Washington Gridlock Raises the Stakes at State Capitols

Walking through the halls of your state capitol, you may have felt a discernable shift in the pace and tone of policy debates; the number of lobbyists has increased, policy differences escalate into fights more quickly than before, arguments are more contentious, and there seem to be more voters engaged and communicating with lawmakers.

Blame congressional gridlock. Over the last ten years, the inability to accomplish policy change in Washington, DC, means that issues are being debated and decided at the state level. With this shift, there has been a dramatic increase in spending and revolutionary innovations in advocacy strategies.

The Washington Post examined lobbying spending at the state level in 28 states and found that in the years 2013-2014, at least $2.2 billion was spent by professional advocates. Almost every state examined saw an increase in lobbying spending over the last ten years. In California, for example, in years 2003-2004, spending increased from $424 million to $579 million in 2013-2014, and in New York during those same periods, spending increased from $264 million to $436 million.

The shift to the states has also seen a growing sophistication in how advocacy campaigns are executed in addition to the significant increase in lobbying spending. Unfortunately, state policy tools and resources aren't keeping pace. Term limits have generated knowledge gaps within legislative bodies; budget restraints limit the number of professional staff and policy experts available to lawmakers, and short legislative sessions make it easy to push through legislation without a complete evaluation of its impact.

Traditionally the business community has managed state legislative issues with a state-by-state or regional approach. Anti-business interests, by contrast, have revolutionized the way that they approach state affairs. Embracing the best of technology, they work from a national strategy that is deployed across multiple states. This means while you are playing whack-a-mole, fighting off bad proposals state by state, your opponents are developing a national narrative that justifies their proposed policy change, refining and perfecting a state playbook, building momentum by passing "model" legislation in more favorable states, and growing a national coalition of supporters.

To win at the state level, you need to first shift your thinking of how to manage state affairs, understanding that each state effort is part of a larger, sophisticated national campaign. You also need to develop your own "state playbooks" made up of best practices from strategies and tactics utilized in other states. Finally, long-term investment in building and engaging grassroots "communities" needs to replace the old, grassroots model of "rent a crowd."

Nothing in the upcoming presidential election indicates that Washington's gridlock problems will end, which means we can expect state lobbying spending to increase and for the sophistication of your opponents' strategies to increase as they perfect their state playbooks. Investment and a change of approach now can help you position yourself in a way that will help FIAE members accomplish their policy goals now and into the future.

Diane Miller is a Senior Vice President at DDC Public Affairs, one of the newest FIAE affiliate members. She specializes in helping companies develop effective local and state policy strategies. She spent the first nine years of her career working in state politics in Missouri, since moving to Washington, DC in 2003, she has managed policy campaigns in over 35 states. Contact Diane at DMiller@ddcpublicaffairs.com.

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