Archive for January, 2010

Your “Groups” Participation Resolutions for the New Year…

January 14, 2010

We are already two weeks into the New Year and many of you – having returned to your offices from a long holiday break – are just now beginning to reflect on those resolutions you made in late December for 2010.

Putting aside those commitments you made about losing weight, saving more money or drinking less, let’s focus on an easy one to tackle: How to improve your participation in the state and local officials Groups. If you are reading this, you already know that the Groups and their meetings can represent wonderful economical opportunities to educate and motivate policymakers, raise your organization’s profile and build sustained professional relationships. But without the proper focus and planning, you can waste a lot of money, resources – and perhaps more importantly – your time on Groups that do not return value to your program.

So, here are a few resolutions to consider that you can easily make – and keep – regarding participation in the Groups in the upcoming year:

First, I Will Ensure That My Groups Objectives Align With My Organization’s Overall Government Affairs Objectives – It is absolutely critical that you routinely scrutinize the Groups you are participating in, and refine your participation plan for the year to ensure those Groups you dedicate time, resources and money to are yielding tangible results for your program. Your Groups advocacy efforts, messaging and relationship-building should all be supporting your on-the-ground efforts. It is easy to be lulled into a comfort level with many of the Groups forums we attend, but have you wondered recently how they are helping to advance your program in the state capitols? Do the issues or policymaking the Group considers matter to your program or your organization? If the Group expresses itself through policymaking, does the Group allow you to participate in a meaningful way, or must you watch the meetings and policymaking from the sidelines? And finally, do the right public policy leaders (or any leaders) attend the forums or meetings? And can you leverage either the policies, or the relationships you have worked hard to forge, at the retail level of government (whether that is at the state, local or even federal levels)? In this climate of unpredictable organizational budgets, you can ill afford to continue participating in a Group that is not advancing, or returning value to, your program.

I Will Build New Relationships With Groups’ Staff – And build them before you need them. Let’s assume you have already built relationships with many of the right public officials. You also need to recognize that each of these Groups has a core group of staff who are setting the agendas, crafting policy, identifying speakers and program sponsors and – in some instances – driving the organization. In a climate of travel restrictions on the policymakers, you cannot neglect building relationships with the staff. Get to know the committee directors and policy wonks – those people who are writing the policy positions, magazine and newsletter articles or who handle the issue areas you care most about. And each Group with private sector affiliates, members or sponsors has a liaison. You should know these staff and use them to help you navigate the meetings, the policymaking process and the unfamiliar faces and leaders within the organization. In addition to knowing these staff and attending their meetings, you must find a way to establish yourself as a known and respected participant in that Group and as a future resource to them. Knowing the right staff can often prove as valuable as making major dollar commitments to meeting and program sponsorships.

I Will Find A Way To Help My Elected-Official “Champions” Within The Groups – Do not forget that it is an election year. And as the saying goes, legislators cannot legislate unless they are re-elected. I know, your budget is tight and you have no extra money to dedicate to campaign contributions, but you can always help a legislator or other elected official raise money for his or her reelection. Make a personal contribution or solicit your colleagues for small contributions. The personal contributions can be very meaningful – remember, we operate in a world where relationships are the currency. Join a campaign finance committee to leverage your participation or contribution further, walk door to door with the elected official if they are local to you, stuff envelopes, help them with fundraising events. Sure, this type of work is time-consuming, but it can be tremendously rewarding in terms of building and nurturing sustainable relationships with those policymakers who become the future Groups leaders.

I Will Explore the Political Groups – Again, it is an election year. These are the closely-related, alphabet soup of Groups such as the Republican Legislative Campaign Committee (RLCC), the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee (DLCC), The Democratic Attorneys General Association (DAGA) and the Republican Attorneys General Association (RAGA) and the Republican Governors Association (RGA) and Democratic Governors Association (DGA). Often called 527 Groups, after the provision in the tax code, they have but one simple mission and that is to support state legislative, attorney general and gubernatorial campaigns. These organizations can be extremely valuable to your relationship-building efforts and access to state leaders and can serve to help you better leverage both policymaker AND staff relationships in the state capitols…and within the policy-oriented Groups. They are becoming more influential players in the state arena. The contributions required to “join” these organizations – and make no mistake, your commitment is a campaign contribution – are often very competitive with those commitments to join their sister policy-oriented Groups and, in a world otherwise tangled by confusing campaign finance laws, they all take corporate dollars.

I Will Commit To Learning The Policy-Making Processes Within My Groups – “How did that policy pass?” is a refrain I have heard more than once at Groups meetings over the years and even from seasoned government affairs managers. Some of the Groups policymaking process can be esoteric and many of the Groups have very specific organizational missions that drive the policymaking. If you are going to participate in any Group in a meaningful way, it simply pays to learn the policymaking process. What is the process for crafting a policy position? How do the committees or task force operate? Who can vote, or quorum rules like how many states must be represented to vote? What do the policies mean and who are they directed at? And know the Group’s advocacy mission: Does it represent its constituents before the federal government and, as such, are its policies aimed at Congress or federal agencies. Does it craft so-called model bills? Very few legislative Groups presume to tell their peers how to write a bill or suggest content, but several Groups weigh in on legislation their colleagues have already passed, such as the Council of State Governments’ Suggested State Legislation process. You cannot play the game, if you do not know the rules.

Hotel Taxes and Online Travel Companies

January 13, 2010

Local governments, facing revenue shortfalls and budget cuts, are looking for any and all sources of revenue to help fill their coffers. One prospective revenue source is now in the crosshairs – hotel occupancy taxes from online travel companies, such as Orbitz, Expedia, Priceline and Hotels.com. While this is not a completely new issue (Pitt County, North Carolina first filed suit in 2005) more and more local governments are looking at this as a possible revenue source. One estimate, from the tax collectors, is that $8 billion is at stake nationwide.

So why do local governments claim that the tax revenues are lost? More and more travelers are using online services to book their own flights, rental cars and secure hotel rooms. Online travel companies purchase hotel rooms at wholesale prices, then turn around and resell the room for a higher price. Taxes are paid to the local government for the wholesale rate, not for the retail rate. Many local governments are claiming the right to collect the taxes on the difference between the wholesale and retail rate.

Several counties in North Carolina and six counties in Florida have filed class-action lawsuits. And in November 2009, a federal district court jury awarded a group of 170 Texas cities $20 million for the online travel companies’ failure to pay hotel occupancy taxes. The decision is under appeal. Another lawsuit, filed by Kentucky local governments was dismissed in December, under the reasoning that because the online travel companies lack ownership and physical control over the rooms rented, they do not constitute “like or similar accommodations businesses.”

However, not all local governments are pursuing these revenues. Clark County (Las Vegas), Nevada decided not to file suit, after County Commissioners cited concerns that going after the online travel companies would hurt their tourism-based economy. Instead, the County Commission asked county staff to look into the issue and to come back with proposed legislation to clarify the tax issues.

This issue is now gathering attention from policymakers outside the local government arena. The National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) held a panel discussion the issue at its Annual Legislative Summit last summer, and will be discussing the issue again at its Executive Committee meeting at the end of January. The Federation of Tax Administrators (FTA), comprised of state tax administrators, has also taken an interest the payment of hotel taxes from online travel companies. (Both NCSL and FTA are looking at this issue to help determine how online businesses should be treated under the Streamlined Sales and Use Tax Agreement.) Another group, the Fair Hotel Tax Collection Coalition, is advocating in favor of the Multistate Tax Commission’s proposal for online travel companies pay the difference between the wholesale and retail rate.

Between local governments, state legislators, state tax collectors and the coalition, it is safe to say this is an issue that will not be resolved any time soon.

WHEN BUDGETS SLIDE, LEADERS CLIMB

January 8, 2010

By Constance Campanella, President and CEO

Most economic signs are brighter than they were at this time last year. But, for many corporate and association state government relations (SGR) programs, those brighter signs are cold comfort when facing another, lower budget for State Government Relations.

Regardless of the importance of the SGR mission, budgets are going to influence how much you can accomplish. Let’s face it; there is only so much you can leverage through your $2,000 membership in the state trade association.

So, what are some options when facing an even smaller budget?

1. Remember, the value scale is always tipped in favor of victories that add REVENUE to the company. Avoided costs, long term relationship building and the like are things we know are valuable, BUT, in lean-mean times, it is the REVENUE-GROWING wins that will be recognized first. If you have such goals in your basket, reach for them first.

2. Negotiate. Everybody felt the recession and understands that corporate and association budgets have taken some serious hits. Do not be afraid to negotiate for more services, a stepped down membership fee, a flexible retainer or longer payment schedule. You may not succeed, but chances are that your lobbyists, Groups friends, consultants and other vendors will work to keep your business, even at a lower financial level.

3. Show them the LOBBYING. Next year’s budget is just around the corner. Build a better foundation for your program even in tight times. We do become immune to how interesting our jobs are. Many others with whom we work (or work for) are not so blasé about interacting with Governors, Attorneys General, Speakers, Senate Presidents and other senior government officials on a day to day basis. If you want your senior management to “get” what you do and be more of an advocate for your program, take them along. Take them to a Groups meeting or to your home state capital and let them see up close how you advocate and build recognition and respect for your organization.

4. Finally – Consider improving your Legislative and Regulatory Monitoring. When you do not have extra staff to “fill in the blanks” left by web searches or keyword search databases, high quality Legislative and Regulatory Monitoring Services can make a huge difference and even reduce your need for lobbyists. Yes, these are services we offer at Stateside, but we also use them in our capacity as issue managers for clients. The eight issue managers at Stateside Associates spend very little time running down information ourselves because we have these excellent information resources at our fingertips. That makes us a lot more efficient and capable of focusing on more highly valued work. We certainly would not want any less for our clients.


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