Archive for November, 2011

Tensions Grow in Municipal-Federal Relationship

November 16, 2011

By Michael Behm, Senior Vice President at Stateside Associates

The growing tensions between the nation’s cities and towns and the federal government over anticipated budget cuts and nearing Supercommittee deadlines were on display last week at the National League of Cities (NLC) Congress of Cities and Exposition in Phoenix, Arizona.

NLC attendees railed against perceived Congressional indifference toward the country’s municipalities during NLC’s Community and Economic Development (CED) Committee meeting. The CED Committee develops NLC’s federal policy and advocates on behalf of the participating cities and towns. Committee members promised to oppose Supercommittee actions that could further impact the already deteriorating fiscal conditions of America’s local governments. Congress’ Supercommittee faces a November 23 deadline—just a week away—to achieve a gargantuan $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction. Missing the deadline will mean that both domestic and defense programs face dramatic, across the board cuts that go into effect January 2013. Local government officials fear their programs and personnel could bear the brunt of those cuts.

“We just can’t take any more cuts; it’s almost as though they [Members of Congress] have no idea what we’re going through…,” said one committee member during the CED meeting. Another committee member shouted, “we’ll ‘occupy’ the Hill and maybe then they will listen,” to a chorus of laughs and cheers.

The nation’s cities are now in the deepest part of the economic downturn, according to the recently released annual City Fiscal Conditions report—a broadly-focused NLC survey on the fiscal health of cities with populations exceeding 50,000 and a wide sampling of smaller municipalities. The report reveals that most city leaders are now looking to 2013 for any sign of an upturn. In fact, local revenue officials forecast another 2.5 percent drop in revenue collections, on average. This follows on already big hits in property tax collections (expected to decline by 3.7% with further drops likely in 2012 and 2013); fewer revenues coming from income tax collections (expected to decline by 1.6%); and flat local sales tax collections in 2012.

Cities are responding to the downturn by doing the undesirable—more than 70% of the municipalities surveyed cut staff and other personnel; more than 60% are delaying or eliminating badly needed infrastructure projects; and more than 40% are increasing fees and fines. Once sacrosanct local government pension programs and healthcare coverage will soon come under more serious scrutiny and many will face cuts, according to NLC staff. More than one third of cities are already making modifications to their employee health care coverage.  Many local governments are also considering merging city and township functions, such as fire, police and waste removal, with neighboring jurisdictions, adding to the stress placed on first responders and other essential city services. State budget cuts are adding to the pressure. NLC reported that general funding to cities has been cut in half since 2009 and shared revenues have been reduced by more than 40%.

During the CED Committee meeting, and other sessions throughout the conference, officials and NLC staff pledged to become more active during the next several critical weeks as the Supercommittee meets and until NLC convenes in March in Washington, DC for its Congressional City Conference. Among the congressional priorities that were discussed during last week’s NLC Congress of Cities and Exposition:

  • Preventing elimination of the tax exemption for municipal bonds. Eliminating the tax exemption, which incentivizes community investment, is one proposal before the Supercommittee. NLC argues that eliminating the exemption would deliver a devastating blow to state and local investment. One city mayor attending the meeting called the idea, “just plain stupid” (NLC staff noted that the Administration had initially supported eliminating the exemption but recently abandoned support under strong local pressure; however, the proposal remains on the table in Congress).
  • Overturning the Percent Withholding law, which requires state and local governments with annual expenditures in excess of $100 million to withhold three (3) percent from payments for goods, services and payments made to government contracts and remit those withholdings to the federal government toward future tax liability. NLC federal relations staff calls the law “just plain bad policy.”
  • Supporting a two-year version of transportation authorization legislation and pressing Congress to move beyond the injurious continuing resolution (CR) process. NLC staff contend that momentum exists to pass a new bill, but they recognize the federal government is short on the revenues to pay for it.
  • Supporting continued, level funding for the Community Development Block Grant program (CDBG) at $3.5 billion, as it exists in the current House bill. NLC staff expressed concerns about the Senate bill which includes $485 million less than its House companion and is the lowest amount proposed for the program since 1990.
  • Supporting the recently introduced Streamlined Sales and Use Tax Legislation, passage of which would enable state governments to collect sales tax from so-called remote sellers. Several NLC staff and members expressed concern about how much money enactment of remote sales tax collection would actually deliver to the cities, but it remains a priority for NLC’s federal advocates.
  • Opposing federal efforts to enable or require state collection and administration of local telecommunication taxes.

Adding to the concerns expressed by many of the local officials and speakers at the NLC meeting were both the dizzying number of deadlines and priorities currently in front of Congress and fierce partisan gridlock. As the pressure grows to meet the deadlines, NLC’s lobbying staff raised concerns that they and others will be locked out of the behind-closed-doors discussions. “We will lose our influence [over the process] when this occurs,” stated Carolyn Coleman, NLC’s Center Director, Federal Relations, speaking to the Corporate Partner Leadership Council at the meeting. During the same meeting, Arlington, Texas Councilmember Sheri Capehart told corporate sponsors that the nation’s cities and towns are working more closely together than their federal counterparts, “we don’t care about partisanship–we’ve got serious problems that we need to work beyond.”

If you attended last week’s NLC meeting, what were your observations? How is your local government relations program adapting to the ongoing changes in the municipal-federal relationship? How do you anticipate federal cuts to local programs will affect your business?

Lessons From Virginia, Iowa

November 10, 2011

By Heather Williams, Vice President at Stateside Associates

(Excerpt reprinted with permission from Governors Journal)

Virginia has given us insight into how national issues are going to play in state elections in 2012.

Despite all efforts by Virginia Democrats to make their campaigns for state Senate about state issues, Republicans worked determinedly to tie all Democrats to an unpopular president. This is for good reason.

Quinnipiac has Governor McDonnell’s approval rating at 62% whereas Rasmussen Reports President Obama’s approval rating at 45%. The clearest example of the Republicans’ goals to tie candidates to the president came in the form of a quote from Virginia GOP spokesman Garren Shipley: “Virginians face a choice—do they want Washington, Obama-style leadership, or do they want Virginia, McDonnell-style leadership?” If Democrats wanted to win, their mandate was to fight back against these types of linkages. They knew going into their races that they couldn’t win talking about national issues and so they worked tirelessly against allowing the Republicans to draw clear lines between Democratic candidates and the president.

In the end, Democrats struggled to distance themselves from the president and his national agenda, but those who did were largely successful. Senator Phillip Puckett(D) publicly stated in September he would not be supporting the President in 2012. Despite that statement, Republicans aired an ad linking Senator Puckett to President Obama and his “job killing” national agenda (Puckett won with 53 percent of votes cast). Democrats tried so hard to keep the campaigns about Virginia and Virginia issues that Senator George Barker’s(D) campaign…



Listen (dot) com

November 2, 2011

By Stateside Associates

For whatever reason, when hearing the words “social media,” few of us think about the need to listen. I took a very informal survey of colleagues and friends recently and found that when asked about what the term “social media” means to them, most people began by using action verbs to describe their perceptions, for example “SENDING,” “POSTING” “TARGETING” and “BLOGGING.”

Some thought of individual social media platforms and some thought of the general features of these platforms. Yet for others the big picture came to mind, including the where, when, how and why of sending a message out using various social media channels. Very few made any mention of what I consider the more passive uses of social media. I didn’t hear anyone mention listening or monitoring.

Granted, this poll was quick and far from formal. Regardless, the results were surprising. Listening really only came up in my test as an afterthought, when it should have been far more prominent a consideration when examining social media use for business purposes. Only by listening at the outset to identify the content, location and participants in digital conversations, can we have any hope of making an impact on the outcomes.

One reason to explain why nobody mentioned listening might be that listening is second nature for many of us in this line of work. As policy wonks and/or political professionals we instinctively know that things move fast and we’ve acclimated to taking it all in without stopping to think twice. Whether monitoring legislation, forecasting regulatory activity or managing policy issues, we naturally understand that our strategy is predicated on the conditions on the ground, and that those can change in an instant. We’ve adapted to this world where the “fish or cut bait” approach gets results. Listening for, and anticipating, movement is the only way to stay ahead of the curve—the very same applies when we consider social media.

We need to know where we stand before we can figure out where we want to go. In these growing digital collaborative workspaces, we have to identify the conversations that are happening so that we can dive in with the right message, in the right format and at the right time and place.

To listen well, is as powerful a means of influence as to talk well, and is as essential to all true conversation.” – Chinese Proverb

Ok, enough WHY, here’s some HOW

There are plenty of advanced strategies that come into play when considering using social media to listen, but there are also some very simple steps you can take to gather some of the low-hanging fruit. Take fifteen minutes today and start to listen online or increase the effectiveness of your current online listening.

1. Signup and Login – it’s incredibly difficult to take part in the conversation without access. The good news is that admission is free on almost all social media platforms; all you’ll need in most cases is a working email address (some choose to use a secondary email address so as to distinguish social media interactions from routine business communications).

For those new to social media, this step means signing up for a few social media services. Start with a few of the most commonly used platforms, like LinkedIn and Facebook. These sites will have the most users that you want to target with your message, and will therefore be the best use of your time.

Track down a handful of users that you are already familiar with. Make the connection on these sites and build from there. Even if you’ve been using these social media platforms already, chances are there are new individuals that have signed up since your last visit that you should be connecting with.

2. Join Groups – to get the real return on the time you’re investing when you join a social media community, join groups related to your primary business interests. These groups act as forums where issues are discussed and ideas are shared between industry leaders. See what your colleagues, competitors, clients or the general public are saying about a handful of issues that you care about.

Keep your search for groups to join broad at first. When you’ve have a chance to review the results, narrow the terms to get a more targeted set of results. Once you’ve started listening to the groups on your social media account(s), branch out into more traditional web groups. Some of the most common include Yahoo and Google groups.

Whichever groups you join, you should set up email alerts so that you’ll get a notice only when new topics of discussion are introduced. That way you don’t have to remember to check back until there is new content worth reading. If it’s an especially active group consider setting up a daily or weekly digest of all of the group’s activity to keep your inbox from getting cluttered.

3. Alerts – setting up alerts from many of the major web search engines and news sites takes only a few seconds. These alerts can be set up very easily to monitor anything that includes a few words or phrases you want to monitor. There are as many specific uses for alerts as you can imagine. Some of the most common uses are: monitoring the news each morning, keeping tabs on what a competitor is saying or doing online, ensuring nothing negative about you or a staffer appears online or seeing what people are saying about a specific product.

Alerts can be tricky to fine-tune depending on the search terms used. If the terms are too broad, you’ll get thousands of results; if too narrow, you won’t get any results at all. After a week or two of seeing results, reevaluate the search terms you choose and adjust appropriately. After some adjusting you’ll begin to receive exactly what you’re looking for. As with social media group notifications, you can choose the frequency and time of the communication you receive so your inbox isn’t flooded.

Listening is especially important for any organization or individual new to the social media world. Ear-to-the-ground is one of the best positions to acclimate yourself to these communication tools and the best way to prepare to eventually participate in the discussions.

One of the most common fears that I hear frequently is that through social media people will make disparaging comments online about a company’s product, issues, brand or employees. The fact is that it is occurring constantly and unless you are listening you will not be in any position to respond. By allowing us to listen to what detractors are saying social media gives its practitioners the ability to account for that additional feedback and correct or change course before it is too late.