership.”
The bottom line, said Minnesota lobbyist Tom Hanson, of Winthrop & Weinstine, Minneapolis, is it can be as simple as the final score at the end of a baseball game. “We classify it as playing offense and defense. Were you successful in passing something – offense – or in stopping something from being passed – defense? Did we stop something we didn’t want to pass?” he said.
“Lobbying is often win or lose. You pass it or you don’t,” agreed Louisiana lobbyist Ryan Haynie, of Haynie & Associates, Baton Rouge.
Learning From Losses
But even when saddled with a series of legislative setbacks, there can be hope in nuance, Haynie continued. For instance, with Louisiana lawmakers locked in a special session in an attempt to pass a biennium “standstill budget” without raising taxes – any taxes, under any circumstances – in a state heavily reliant on declining oil and gas revenues, lessons were learned that can bear dividends down the line.
The Louisiana Legislature’s regular session ended June 8 without lawmakers passing an operational or capital improvements budget by July 1, with an anticipated billion-dollar budget shortfall looming in July 2018.
Randy Haynie, Ryan’s father, who has lobbied in Baton Rouge for nearly 40 years, said his clients are “all in a defense mode,” noting that although “close to 200” spending bills were filed, “there was very little in the way of revenue-enhancing measures” actually proposed.
Both chambers are dominated by Republicans who say constituents are “tired of taxes” and Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards has lived up to his pledge to be “an extreme no-tax Governor,” Randy said. With a two-thirds majority necessary to approve any tax increase, finding money for clients’ initiatives is “an impossible hurdle” because “there is no middle ground.”
In 2016, the state passed a 1-cent sales tax increase, raising it to 5 cents. The extra penny is projected to generate about $200 million a year. The measure “sunsets” July 1, 2018 – just as the $1 billion shortfall dawns. While there was “no momentum for a sales tax increase” during the regular session, Ryan said there is some discussion about keeping the 5th-cent sales tax for another two or three years. “The low-hanging fruit would be to extend that,” he said.
Part of the reason why “no tax” stalwarts are warming to the idea is because the conversation is shifting from milking the state’s oil and gas industry to developing its tourist capacity, representing a renewed commitment to diversify the economy.
Any discussion about tax reform is, “How do we become less dependent on mineral revenues?” Ryan asked.
“How to diversify?” Randy responded. “Tourism is now one of biggest sources of revenue. We have to diversify as a state. We cannot continue to rely solely on oil and gas income.”
Selling the sales tax extension, even making it permanent – “a clean penny” – Randy said, becomes more salable to Louisiana’s tax-adverse residents if supporters can convince them it is needed to provide the amenities that draw tourists and the jobs they create.
This twist in perception could salvage what otherwise was a dismal session for those seeking any revenue support from the state. The Haynes, however, did have a hand in several significant victories for clients and non-profits they represent.
“We assisted Everytown For Gun Safety,” a nationwide gun control group financed by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, in defeating a Constitutional Carry proposal, which would have allowed the open carry of handguns without permits, Randy said.
“We are an NRA state,” he continued, “but we were successful in activating grassroots organizations in reaching out to legislators before the bill was scheduled for consideration” and the preemptive pressure proved effective. “We were able to combine folks traditionally opposed to that type of legislation — Democrats — to work with Republicans who are traditionally law enforcement-oriented,” he said.
The Haynies also assisted Louisianans for Prison Alternatives (LPA) in lobbying lawmakers to approve a package of laws designed to decrease the state’s prison population 10 percent and save the state $78 million over 10 years.
“Louisiana was the number one incarceration state in the country,” Ryan said, adding the initiative had traction because the state is in dire financial straits and “looking for smarter ways than three hots and cots” to deal with non-violent offenders.
Ryan said LPA staged “rallies, and email updates two times a week that outlined who to call, what to talk about. There was a broader social media campaign with video and educational programs.”
There’s Always Next Year
Pennsylvania’s Steck said planning next year’s tactics depends on whether clients’ need long-term representation on a range of issues or are more issue-oriented.
“Some issues may take time to develop. Over a 12-month span, you have a good idea of expectations in the near-term and the long-term,” he said. For single-session clients more focused on an issue, “The assessment is, ‘Did we move the bill out of committee? Did we move it into the other chamber?’”
New Mexico’s Moore said clients must understand that just because the legislature has adjourned, vigilance is necessary. “We were successful in defending local government budgets this past session, but believe there will be additional attempts to raid local government funds,” he said. “Our job is to keep talking to legislators, especially in leadership, about why this is a bad idea.”
As in Louisiana, the Nebraska Legislature adopted a bare-bones budget that cut deeply into Health & Human Services and the state’s university system. “At least for the foreseeable future, it will be almost impossible to create a new state program that will require state funding because there just isn’t any money,” longtime Lincoln lobbyist Mueller said. “Healthcare and the university are in for a tough biennium.”
So, the lobbying to change minds – and soften hearts – for next year has begun in earnest. “Groups are trying to emphasize the real world impact. That is the dialogue that is already happening,” Mueller said. “Groups need to redouble their efforts with senators.”
Among the most effective tacts, thus far is “educating these senators on how these cuts affect small town physicians and hospitals,” he said. “The challenge, politically, is to convince legislators that this is a real issue out in the country because what they see in Lincoln and Omaha is new hospital buildings going up.”
Florida lobbyist Matt Bryan, of Smith, Bryan & Myers, Inc., Tallahassee, said it’s a “short turnaround” from the state’s May adjournment to convening again in January, especially with at least one special session already in the books. “Like most firms,” he said, “we have already begun discussing our agenda for the 2018 session with legislative leaders.”
The bottom line, said Minnesota’s Hanson, is, “When we think about the next Legislature, we come back to, ‘What can we do to improve our chances?’”