Here’s a number that might send a shudder through government affairs professionals who focus on state advocacy: legislatures introduced more than 70,600 bills in 2022. And next year, it could be even more as lawmakers grapple with a growing list of issues pushed to states by the federal government, from abortion rights and gun control to election laws and pandemic relief.
Scarier still is the speed at which states work. Unlike Congress, where legislation can take years to advance, some states can move a bill from introduction to passage in a matter of weeks and sometimes just days. Policymaking at that pace can be hard enough to track, let alone influence. Five states—Arkansas, Colorado, Maine, Utah and Idaho—plus Washington DC passed at least half the bills that were introduced, according to Quorum’s latest Trends in State Legislatures report. Other states like New York and Minnesota enacted only a small percentage—and it was still thousands of bills in each state.
It adds up to an intimidating picture. Organizations that practice state advocacy face a torrent of legislation at startling speed—and that’s not the only challenge. November’s election will impact 46 state legislatures and 36 gubernatorial seats, adding hundreds of new faces to the policy world. Redistricting will change the landscape. And the polarized political environment continues to complicate even the most basic outreach.
It begs an important question for government affairs teams: how do we continue to drive impact in an increasingly turbulent environment?
To answer that question, we interviewed experts in state advocacy, including a sitting state senator in Maryland; a lobbyist who has seen 27 legislative sessions in Georgia; and a former gubernatorial staffer in New York. They represent small states and large, Republicans and Democrats, insiders and influencers. We asked all about the essential ingredients of effective state advocacy, as well as some of the mistakes they often see. The result is a set of recommendations that can make your team more effective as you prepare for the legislative sessions that kickoff about 100 days from now. To learn what they had to say, read on.
Learn to Be an ‘Advocacy Partner’
In Congress, staff relationships drive the action. There are 535 voting members of the House and Senate but more than 13,000 staffers, with layers that support Washington offices, district and state offices, leadership offices and committees. States are very different. Even in places where legislating is treated like a full-time job—lawmakers are part-time in about 14 states, and less than full-time in many others—staffing is often sparse. In some states, lawmakers share a staffer to handle basics such as scheduling.
When you consider that lawmakers must evaluate hundreds of bills across dozens of complicated issues, maintain robust constituent service, interface with other government offices, and campaign for reelection every few years, it becomes clear why resources are often scarce and time is always precious. Maryland State Senator Sarah Elfreth, a Democrat who represents about 130,000 constituents in Anne Arundel County near Washington DC, describes it well.
“People might think we have 10 [staffers], like a congressional office,” she said. “I have two staff who both work very hard. But we’re a total of three people, and we have a rule: we try to respond to everything within 48 hours. Most people are very understanding of that, and then you have some people who want us to respond immediately. That’s just not physically possible.”
In that environment, partnership becomes extremely important.
Experts in state advocacy say the most effective organizations build relationships directly with state lawmakers and function like partners, filling some of the needs that legislators require to do their jobs effectively. They provide resources, such as policy-related data and polling. They mobilize support for policy positions and help lawmakers talk to voters. Some even help at election time.
“If you look at the Georgia General Assembly, a typical house member shares one sixth of an administrative assistant,” said Don Bolia, a former executive director of the Georgia Republican Party who founded Peachtree Government Relations. “They don’t really have robust staff, so you really have to develop a rapport and a relationship with legislators. We are their de facto staff.”