A RESOURCE GUIDE FOR NONPROFIT ORGANIZATIONS
ON INFLUENCING VERMONT STATE GOVERNMENT
Written by: Julie Davis
Published & Distributed by: The Snelling Center for Government
Copyright © 1997-2003 The Snelling Center for Government and Julie A. Davis.
All rights reserved.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Advocacy: More than Lobbying
State Advocacy and Lobbying Rules and Regulations
Federal Lobbying Rules and Regulations
How Policy is Developed and How to Influence It
Preparing for the Legislature
Policies, Laws and Budgets
The Legislative Process
Taking the First Step
Nonprofit Advocacy Resource Guide
Nonprofit organizations are facing new challenges today as a result of changing national priorities and limited funds. All across the country nonprofit organizations are challenged by budget cuts on one side and an increased demand for services on the other.
Here in the state of Vermont, our state agencies are dependent on nonprofit providers to deliver a variety of direct services at local and regional levels. This system is likely to change as the effects of federal devolution are realized at the state and local level.
The effects of federal devolution are already being examined by the state administration and will undergo extensive review in upcoming legislative sessions. If nonprofit organizations want to have a say in what changes will be made in the services delivery system they will have to do it soon.
The guide has been prepared to provide nonprofit organizations and other groups with the basic information necessary to get started on influencing the making of policies and the development of programs and funding decisions, at the administrative, agency and legislative levels. The information in the guide may also be useful for the more experienced state policy advocate. We hope that it will encourage you to continue your advocacy efforts and to involve other groups and more Vermonters in your efforts as well.
The guide is directed primarily to nonprofit organizations, though others may find it of use as well. It begins with an overview of advocacy efforts at the state level and includes a brief summary on how to influence policy making and participate in the legislative process. The summary is followed by the Snelling Center’s Nonprofit Advocacy Resource Guide that provides the necessary tools to be effective in the legislative process.
ADVOCACY: MORE THAN LOBBYING
Advocacy covers a range of activities broad enough to include just about everyone, in just about any kind of setting. Advocacy means to speak up, to plead the case of another, or to champion a cause. For nonprofit organizations, this means speaking out on behalf of the people they serve, and asking people to help in carrying out the organization’s missions.–Let America Speak Coalition
Advocacy is a key component to building and maintaining a successful nonprofit organization. When you inform others about the character and needs of the community you serve, you help to build support for your organization’s goals and objectives. You also enhance your organization’s visibility and its ability to maintain and develop new resources. Advocacy can involve much more then lobbying the legislature once a year. An effective advocacy strategy generally involves good research, coalition building, a media strategy and year round contact with influential public officials.
Almost all nonprofit agencies in Vermont engage in advocacy work of some kind by communication with their constituencies, meeting with local officials or participating in coalitions or demonstrations. Some nonprofit agencies have learned to be an effective and respected partner in state policy making debates. Others know little about how the state policy making process works. The degree to which each organization has engaged in a given activity has often depended upon the goals of the organization and the size, source and kind of available resources.
However, as state policy makers examine the impact of federal devolution and reevaluate funding priorities, nonprofit organizations must reevaluate their advocacy strategies to give state level activities a much higher priority. Nonprofits will be in a much better position to protect the interest of their constituencies if they fully participate in the decision making process at the state level than if they sit back and let decisions be made without them.
At the state policy making level, advocacy strategies are designed to influence state tax policy, legislation and agency budgets. Activities may include meeting and working one on one with public officials: promoting ideas for legislation, attending or testifying at administrative and legislative hearings, committee meetings and public forums. Policy makers and legislators are now in the process of making decisions about how to balance program needs with budget realities. By participating in these activities and contributing your knowledge and information you play a role in shaping the debate and influencing the outcome.
STATE ADVOCACY AND LOBBYING RULES AND REGULATIONS
It’s easy to get involved in the debate at the state level. Start by attending public hearings or legislative committee meetings. Although the entire legislature meets only a few months out of the year, many legislative committees meet outside of the regular session to prepare for the upcoming session and all of these meetings are open to the public. You can find out about legislative committee meetings or public hearings by contacting the Legislative Council – the administrative, research and legal arm of the state legislature.
Another way to get involved is to meet regularly with the staff of state agencies or departments that have similar goals and objectives to your own. For example, if you are an organization that deals with elderly issues you will want to be in close contact with Department of Aging in the Agency of Human Services. The Human Services Agency, like the other state agencies and departments, participate in and assist the Governor with the development of the annual state budget and also promote the Governor’s legislative agenda. If you keep in close contact with policy making activities at the department or agency level you will be better prepared to get involved in advocacy at the gubernatorial and legislative levels.
Be aware that some activities that you engage in at the state level may be regulated “lobbying activities.” Before you begin any advocacy work at the Vermont state government level, contact the Secretary of State‘s Office in Montpelier. If your advocacy activities can be in any way construed to be lobbying you must register and follow the reporting guidelines of the state law governing lobbying activities. This is true regardless of whether or not you will be hiring a professional lobbyist to represent you. In fact, it is a good idea to register even if you think your advocacy activities do not constitute “lobbying” in the eyes of the law. There is no downside to registering and it will protect you from any allegations that you are lobbying illegally.
The Snelling Center’s Nonprofit Advocacy Resource Guide includes links to information about the state laws governing lobbying activities, the lobbyist registration form and the lobbyist disclosure report. To get help in interpreting lobbying laws you can contact the Elections Division in the Secretary of State’s Office.
If you are an IRS tax exempt organization you should also be aware that some of the advocacy activities you engage in may be regulated by the federal government as well. The following section titled “Federal Lobbying Rules and Regulations For Nonprofit Organizations” may be helpful to you in this regard.
Many nonprofit organizations have been reluctant to get more involved in advocacy, lobbying and the legislative process in fear of violating federal lobbying rules and regulations. The reality is that the laws governing lobbying for nonprofit organizations are generous enough for most nonprofit organizations to lobby effectively within the legal limits.
However, it is important for you to know the basic rules and to follow the reporting guidelines. Lobbying is generally defined as the act of trying to persuade elected officials to enact legislation that is favorable to your cause or to defeat or repeal legislation that is unfavorable to your cause. Before you begin any lobbying activities review the resources on lobbying rules and regulationsprovided for you in the Snelling Center’s Nonprofit Advocacy Resource Guide.
The links to federal lobbying information provided in this guide will explain that as a nonprofit organization you have options to consider and it will give tools to help decide how to approach the federal law. You will want to review these options carefully, decide what is best for your organization and then go to work. You will find that lobbying can be a rewarding and stimulating activity.
Before you become involved in advocacy work or lobbying at the state level it is important to understand how policy is developed and how to influence it. One of the most important points to remember is that the development of state policy involves elected officials and their desire to gain public support for their agenda. Public opinion is a key concern for most elected officials and, generally, the extent to which you can influence elected officials depends on your ability to gain and maintain public support for your initiatives.
It is also important to understand the relationship between the Governor, his or her administration and the state legislature. As the chief elected official of the state, the Governor is responsible for carrying out the laws of the state and is also required to develop and propose a state budget to present to the legislature for its consideration.
Each year, the Governor’s administration approaches the legislature with a list of priorities which are usually outlined in the “State of the State” address and in the Governor’s proposed budget. The Governor develops the budget and other initiatives with the agency secretaries, who are appointed by the Governor and confirmed by the Vermont Senate, and with the assistance of department heads and other executive branch personnel.
To effectively influence state policy it is helpful to get involved in the decisions that are made before the Governor has decided upon priorities for the upcoming legislative session. If your agenda or funding needs can be included in the Governor’s agenda and or list of priorities, generally, you have a better chance of success. Alternately, support from the administration does not guarantee that your agenda will prevail. The legislature also has to be convinced to agree with the Governor’s point of view and as a result it is essential to work in the legislative arena as well.
Building a Solid Case
To have an influence on Vermont state policies, it is essential that you participate in the annual legislative sessions. Your chances of being successful in the legislative arena are much greater if you go prepared. Being prepared means having a good case, a winning strategy and an active network of support. It also means that a great deal of advocacy and research work is done before the session begins.
To build a good case you first need to document an unmet need, or a threat to a current program, regulation or allocation that is backed with good research and solid evidence. If you are asking for funds or an appropriation, it would also be beneficial for you to demonstrate that:
- you have exhausted all other alternatives;
- your agenda would leverage additional funds from other sources; and
- you have ideas as to how the legislature could fund your program.
The following example demonstrates some of the characteristics of a case that has a chance of succeeding in the legislature:
You are a provider of mental health services in the state of Vermont and you are concerned about the effect federal cuts will have on your emergency service program. Your staff members provide you with documented evidence revealing that the cuts will severely limit your organization’s ability to provide adequate emergency service. As a result, many of the emergency service clients will be forced to seek help from a more expensive and less effective alternative: the emergency room hospital.
A survey of your internal options to cut services or obtain funding from other sources provides only half the funds necessary to cover the costs of the service. Additionally, one of your sources requires matching funds from another source. You share this information with the Board of your organization and agree that you should develop a plan to approach the state legislature for funding the remaining half of the program. You have no idea how you will ask the legislature to fund the program and plan to seek advice from someone experienced in the legislative process. (See the section called Additional Resources in the The Snelling Center’s Nonprofit Advocacy Resource Guide.)
The work that you put into developing a strong case will go a long ways towards making your legislative experience a positive one and this will be true whether you “win” or “lose.” You will be using this information to build public support, approach key decision makers, gain media attention and to testify before legislative committees so be sure to take the time create an effective presentation. If it’s not clear to you what you need to do, get some advice from someone experienced in the legislative process such as a legislator, a public servant or a paid professional.
Additionally, it is wise to build a solid case early because you will need to use the information year after to year to not only gain new ground but to maintain what you have. For example, the Housing & Conservation Trust Fund has done an excellent job of advocating at the state policy making level by maintaining a high level of participation and visibility in the state policy making process.
As a result, the organization was able to gain approval for a “designated funding source” or source of funds that is used only for the purposes of the Housing & Conservation Trust Fund. However, the organization’s funding has been threatened on several occasions and the staff has had to work diligently to maintain the levels of support they have achieved in previous legislative sessions.
Building A Network of Support
Once you have developed a solid case you need to develop a network of active supporters to help you influence the legislative process. As the leader involved in an organization, you may already be involved in building support for your organization by participating in a variety of activities in the public arena. For example, you may be attending conferences, local government or trade association meetings, or legislative hearings on issues related to your organization. These activities become even more important if you want to influence the legislative agenda and you should maintain or increase these activities as much as you can.
There are a number of other activities you may engage in as well, for example, working with the governor’s office, contacting legislators, testifying before committees, participating in press conferences, writing letters to the editor, conducting research, or organizing broad public support through petitions and/or educational forums.
You can also build support for your agenda by collaborating with other organizations or engaging them in refining and implementing the agenda you propose. Collaboration has always been a key to success in the public policy arena but it becomes even more important in an era of shrinking resources. Collaborating with other groups not only provides you with more resources to accomplish your objectives it ultimately allows you to create a voice that policy makers cannot ignore.
When you set out to collaborate with other organizations begin by identifying those that could be easily persuaded to support your goals. These might be your counterparts in other parts of the state or they might be organizations that you partner with on other goals. Your goal here is to increase the number of people concerned about a given policy change.
However, you will also want to diversify your base of support as much as you can. Think about including organizations that have different missions than your own. Legislators and other decision makers are often quite impressed if you can demonstrate common ground with groups who would normally oppose your efforts. This is particularly true when bipartisan support is required for the passage of a given law as in the example given below.
For example, your organization provides support to battered women and you are trying to lengthen the amount of time a defendant has to stay in jail after a given assault. You have the support of liberal women’s groups around the state but none of these organizations have influence with a conservative law maker who you have identified as a possible obstacle. You team up with a more conservative victim’s rights group who shares your goals but from a different point of view. Legislators on both sides of the issue are impressed with the diversity and breadth of support and they find it easy to support your agenda.
After you have identified organizations willing to participate in a collaborative effort your next step is to set up a joint meeting of all interested parties. Your collaborative experience will be a success if you come away from the meeting with four key results:
- a common agenda;
- an action plan;
- a communication process; and
- a designated legislative liaison or representative who will agree to maintain regular contact with other members of the coalition.
If you have been successful in gaining support for your agenda you will want to formalize the support by, for example, creating a mailing or electronic mail (e-mail) list and setting up a phone tree. Formalizing your support will allow you to act quickly, and efficiently when you need to demonstrate your support in the legislative process. You will be amazed at how much of a difference a few phone calls can make with respect to the fate of your legislation.
For example, you may find that you have only five out of six votes necessary to pass your bill out of a given committee and the vote is going to occur that afternoon. You quickly activate your phone tree asking supporters to contact opposing legislators. The next thing you know, the vote has been put off until the next day and you have a little more time to convince them to support your point of view.
Once you have developed an active network of support your next step is to develop a winning strategy to influence policy. This is often accomplished directly in the legislature, but can also be accomplished with the governor’s office and with state agencies. To do this you first need to have a basic understanding of how policies are set, budgets are developed and how the legislature works.
As the highest elected official in state government, the Governor is the chief executive branch policy maker for the state and represents the executive branch of state government. Essentially, this means that each legislative session the Governor seeks to implement his or her policy agenda in part by proposing a series of legislative initiatives usually promoted by administration personnel.
The Governor’s list of legislative priorities may include initiatives developed by members of his or her administration or within the office of the Governor itself. However, the Governor’s most important priority each session is the passage of the proposed state budget which the Governor is required to present to the legislature at the beginning of each session. (To obtain a copy of the Governor’s proposed budget, contact the Agency of Administration or Legislative Council.)
The Governor develops the proposed budget in collaboration with agency secretaries and department heads with the administrative assistance of theAgency of Administration and the department level Office of Budget & Management. Since the state budget is large – hovering near a billion dollars annually, many of the decisions regarding funding are made at the agency or department level.
As an advocate at the state level, you need to find out who will be making the decisions regarding the funds that affect your organization. If you want to influence the decision, it’s a good idea to contact agency or department personnel well in advance of the budget development process that begins in July each year.
The legislative branch of state government also develops and tries to adopt its legislative priorities each session. (To obtain information on the status of the bills or legislation that has been introduced, see below or contact the Legislative Council.)
How Does it Work?
In Vermont our legislative body is bicameral, meaning it is made up of two separate but equal bodies or chambers, the House of Representatives with 150 members and the Senate with 30 members. In practice this means that before any legislative bill can be enacted, it must be adopted by both chambers of the General Assembly or legislature and sent to the Governor. The Governor may either veto or sign the legislation. A veto may be overridden with a two-thirds majority in each chamber.
The majority of the work on legislation is accomplished in legislative committees. These committees hold hearings, take testimony, discuss the merits of the bill and then vote to either amend a bill, table the bill or vote it out favorably, unfavorably or without recommendation. (For more information, see the section called How A Bill Becomes Law in the The Snelling Center’s Nonprofit Advocacy Resource Guide).
In the House, the Speaker has the power to designate a Chair and vice-chair and to determine the make-up of the committees. In the Senate, these functions are performed by the Committee on Committees, a three member committee made up of the President of the Senate, the President Pro tempore and one other senator elected by the full Senate. The Speaker of the House or the President of the Senate may also determine which committee each bill will go to once it has been introduced to the full chamber. (For more information on House and Senate Rules see The Snelling Center’s Nonprofit Advocacy Resource Guide).
Anyone may initiate legislation, but only legislators can introduce it. If you want to get a piece of legislation introduced, you will need to find a legislator who will sponsor your bill. Any bill may be introduced to either the House or the Senate except for any bills generating or requiring revenue. These so-called “money” bills must be introduced in the House.
Occasionally, a bill will be passed through only one committee in each chamber but in most cases a bill will have to be passed through a number of committees in each chamber before it arrives before the full chamber for what is known as a “floor” vote, the final step in the process of each chamber.
If a bill is introduced in the Senate, it will begin the process in the Senate and will have to “crossover” and end the process in the House, except when the originating chamber accepts a proposal of amendment offered by the other chamber, or in the case of conference committee reports. If a bill begins in the House, a comparable process takes place. About mid-way in the legislation session the legislative leaders will announce a date or “crossover” deadline by which all legislation must have passed one chamber in order to continue to move through the process.
If a bill does pass through both the House and Senate but it differs substantially in content, the leaders of each chamber may appoint a “Committee of Conference” to resolve the differences. If this is accomplished, the bill will then be sent to the Governor. (For more information on the legislative process seeLegislative Terms & Definitions in the Snelling Center’s Nonprofit Advocacy Resource Guide.)
The Legislative Process: Developing A Winning Strategy
To develop a winning strategy the most important step is to determine where you stand with key decision makers such as the Governor or his designated staff, legislative leaders and other individuals or groups who have the power to influence the process.
This step is important to do with any piece of legislation but it is a critical step if you are seeking to obtain funds. If you are in the Governor’s recommended budget there is no guarantee that your appropriation will be secure. Generally, however, you have a much better chance of securing funding if your organization is listed in the Governor’s budget when the legislative session begins.
It is helpful to make these contacts before the legislative session begins for three reasons. First, the Governor makes decisions about the budget about three months before the legislature even begins; second, you may want time to change or redefine your agenda based on the feedback you are getting from some key decision makers and third, when the legislature begins you will need all the time and resources you have to successfully influence the legislative process.
Before you approach legislators or other key decision makers with your agenda, it is important to prepare written materials. At the very least you should create a one page fact sheet and a brief but complete report that explains your agenda in detail.
Your materials don’t have be slick advertisements but they do need to be clear, concise and professional. Your materials should be no more than three pages for any issue, which allows enough space for substance and appeal without overwhelming legislators who will see literally thousands of pieces of paper each session.
Also, make a point of finding out about the key players in the legislative process including legislators, gubernatorial appointees, legislative staff, lobbyists, media staff, advocacy groups, party leaders and administration staff. (The “Blue Book” or Biographical Sketches of State Officers and Members of the General Assembly is an excellent resource in this regard. Also see the Additional Resources in the Snelling Center’s Nonprofit Advocacy Resource Guide.)
In developing your legislative strategy you will need to decide, for example, whether you want to start your bill in the House or the Senate; what legislator or legislators you want to sponsor your legislation; what testimony to present and who will present it; and how you will secure votes to support your agenda.
In addition to your legislative strategy, you may want to develop a separate media strategy to help build public support for your agenda. Your media strategy may include holding a press conference, meeting with reporters and editors about your agenda, offering opinion pieces or generating a letter writing campaign. Whatever you decide to do, focus on your efforts on the media outlets across the state, but only a few cover the legislature on a regular basis. (Use the Snelling Center’s Nonprofit Advocacy Resource Guide to identify key media contacts and additional resources.)
The Legislative Process: Monitoring and Influencing Legislation
Once your bill has been successfully introduced you or your representative will have to monitor it regularly throughout the legislative session. There are many points in the process where you will have to be prepared to call on your support network to influence a particular vote to ensure that your bill keeps moving through the legislative process. You can track the progress of your bill in the Legislative Bill Tracking System .(For more information, see the Legislative Bill Tracking Checklist in the Snelling Center’s Nonprofit Advocacy Resource Guide.)
If your bill looks like it might “die” in a given committee or fail to pass a vote on the floor of a chamber you should activate your support network immediately and think about getting the media to cover your issue. Both of these activities will help change the current status of your legislation.
The most important thing you need to do is to be there all the time. If you aren’t there, legislators will think the legislation is not that important and will turn their attention to other issues. If legislators don’t have to look you in the eye, you aren’t at the top of their list. If you can’t be there all the time, you will at least want to check in regularly to be sure that your bill is moving or hire someone to do it for you. (For more information, see the Legislative Bill Tracking Checklistand the Legislative Terms & Definitions in the Snelling Center’s Nonprofit Advocacy Resource Guide.)
If you need to find out where your bill is at a given time in the process, you can use the the Legislative Bill Tracking System or you may contact the Legislative Council for assistance. The Legislative Council is the information hub of the legislature and is responsible for drafting, tracking and providing copies of legislative materials. The Council also provides administrative and legal staffing for legislative committees and is responsible for preparing the daily legislative calendars and journals.
You may also want to get advice from experienced professionals on the best way to proceed at any given point in the process. Monitoring and influencing the movement of legislation can be a difficult and time consuming process especially if you are trying to secure funds. You will have a better chance of succeeding if you or someone you hire is experienced in this process.
As a leader of a nonprofit organization you are being challenged by budget cuts on one side and increased demand for services on the other. To meet this challenge successfully, it is vitally important that you participate in advocacy work at the state policy level where funding priorities are already being extensively reviewed.
The beginning of a successful advocacy experience at the state level begins with your determination to do the best you can for the people you serve. This guide provides you with the information you need to get started on influencing the public policy process at the state level.
If you need more information, review the Additional Resources section in the Snelling Center’s Nonprofit Advocacy Resource Guide and contact someone you know who is more experienced than you. You’ll find that advocacy work at the state level is an exciting and rewarding experience whether you “win” or “lose.” Why not take the first step by reviewing some links to federal lobbying guidelines? For additional resources for nonprofit organizations, please see the Snelling Center’s Nonprofit Advocacy Resource Guide.
Getting Started at the State House, A Resource Guide for Nonprofit Organizations on Influencing Vermont State Government. Copyright © 1997-2003 The Snelling Center for Government and Julie A. Davis. All rights reserved.