State advocacy requires finding allies and good info
Panelists discuss how national associations can have impact at state, local levels
Partisan gridlock in Washington, D.C., means much of the lobbying action is shifting to the states. If associations want to keep up, they must cultivate local allies and find good sources of information, according to panelists at the June 23 CEO Update LIVE discussion on advocacy.
“Because it has been more challenging in recent years for advocates to accomplish what they’re trying to accomplish at the federal level, they’re taking advantage of opportunities that exist in state legislatures and in localities,” said Leslie Sarasin, CEO of FMI, The Food Industry Association.
Reid Wilson, former reporter for The Hill and founder of the soon-to-be-launched Pluribus News, moderated the discussion, which featured Sarasin and News Media Alliance CEO David Chavern. The event took place a day after the government watchdog group OpenSecrets reported that spending on state and federal advocacy grew to record levels in 2021. Spending in the 19 states that OpenSecrets tracks topped $1.8 billion last year, more than any other year except 2019, once adjusted for inflation. The group has monitored spending on state lobbying since 2015.
Sarasin noted that the food industry FMI represents is regulated at the federal, state and local levels, so her group has been engaged in all three for a long time and has seen the trends.
“What I think is different now is that those (state and local) decisions are much more important and much more relevant for our everyday business. … Things are not necessarily beginning at the federal level and moving to the states the way they used to. It’s the reverse of that,” she said.
California, by virtue of its size, is a major driver of legislative trends. One example is the California Consumer Privacy Act of 2018, loosely modeled after the much more sweeping General Data Protection Regulation in the European Union. Other states have considered legislation based on California’s law.
“One would think that would provoke federal privacy legislation,” Chavern said. “There’s certainly talk about that now, but that’s proving to be really difficult. Essentially the state standards—particularly in the big-enough states—can become de facto federal standards because there’s no federal response.
“So yeah, there’s a lot of state-level activism but also there’s a new element of it (having) potential to become essentially national legislation originating in the states,” he said.
Even smaller states can kick off national trends. Sarasin pointed to Vermont, which in 2016 became the first state to require labels on foods containing genetically modified ingredients. Other states soon adopted similar laws. So did federal policymakers, with a national labeling law scheduled to take effect this year.
How can associations monitor and advocate in 50 state legislatures let alone the plethora of county and city governments?
For starters, rely on allies.
“We are fortunate in the food industry in that we have a network of state grocery organizations and state retail organizations, so a good bit of our work is done at the state level in conjunction with those state organizations,” Sarasin said. “The thing that we want to avoid at FMI is going into states and being viewed as carpetbaggers and trying to purport that we have the answers to everything. And so what we do instead is work through the local associations that have their own networks in place for state and local lobbying.
“Sometimes it involves our actually going there and engaging with them, but more times than not it is providing research (and) other types of education opportunities for our shared members, because at the end of the day, the best lobbyists in any environment are our members,” she said.
The approach of “I’m here from Washington to give my opinion on your legislation” is rarely a winner, Chavern said.
“You’ve really got to find local partners who you trust and who trust you, or are well aligned, which is often the case but not always,” he said. Associations need to “figure out the best sort of partnerships with them. What do they need from you? That could be resources. It could be messaging. It could be technology. How can we best help you win? And then what do you need in return?
“For a lot of industries, including my own, there are state associations that are well attuned to local politics and dynamics,” Chavern said. “What you have to do is invest in those relationships all the time, even when you don’t need them in that moment, because you can’t just be like ‘Oh, we have never talked before but we’re really worried about this legislation.’”
Thousands of bills are introduced in state legislatures every year. Most won’t pass nor warrant attention. National associations need a way to track that legislation to focus on the policies most likely to have an impact, according to the panelists.
“For us this has been an interesting trial and error process,” Sarasin said. “There are any number of services that are available around the country to provide information and we’ve tried a number of them. Some are better than others. The ones that we try to avoid are the ones that are just sort of data dumps—we get the information without any context or analysis or opportunity to tailor what we’re looking for.
“We have found a company that we’re very, very comfortable with. We love their customer service. We love being able to work with them. … What we do with them is we work together and identify on a regular basis what our keywords are, what are our top priorities, and they track it for us both at the state level and also in certain localities.”
Chavern said the News Media Alliance has sought out similar services and found a lot of providers lack editorial direction to weed out the useful information from the unhelpful.
“To get that sort of editorial level, you have to work closely with your state partners that are closer to the ground about what’s going on,” he said. “And also, frankly, your members saying, ‘Whoa, did you see this thing in this state?’”