Tag Archives: state legislature

Dodging Bullets and Stall Tactics: Defensive Policy Advocacy

I don’t know that I have ever been this glad to see a Kansas legislative session end.

And, given some of the sessions I’ve endured over the past 9 years, that’s saying a lot.

But this one was particularly rough.

Much of that is due to the November 2010 elections; the Kansas House, in particular, has many new faces, many of whom we’ve learned, the hard way, are not super interested in forging compromises in pursuit of good governance. Ahem.

And some of it is attributable to the budget, which is, by any account, pretty dreadful.

But what made this session particularly unsatisfying for me was that my time was ALL occupied with defense–trying to stop bad things from happening. That’s why I’m so exhausted. And why I was so glad that they went home.

Because, really, I got into policy advocacy because I wanted to make the world a better place. I get a kick out of working with dedicated elected officials, affected constituencies, and other allies to forge new public policy solutions that take us towards a vision of economic and social justice, not because I like throwing up roadblocks and exploiting procedural maneuvers to stall for time.

And yet.

With the thought that perhaps many social work advocates had sessions that looked not unlike mine, I’ve done some reflecting about why this session (and these defensive tactics) were so hard for me, and how I can reconcile myself to this kind of advocacy as part of my quest for justice. I don’t have any magic secrets; in fact, I’d love to hear from others about what this session has looked like for you, and what you learned that has helped prepare you for next year, defensive or not. But I’ve found that sharing our disappointments and frustrations, and even our heartaches, makes these sessions (how can 4 months feel like an eternity?) more bearable. And, sometimes, sustaining ourselves to fight another day is an important part of our overall strategy. And, sometimes, it’s the best we can do.

  • Remember that stopping bad policy IS promoting social justice–the fewer steps we take backwards, the less we’ll have to walk. Sometimes I get really down about having to defend against bad policy because, as I said above, that’s not why I decided to become a policy advocate. It helps me, at least in a small way, to remember that sometimes standing still is progress, or at least the foundation of it. Holding the line can keep people’s lives from getting seriously worse.
  • Build a coalition in support of your vision, not just in opposition to someone else’s. It’s relatively easy to get people fired up about a horrible, immediate threat: we had more than 60 people show up at a meeting, called at the last minute, to oppose Kansas’ effort at passing an Arizona-style anti-immigrant bill. But we have to build that effort around principles that articulate WHY we oppose that bill, so that we can use those same principles to advance legislation that takes us forward.
  • Process always matters–sometimes, the how is more important than the what. There are always ways to kill things quietly–finding ways to run out the clock, getting a friendly committee chair to bottle up a bill, generating serious doubt about a fiscal note’s validity. And, this year, we needed to use all of those “tricks” in Kansas. But, if you can, it’s often better for your movement to kill things loudly and emphatically. Lining a bill up for a vocal chorus of “no”s does much more for your momentum, and your constituents’ sense of power, than a promise from the Senate President to make something go away (even though, we promise, we appreciate those promises, Mr. President). If your eyes are always on the goal of building a movement that can win affirmative victories, not just making the “bad guys” lose, then you’ll look for opportunities to salvage a bigger win by opting for a different process, even if the outcome is the same.
  • Celebrate those victories, and those allies, even in a losing battle. I received more heartfelt appreciation from the 50 representatives I personally thanked for standing with Kansas’ instate tuition policy for immigrant students than I ever did when we were on the winning side. Our elected official allies, or at least many of them, feel as bewildered and thwarted as we do, and they need us more than ever. I built some new relationships this year, including with people I’ve somewhat known for a long time, that I believe will serve us well in the future, especially when (is it 2012 yet?) they have more allies with whom to vote in the future.
  • Don’t write anyone off, but don’t be afraid to draw lines in the sand, either. We picked up support on immigrant rights issues from a couple of new legislators in western Kansas who others thought we’d never get. In part, it’s because these are folks who see the future in their communities and want to work with it, not cling to a racially-idealized past. I love that about western Kansas. And, in part, it’s because they are thoughtful people who appreciated not being taken for granted and responded well to our efforts to reach out. That taught me a lesson I should have never forgotten: there are potential allies everywhere. At the same time, when a new Kansas legislator said that she could tell someone was an illegal immigrant because of her “olive complexion”, it’s not the time to fear burning bridges. Uproar about the revelation of the obviously racist underpinnings of the attacks on immigrants helped to galvanize our allies, both within and outside the statehouse.

    Today, I’m mourning some of what could have been this session, and I’m very worried about the implications of some of the budget cuts and other policy decisions from this year. I’m also very aware that it could have been much worse, and that our defensive work did make a difference. And I’m committed to campaigning for the senators who stood between us and destruction, because we can’t take for granted that they’ll still be there if we don’t.

    Did you play defense this year? Did you win? What did you learn? And how will it feed your offensive goals for next year, and the years to come?

  • Why we need a “left flank”: Reflections on the Kansas Legislature, 2010

    When I was reading The Woman Behind the New Deal last summer, I found myself thinking about the Kansas Legislature’s 2010 session during the section on the role of the Townsend Movement in the legislative battle for Social Security.

    Yes, that’s how my mind works.

    The book relates the story of how, when congressional support for the Economic Security Act (retirement support, unemployment compensation, mothers’ pensions, and other key measures in our social welfare system) was waning, passage was ultimately secured, in part, due to pressure from supporters of a more aggressively liberal proposal: the Townsend bill. These campaigners wanted $200 per month for retirees, and they sent letters to Congress, held events around the country, and, most importantly, influenced the debate over economic security legislation, such that a more modest pension plan like the one supported by the Roosevelt Administration was ultimately seen as a compromise measure, not a radical initiative.

    And that’s what made me think about the Kansas Legislature.

    During the 2010 debate on new revenue measures, the factions coalesced around the “no new taxes/cut and cut and cut” pole, versus the “sales tax increase to avoid further cuts” camp. The increase revenue side eventually won, and the legislature passed a budget which included a sales tax increase (and an increase in the state Earned Income Tax Credit, so all was not bad!) and no new cuts in education or social services. It was actually quite amazing how a coalition of Democrats and moderate Republicans came together to support the package, which none of them thought was perfect but all of them preferred to cuts upon cuts.

    But.

    Reading about this history of the role played by the Townsend Movement (whose goals were, ultimately, not all that reflected in the final version of Social Security that won approval in Congress) made me wonder…

    what if?

    What if there had been a strong, coordinated push for a truly progressive revenue package, with an increase in the income tax (especially on higher earners) and additional rollbacks of corporate tax cuts? What if there had been an effort to light a fire in middle-class and working-class households and communities, where people are feeling the simultaneous squeeze of declining incomes (which reduce their ability to absorb a sales tax increase) and the effects of reduced services? What if there had been the kind of movement that resulted in all of those letters to Congress from older adults, and the Kansas Legislature had felt some real pressure to enact a progressive revenue package? And what if that coalition, or maybe even a slightly different one, had then had to tack to the left in order to accommodate that pressure, and we had ended up with a revenue base that would have not only put us on sound financial footing for the coming budget year but also promoted the kind of just economic policy that is its own reward?

    Too often, we put forward these “reasonable”-sounding policy proposals that we think can garner bipartisan support, as though there were some kind of advocacy bonus point system for sounding reasonable, when what we really need is some outlandish proposals that make even the huge victories that we ultimately ‘settle’ for look modest by comparison.

    Townsend reportedly told his wife, who wanted him to quiet down as he was ranting about the world’s injustices (my husband could probably empathize), “I want all the neighbors to hear me! I want God almighty to hear me. I’m going to shout till the whole country hears!”

    Of course, he did. And his legacy, while perhaps unrecognizable as a shadow of his actual vision, looms huge in U.S. social policy today.

    So, for next year’s Kansas legislative session, and on the national stage too, I’m proposing a whole lot more shouting. We need to revive (and perhaps invent anew) a bunch of crazy-sounding ideas (amnesty, perhaps? guaranteed incomes? universal free higher education?) that make aggressively progressive proposals look tame and more restrictive ones look radioactive. 2011, when the deck is already stacked against us after the 2010 elections, just might be the year to go out on a limb. What do we have to lose?

    Those are the kinds of compromises I can get excited about.

    History will see this as injustice, too

    Yesterday, December 1, was the 55th anniversary of the day that Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus.

    Despite my oldest son’s obsession with her (in part, I think, because he lives in constant hope that he’ll get to ride a bus to school some day, so he gets it that boycotting bus rides is a really, really, really big deal), and the fact that I can never resist that picture, this isn’t a post about Mrs. Parks, or the role that she played in the civil rights movement, or even about that movement itself.

    It’s really more of a promise broken, on my part, I guess–a promise, after I read Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s completely spot-on and utterly amazing editorial about Arizona’s racial profiling law (SB1070), that I wouldn’t write a post about it, since that really deserved to be the last word.

    But the anti-immigrant atmosphere that has infected our country (and our policies, and our elections) has been foremost on my mind every single day for the past eight months or so. And when I read in The Political Brain about how campaign after campaign shows that racist candidates lose when their opponents shine a light on their racism (but prevail when they’re allowed to fly under the radar), and when I stood in solidarity with young NAACP members at a pro-immigrant protest, and when my 84-year-old grandfather-in-law pointed to a headline about Arizona and said, “they’d probably arrest me down there”…

    it just has to be said: The way that we are treating immigrants in this country is wrong.

    No surprise to any of you, I know.

    But what really made me break my vow of silence on this is perhaps more of a revelation:

    it will, I truly and fervently believe, be judged to be wrong, too.

    The same way that majority opinion and public law about equality for African Americans is vastly different in the United States today (even though, quite obviously, we’ve yet to reach real racial justice) than when Mrs. Parks sat down so others could rise up, one day people in this country will look back on the actions we’re taking against immigrants today (not just Arizona, but the abuses in detention, the inhumane workplace raids, the long family separations) and think, for shame.

    My friend and former Kansas state senator David Adkins said during his passionate defense of gay marriage, “I’m confident I’m standing on the right side of history,” and those of us standing up for immigrant rights today can take the same comfort. Just 6 years after he was excoriated for his courageous position, he’s being proven correct (again, it bears mentioning that the struggle continues), if not yet in our state, then with actions elsewhere in the U.S. and around the world.

    I don’t know exactly when, or exactly how, the tide will change. But then, of course, neither did Mrs. Parks.

    Yes, you can influence redistricting!

    Every 10 years, our country conducts a decennial census, which brings us new insights into our population, allocates critical resources, and, of course

    sparks nasty redistricting fights in most of the state legislatures in the country.

    Just in time for the 2011 legislative cycle, The Alliance for Justice has released some new guides that reassure nonprofit organizations, including public charities and private foundations, that, yes, we can get involved in the redistricting fight, while legally protecting our nonprofit status. It’s critically important, especially given data that 70% of registered voters have no opinion about redistricting, and experience across the country that shows very little citizen engagement in the process.

    This is critical, both because redistricting is so important to the exercise of democracy in our country, and because it’s often an incredibly divisive fight, the kind that nonprofit organizations usually want to avoid.

    The Alliance for Justice can’t give you the political and moral courage to enter this fray, but they can reassure you that you can, indeed, do so, and give you the guidance you need to avoid running afoul of the Internal Revenue Service when you do.

    You should check out the guides, but here are a few quick points to get you started (and to run past your Board Chair as you make the case for including redistricting on your list of policy priorities for the coming year!):

  • In states where redistricting is governed by the legislature (like in Kansas), efforts to influence it often count as a lobbying activity (and, therefore, should be tracked as an expense).
  • In states where redistricting happens outside of the legislative arena (like Missouri), this activity should not count as lobbying.
    *Question for the AFJ folks, though, that I haven’t been able to figure out yet: if a legislator sits on the redistricting panel (because some states include them) but is acting in his/her capacity on the panel, not as a legislator, then is it lobbying? I think not, but some clarity there would be good.

  • Any activity that educates policymakers about the issues at hand without specifically advocating a piece of legislation is not, similarly to other advocacy, counted as lobbying. In the area of redistricting, this opens up a lot of opportunities to discuss how redistricting impacts certain populations, issues that will be at stake, and civil rights implications.
  • Because redistricting ultimately influences political elections, it’s especially important that nonprofit organizations articulate (and actually hold!) nonpartisan rationales for why particular redistricting plans are preferable to others. In other words, opposing a particular plan because it unfairly disenfranchises voters of color is okay (as a lobbying activity), but opposing it because it would make it harder to elect Democrats (or Republicans) is not.

    Many states don’t get their full redistricting processes underway until summer 2011 (in Kansas, it’s after the 2011 session recesses in May), so you still have time to get your coalitions and plans in place. We want fair districts and equitable electoral opportunities in 2012 and beyond.

    It won’t be an easy struggle, but, with AFJ’s guidance, it’s one we know we can take on. And we can prevent this:

  • THIS is devolution I can live with

    I stand by my conviction that there are real dangers in the move towards local ‘control’ (read: responsibility) for essential, shared, national functions (public education, welfare, health). There are too many cracks through which people fall, too many chances for parochialism to cloud out the common good, and too many imbalances between the capacities of our local communities to make this trend compatible with a broad vision of social justice.

    Still, I cheered when I came across a press release from my good friends at the National Immigration Law Center about their collaboration with the Progressive States Network to bring together state policymakers committed to progressive policy change (in this case, in the area of immigrant-related policy) across the country.

    As I see them, the goals are primarily three-fold: to counteract the conservative trends cropping up around the nation, to provide real progressive leadership on some of the social challenges of our time (in the hopes that Congress, may indeed, be listening!), and, also, to take advantage of the considerable authority devolved to state governments, in many of the critical aspects of human well-being.

    And, in the “work with what you’ve got” school of policymaking, it’s about as excellent news as I could imagine. I, for one, would love to have my policies made (at any level of government) by people who group their work on immigration under the heading of “valuing families”, and who have an entire initiative focused on the challenges facing working people.

    Make no mistake: the most common kind of devolution is still the “make you think you gained control when what you really lost is money and central accountability” type.

    But these progressive legislators–not just in Massachusetts and Illinois but Nebraska and Arizona, too, and the network supporting them, are out to change that. And that’s the kind of “experimentation and replication” that I could get excited about.

    The Sunflower State Needs Reseeding!

    Kansans, we’ve got problems. And it’s not just that the budget is tough. We’ve known that for a long time.

    Our biggest problems are the failure of many Kansans, including many of those elected officials charged with representing us, to recognize precisely how bad it is, and what that means about the options that are and are not really viable at this point; and a lack of political will and strategic vision to make the hard choices that must be made.

    This certainly isn’t unique to this year or to our state. Moral courage, is, in general, in short supply throughout public life–NOT just among members of the state legislature. We’d all like to get as much as we can with as little pain as possible and, writ large, that can lead to some pretty appalling public policy decisions.

    But, still, as I head to Topeka this week to work with a few dozen bright, aspiring student journalists as they challenge our elected officials to think of the future, I’m hopeful.

    Because history shows that sometimes the most amazing things happen when our backs are against the wall, when everyone knows that the only avenues left are pretty bad, and when there’s a collective sense that we’re in this together, as much as we wish that we were somewhere (anywhere!) else.

    Here’s how bad it is. At a legislative forum I attended two weeks ago (so, yes, this is tardy–ear infections in young children are evil!), I had this exchange with a senior senator closely involved in budget negotiations:

  • Kansas, as currently laid out, has a $5.3 billion budget in state general funds (which excludes those special-use funds, as my advanced policy students remember) for this year. That’s AFTER a cut of approximately $1 billion last year. With a “b”.
  • Despite those cuts from last year, to just keep everything going this year (with absolutely no program growth), we’ll still run $250-350 million short this fiscal year.
  • Okay, so that sounds like, “we need to make some cuts, but not as much as the year before, so…you know, we knew it was going to be a tough year, but everyone needs to tighten our belts and…”
  • Wait. That ~$300 million needs to get cut out of the ~15% of the budget that’s really in play. Here’s the deal. We can’t cut K-12 education anymore without having to give back the stimulus dollars that are tied to our commitment to keep school funding at at least the 2006 levels, which is where we are now. We can’t afford to give that stimulus money back, so we can’t cut K-12 education any more. And Medicaid costs are essentially out of our hands; Kansas is doing very little optional with Medicaid right now anyway, and the federal government determines eligibility and the level of state responsibility.
  • So, then, we’re left with a reality of needing to cut that $250-350 million out of approximately $800 million. And WE CANNOT. We’d have to close courts, release violent offenders, dismantle remaining safety net programs, leave dangerous roads unrepaired, lay off thousands of state workers…you can’t pretend to still have a state if you eliminate almost 40% of what the state does, especially when that’s on top of 17% cuts just the year before.

    And all of this brings us back to this question of vision and will and courage.

    Because we desperately need a restoration of our tax base. No one wants a tax increase. I know.

    But I don’t see another way out, that doesn’t include the decimation of the public infrastructure that, really, makes us a civilized society. Taxes are the price we pay for that, and we forgot that all too easily, and too often, in the boom years of the late 1990s…it’s time to rebuild.

    And you know what? My hopefulness is warranted, I really think. In the last two weeks, I’ve had conversations with 7 members of the legislature, from both political parties, who have admitted that many of the past tax cuts were mistakes, called for a revision of exemptions, and offered some specific ideas for possible tax increases. Several have even referenced that this session feels a bit different, because of the desperation, and that, by April, we could start to see a deal emerge.

    But, as that senior senator pointed out, those of us whose work depends on a strong tax base need to get working. Not one of the nonprofit legislative agendas I’ve seen has included a call for increased revenues, even though that’s undoubtedly the most important policy position the legislature could take this session.

    We need to talk with our grassroots base about the need for more revenues, and the need for tax justice. We have to build pressure to undo the excesses of the past decade. And we have to be in the process, stressing that all tax increases are NOT created equal, and articulating a vision of what tax fairness looks like.

    Things will get better (first, they’ll get worse, because we won’t have that stimulus money in FY2012!). But they won’t get as much better as they should if we don’t take advantage of this political opportunity to get the impossible done.

    Ad astra per aspera, right?

    Let’s go.

  • Social media and state legislative sessions

    So, it’s that time of year again. This was only the third year that I celebrated New Year’s Eve without this queasy feeling–a combination of anxiety and dread–as I anticipate the coming legislative session.

    I’ll be in our state capitol several times this session, on behalf of a couple of organizations on whose Boards I serve, and I’m considering taking the kids up at some point, because I think that my oldest son would be very interested in the construction in the building, at least! And I’ll be talking in this space quite a bit about the happenings there, particularly about the state budget and the implications of the expected massive cuts for social workers and social services, in particular. And I’ll be tweeting about media coverage of the legislature, and also updating the Facebook pages of a couple of organizations doing work in the capitol this session.

    And that has got me thinking about how advocates can use social media for their legislative work this session. Here are some specific ways in which social media strategies would have helped me as a nonprofit lobbyist–let me know if you’d like to work together to implement some of these strategies into your advocacy in the 2010 session!

    Blogs
    One of the greatest challenges for state legislative advocates is how to engage people in the issues in a way that mobilizes them for action. Blogs can help in this! If your organization already has a blog with a dedicated following, then incorporating content around the legislative session would be fairly easy–remember that the state capitol building should have free Internet access, for those moments in between committee meetings when you’d have time to post (for those, like me, not lucky enough to have an iPhone!). If you don’t have a blog yet, reach out to your current supporters via email, newsletter, and/or other mechanisms of communication, and include some content on the blog that they can only get there (like in-depth analysis of pending bills) to “push” them to the site.

  • Posts that feature clients’ perspectives on pending policy issues
  • ‘Interviews’ with policy experts, elected officials, and other stakeholders about the session and pending issues
  • Polls and other interactive features to draw in potential activists

    Twitter
    For those actively using the micro-blogging site, Twitter offers a virtually “real-time” communication medium. You can search through Twitter for all of your existing supporters who might be on already, but you should also seek out potential allies, “follow” them, and then hope that they will return the favor, so that you can build your network of supporters. Then, you can use Twitter to:

  • Provide real-time updates of committee hearings, floor votes, and even 1:1 meetings with targeted elected officials
  • Send out action alerts, with the most recent information
  • Use a service like @2gov that collects and organizes tweets and sends them to elected officials, based on participants’ geography–you could encourage your followers to send tweets about specific bills; at this point, @2gov only interfaces with federal officials, but hopefully parallel applications for state legislatures are in the works!
  • Use Twitter’s new geotagging feature to find potential supporters in your area, and organize them!

    Facebook, MySpace

    The social networking sites’ potential for advocacy has not yet, in my opinion, been fully realized. To be most effective, your organization would need to build a strong Facebook fan page, use tabs to capture people’s interests, and then use your Status Updates to push updates about pending legislation, Links to highlight media coverage and links to background information, and perhaps Causes to raise money for specific advocacy projects. In the absence of such an infrastructure, state legislative advocates might use social networking sites to:

  • Encourage grassroots advocates to use their Facebook or MySpace profiles to recruit their friends and colleagues into the campaign (especially where they can highlight their own interest in the issue)
  • Connect less formally with advocates working on other issues, and journalists that cover the legislature, and perhaps even legislators themselves, as a part of relationship building

    And don’t forget other technological innovations with tremendous promise for this year’s legislative session (and beyond!):

  • Text messaging, perhaps the best way to quickly communicate real-time information to supporters (and, sometimes, to reach legislators on the floor with messaging for debates!)
  • Flickr, to highlight photos of advocacy events and encourage participation by your activists
  • Google Wave, as discussed here yesterday

    What are your plans, nonprofit lobbyists, for integrating social media and emerging technologies into your advocacy during this state legislative session? Activists for social justice, how do you wish the lobbyists who represent your concerns were using these technologies to engage you? What tools have I left out that you think offer tremendous potential? Or what ideas do you have to use these tools in different ways? If you’ll be tweeting from Topeka this session, please find me on Twitter: @melindaklewis, so that I can follow!