How to Drive More Effective State Advocacy
Far more legislating gets done in state capitals than in Washington. If you not watching state legislatures, you are missing much of the action. Here's what you can do about it.
For those who watch state and federal legislation, here are some numbers that should slow your scroll.
More than 3,800 bills and resolutions were active in Congress through March of this year, from legislation to award congressional medals to the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, according to Capitol Canary data. Yet Congress moves slowly, and only 6 federal bills have become law. Contrast that to the 50 state legislatures, where almost 87,000 bills were active in that same period and more than 8,100 were passed.
If you are not watching state legislatures—and closely—you are missing a great deal of the action.
Companies, associations and nonprofits are increasing their efforts to track state-level action as legislatures across the country work at startling speed. Fully 45 legislatures are now in session, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, many of them approving bills in a matter of days.
While Georgia made national news when it passed a controversial elections bill, legislation on major issues is being considered in every state. That includes COVID relief, education, taxation, police reform, environmental policy and hundreds of others.
While most professionals understand the importance of state legislation, many programs still focus more on the federal level. There are good reasons for this. There is much to gain or lose before Congress. Federal bills have larger dollar amounts and far broader reach.
Capitol Hill is also a natural draw. Congress is well covered by political analysts and major news outlets. It’s a familiar landscape where organizations have much at stake. The desire to operate in a single ecosystem, even a big one, makes immediate sense in many organizations.
Yet legislation in the states should never be underestimated. State law affects almost every industry, and the impact can be huge, with policy trends moving from state to state. From bicycle helmets to marijuana decriminalization and legalization, what passes in one state is often mirrored in another.
State legislative sessions are short, forcing lawmakers to work fast. There is also less friction. Nationwide, legislatures in 48 states are controlled entirely by one party or the other. Only one state (Minnesota) has a legislature with split party control and one (Nebraska) has a nonpartisan legislature, according to the NCSL.
Finally, bills that stall in Congress often advance in the states. For example, a federal gun-control bill has been beyond the reach of Congress for years. In the states, however, 53 gun bills are under consideration in 15 states right now, with some limiting firearms and some affirming Second Amendment rights. Four bills have already passed this year.
More Effective State Advocacy
Organizations that are not monitoring state legislation right now are definitely at a disadvantage, but it is not too late to start.
While creating a comprehensive radar for your issues takes time, a basic program is well within reach. The key is to focus on the art of the possible: a very small list of issues in a small number of states. Most vendors can set up your organization with legislative tracking and alerts in a matter of days. If the vendor you are dealing with cannot do this, find another vendor.
Organizations that are already monitoring state bills can do several things to improve both intelligence gathering and response:
- Professional Tracking. If you are not using professional legislative tracking, this is the place to start. Switching to professional tools is the quickest way to make an immediate impact on your program. The time savings, quality of information and broader capability is dramatic. Well-curated alerts represent a true early warning system, telling your team every time there is movement on a bill.
- The Right Contacts. Being able to focus quickly on who is making decisions, both lawmakers and their key staffers, is important. Whether you are seeking to get a meeting or to apply grassroots pressure, you need to know who must hear your argument. Adding a robust and up-to-date database of state lawmakers and staff to your toolkit allows you to make the right connections quickly—and timing always matters in the states.
- Boots on the Ground. Hiring local expertise can add a new dimension to your monitoring, providing a deeper level of political intelligence. There is a great deal that never gets reported by news organizations. Having eyes in the capital, whether its member of your staff, an active volunteer or a paid lobbyist, can provide information that you just cannot get any other way. Better insight informs your strategy, lowers risks and increases the chances that you’ll be able to post a win.
- Rapid Response. The ability to use grassroots advocacy to support or oppose bills quickly is vital—and nothing improves rapid response like text messaging. Text messaging allows your organization to reach supporters right in their pocket, offering a vast improvement over email when it comes to generating action fast. Text has a 99-percent open rate, with most of the response taking place in the first seven minutes. Conversion rates can double or triple those of email, and routinely run to double digits. Even a small list can be powerful.
Remember too that grassroots advocacy can have more impact in a state capitol, where lawmakers get less constituent feedback, than it does in Congress, where members get thousands of communiques across channels every day.
“The organizations we work with are always working to get more effective,” Lopez said. “It’s never easy, but state-level advocacy is one area where organizations can improve very quickly. With the right tools and the right approach, you really can move the needle.”