Legislative Advocacy: How You Can Make a Difference
by Maria Alegria
There’s no question that it’s challenging to stay informed about all the issues that affect your community, particularly if you are involved in making policy decisions as a mayor or council member. The deluge of information that accompanies the process can be overwhelming; it requires diligence to make informed decisions.
But perhaps an even greater challenge is the need to step back, look at the big picture and keep up with events in the state Legislature that have the potential to directly impact your city. As elected officials, we have a responsibility to our communities to look after their best interests at all levels of government. What are you doing to advocate for your city at the state level?
Whether you’re a seasoned official with years of experience or a newcomer to the legislative arena, the League provides a number of tools to enhance your advocacy efforts. It’s easy to track legislation and learn about priority bills affecting cities by using the online advocacy center on the League website (www.cacities.org/advocacycenter).
New Legislators Bring Local Insight
The 2007–08 legislative session is unique from a local perspective because, for the first time, former local elected officials constitute a majority in both houses of the Legislature. These legislators have firsthand knowledge of the challenges facing local communities. Similarly, your own experience as a mayor or council member can be an effective lobbying tool in advocating for your city. Many legislators have served as city council members or county supervisors and already have a sound grasp of the difference that local governments can make in the quality of life for their constituents. Furthermore, while a minority of legislators haven’t served as city council members or county supervisors, many of them have had other previous experience in local government, such as serving on a school board, in special districts or working for a city or county.
Effective Advocacy Requires Ongoing Effort
The League’s Legislative Action Days (LAD) event in Sacramento next month (May 16–17) offers an excellent opportunity to learn the latest information about what’s happening in the state Capitol and how it will impact your city. Specifically, LAD sessions cover pending legislation of greatest importance to cities, with presentations from legislators, state leaders and League staff. Immediately following the briefings, plan to use this information and meet with your legislators to discuss your city’s needs and priorities. Be sure to sign up by the May 10 deadline for this very popular event (advance registration is required) and schedule appointments with your legislators well in advance.
While participating in Legislative Action Days is an important component of advocating for your city, effective advocacy requires an ongoing effort. It’s not just a one-time thing. Here are a number of things you can do to strengthen the effectiveness of your city’s lobbying.
Appoint a legislative liaison to track important legislation and coordinate your city’s activities with your League regional public affairs manager (find him or her at www.cacities.org/regionalmanagers).
Familiarize yourself with the legislative process by using the tracking tools on the League website (www.cacities.org/bill search). The site provides basic information on a bill, such as its text, history, status, hearings, votes and more. It also includes the League’s position on a bill, the name of the lobbyist who is tracking it, and copies of any letters the League has sent about the bill.
Get to know your Senate and Assembly representatives and their staff both at their district and Capitol offices. Learn about their background and what motivates them. One of the most helpful things you can do - both for your city and your legislator - is become a resource to them. By educating them on issues facing your city and providing them with regular updates, you build your credibility and make their work a little easier. Use the League’s online Advocacy Center (www.cacities.org/advocacycenter) to identify or contact your legislators.
Know your budget numbers. Understand how state decisions can affect your city’s budget and use this information to present and strengthen your case to legislators.
Take advantage of the resources your League regional manager can provide. Your regional manager specializes in building local networks around key legislative issues. These networks include business groups, developers, unions, the local chamber of commerce, neighborhood associations, library groups, parks and recreation users, and more. Invite your regional manager to join you in these meetings.
Organize an internal process within your city for developing and proposing changes to laws that will help your city. Every fall, legislators and their staff look for legislative ideas. Work with your League regional manager to explore coalition-building opportunities that will support your proposals. Add a “Legislative Update” as a standing item on your council agenda for regular updates and possible action.
Adopt local policies on legislation so your city can respond quickly to changes in the legislative process. Watch for the League’s Legislative Action Alerts to provide a heads-up when your city’s participation is needed, and consider adopting the League’s Guiding Principles (online at www.cacities.org/summaryprinciples) as a base for your policies.
Write letters to your legislators and key policy-makers on legislation featured in the League’s online newsletter Priority Focus. (If you’re not already receiving it, sign up at www.cacities.org/priorityfocus.) Your letters make a difference. Sample letters and talking points are available online from the advocacy center (www.cacities.org/advocacycenter). This tool also enables you to write and send letters online, by fax or by downloading them and sending through standard mail.
Get to know your local press and educate them about city issues. Provide a local angle on pending legislation. There are multiple benefits to this practice: Legislators and their staff pay attention to their local press; voters often care more about local issues; and reporters are often seeking local sources on statewide issues. It’s also helpful to bear in mind that reporters and their assigned beats may change frequently, particularly in larger media markets. Consequently, your outreach to the local media should be ongoing, and it’s likely you will have to explain the same issues repeatedly over time. Your League regional manager can help you coordinate your media activities with other efforts, such as press conferences and media events, that are planned in your region.
Strength in Numbers
The League’s role in state public affairs has gained considerable strength in recent years, and one of the major factors in this success is the consistent effort of its member cities to advocate for their interests at the legislative level - both individually and as a group. Your personal commitment and involvement are critical to our success. I urge you to make legislative advocacy part of your city’s regular activties and ongoing priorities. The League and its staff are here to help you and welcome your questions. You can make a difference.