Riding Out the Storm

By Stateside Associates

State government affairs professionals rejoice and dread the time of year known as ‘end of session.’ The final days of a legislative session are full of lavish political fundraisers, staff potlucks and an overwhelming sense of camaraderie among staff, lobbyists and elected officials. Many celebrate legislative victories as bills reach the Governor’s desk and await that coveted signature prior to becoming law.

It is also a time where policy negotiations taper off, conflict ensues and legislation is often times held captive in opposing chambers for political reasons. In addition, last minute amendments completely alter the scope of a bill and legislation is expedited through the political process within a moment’s notice. Political parties are pitted against each other and members are pitted against their fellow caucus members.

Typically, it all begins with chatter. Rumblings during respective caucus’ meetings to announce leadership’s desire to address a specific issue that was not resolved previously. With that, amendments are drafted and seemingly non-controversial measures evolve into eleventh-hour policy shifts that are then presented to legislators without proper vetting. All the while, the halls are buzzing with lobbyists frenetically trying to obtain amendments and lobby staff as reporters furiously write articles and post commentary on social media sites while everyone awaits guidance from the House Speaker or Senate President.

Such scenarios are perceived by constituents and political theorists as dysfunction at its finest: an insult to the institution and legislative process that ignites calls for the days when transparency existed. This, however, is nothing new to me. Prior to working at Stateside Associates, I spent three remarkable years working as an aide in the California State Legislature. The experiences of working in a fast paced and unpredictable environment provided me the know-how and instinct that is necessary to succeed in the realm of public affairs. This first-hand experience opened my eyes to this trend that is fast becoming a common practice within state legislatures.

Government affairs professionals face a significant challenge as they prepare for adverse language cropping up in legislation during the concluding days of session. The lackluster economy has inspired elected officials to attempt to incite prosperity by any means necessary.

For example, on September 8, 2011 the California Senate amended a bill dealing with recycling and composting bins by inserting a comprehensive exemption in one of California’s oldest statutes requiring state and local agencies to identify the significant environmental impacts of their actions and to avoid or mitigate those impacts (footnote). This measure was marketed by Senate President Darrell Steinberg as a necessary measure to spark job creation. The legislation was amended on the Senate floor, debated in an off the floor hearing, taken up without reference to the daily file, subsequently passed in both chambers and now awaits consideration by the Governor. All within a time frame of two days.

This is not an uncommon event and state government affairs professionals must have practices that anticipate this legislative shuffling when it happens behind closed doors. Understanding loopholes in rules and processes is a must, but learning the institutional machinations cannot happen overnight. Knowing a legislative body inside and out comes with time. As you work within a given state legislature, make it a point to understand the rules and how they can be bent or broken altogether. I saw firsthand as an Assembly staffer how the knowledgeable players protected themselves and their legislative agendas in the last-minute fray.

Be present if at all possible. The need to have a lobbyist on the ground in key states for your organization—especially where a legislature’s rules are flexible—is critical.

State government affairs professionals thrive because we love the pursuit. We love the feeling of accomplishment after successfully passing or defeating a piece of legislation that would dramatically impact our organization or clients. Knowing the nuts and bolts of the legislative process is not a glamorous part of the job, but in our business they are the keys to being successful when riding out the end of session wave of activity.

Footnotes:

(1) http://ceres.ca.gov/ceqa/more/faq.html

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