State Advocacy: Preparing for the Upcoming Legislative Session

Does your organization have a roadmap for advocacy at the state level? If your issue’s policy extends beyond the national level, it’s imperative that you advocate your stance to elected officials in affected states. And, with the current national political climate, it’s often possible to influence policy more easily at the state level, given the smaller scale and narrower policy scope. As we quickly approach the new year, advocacy organizations and nonprofits should ensure they are prepared to start the new legislative session off strong. Read below to understand a few key differences between federal and state advocacy efforts, as well as tips and tricks that can help you start 2018 on the right foot.

State Advocacy vs. Federal Advocacy Differences

As mentioned, state advocacy can often yield quicker results than national efforts. However, it does present its own unique set of challenges. For starters, many state legislatures – or, general assemblies – meet only a few months (or even weeks) out of the year. For example, the U.S. Congress is in session year-round, with frequent district work periods, while the Georgia General Assembly only convenes for 40 days. This means that if an issue isn’t addressed in the General Assembly during those 40 days, it could be over a year before it returns for legislative discussion.

State legislators also have fewer staff than their federal counterparts. Where Members of Congress may have 10-20 staff in the House and 30-60 in the Senate, many state legislators may only have one or two staff members, if that. In general, staff sizes can affect how informed a legislator is on a policy issue. In the U.S. Congress, legislative staff often become policy experts and serve as valuable resources to their Members. Fewer staff can pose a challenge for state legislators as they attempt to stay on top of various policy matters.

However, one needn’t necessarily view these features of state legislatures as obstacles. Rather, view them as opportunities. Since there are fewer calendar days for state representatives and senators to handle their legislative business, it can lead to more efficient sessions with clear agendas. Advocacy groups must work more quickly during the shorter legislative window, but they may have more clarity as to what will be debated and when, which is not always the case at the federal level. Fewer personal staff means legislators may rely more on outside resources (and even organizations) to stay on top of policy issues. This could provide an opportunity for associations and nonprofits to position themselves as helpful resources for those state legislators, which will be discussed later in this post.

Advanced Planning is Key

While it may be tempting to leverage this off-session time to focus your efforts on other areas of need, we’ve seen clients have the most success if they maintain year-round focus on state advocacy efforts. Here are three activities your organization should undertake even when state legislatures have adjourned.

  1. Identify potential advocates. Organizations should use the lull in state legislative activity to actively recruit new advocates, instead of using the precious limited time when legislatures are convened. Take time to target, identify and grow your supporter base. Encourage those interested in your cause to engage with your organization on social media. Don’t have a social media presence for your cause? Now’s the time to create one.
  2. Educate supporters on your organization’s position. Do your supporters know the legislative champions and opponents of your cause? Do your supporters know legislation from previous sessions that address your organization’s issue? Do your supporters understand who the other non-legislative stakeholders are on your issue? All of this is important information that organizations and their supporters should know prior to the start of a legislative session to effectively advocate for a cause. Having a well-informed advocacy base is essential for successfully conveying your message to policymakers, and the “off-season” is an ideal time to educate your supporters. That way they can hit the ground running when the legislature returns to session.
  3. Develop relationships with your state legislators and other key elected officials. One of the benefits of state-level advocacy is that these officials are more easily accessible than federal officials, and they like the attention! I have a friend from high school who is a state representative and he constantly talks with community members through his Facebook page. Take this time to reach out to your legislative champions and establish direct connections with them. From there, you can develop rapport and potentially become allies in your shared cause, which will prove valuable when the legislature returns to session. Furthermore, your organization can even become the “Support Staff” for your legislative champion, in the absence of a large, formal staff.

Effective, state-level advocacy is a must for any successful public policy campaign. Policy victories at the state level are often replicated in other states and can serve as a precursor to a larger federal effort. Additionally, the relationships organizations develop with their state legislators are invaluable both now and in the future. Who knows, perhaps down the road, your state legislative champion might decide to take their talents to the national level!

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