WASHINGTON INSIGHT

You can change the world, one state at a time!

Dan Jensen
Government Affairs Manager
APWA Washington Office

Washington in spring can be a fascinating place. The world-famous cherry blossoms are in full bloom, drawing tourists from all corners of the earth. The monuments, museums and galleries are filled to capacity with children from across the country learning about our nation's history in their big "field trip" of the year. The weather, when predictable, is free from the bitter cold that preceded it and the oppressive humidity that must shortly come thereafter. Things are alive and in motion—even in the United States Congress, where newly-elected Senators and Members of Congress are getting their feet wet, and working hard to enact the policies that got them elected a few months before. Springtime in Washington is a time of opportunity.

Because of this opportunity, corporations, nonprofits and individuals alike spend billions of dollars to ensure that their interests are adequately represented in Washington. The stakes are high, because a single piece of legislation can radically change your life, the way you do business and the way your members are treated—forever. It's important to know you have a say in the process, especially when you have a stake in it.

It makes sense to have all of the angles covered when it comes to protecting your interests. But unlike the cherry blossoms in springtime, those interests don't all begin and end in Washington, D.C. There are 50 other battlegrounds across the country that are, in many ways, more important to the successfulness of your agenda than the constant battle taking place in Washington. Those are the state capitals. Ironically, however, the amount of attention given to state legislation is dwarfed when compared to the resources spent on monitoring federal legislation. Why?

For most organizations, it is not a lack of interest that hampers state advocacy efforts. Rather, the sheer amount of resources necessary to actively monitor all 50 states is what usually dissuades most from engaging in proper state advocacy. As a result, priorities are made for the larger states where dramatic impacts on interests are more visible. And even then, most organizations are only equipped to handle issues on a reactionary basis, opposing or supporting a bill once it has already been set in motion. That kind of response can be costly, since competing interests are more likely to have been set in stone by those who have been engaged in the process from the beginning.

In a case like that, wouldn't it have made more sense for the resources to have been spent monitoring and identifying trends in a state before they became legislative proposals, allowing stakeholders to become engaged in the process of shaping the argument? The answer is a resounding "YES!" And thankfully, in this regard, APWA has a huge advantage over many other organizations.

Having a base membership of close to 30,000, APWA is in a unique position to push the association to the forefront in state advocacy. First of all, APWA members are professionals who are experts in their fields—fields such as homeland security, emergency management, transportation, telecommunications, environment, water, waste disposal, ad infinitum. From the start, this is more advantageous than hiring an outside firm to represent the interests and diverse fields of expertise in which they are not familiar. Additionally, we have members in all 50 states. This is an asset that many associations in the industry simply do not have. Finally, and most importantly, APWA has an experienced government relations team ready to supplement member efforts in identifying and acting on any state legislation.

To tap the potential available in our natural reservoir of public works professionals, we must remember that key phrase from APWA's 2005 Congress in Minneapolis: The Power to Change is in YOU! This isn't just catchy-sounding rhetoric. The phrase literally means the difference between a sedentary, reactive association and a proactive, dynamic one. It only takes one dedicated member to inform the rest of the association about a piece of local legislation that has the potential to make an enormous impact on the daily lives of public works professionals everywhere.

Fortunately, our membership has often responded to critical pieces of local legislation in their home states by communicating that information to the APWA Government Affairs staff in Washington, D.C. There, staff can help determine a plan of action, and can mobilize other members from that state (or across the country) to get the word out if necessary. In this regard, our membership can be more valuable than any paid lobbyist or legislative tracking system. This kind of member participation could increase the effectiveness of our advocacy program exponentially. The rewards would be great for all involved.

The APWA Government Affairs team is committed to providing the very best federal representation on behalf of the association. And while we strive to provide as much information on state legislation as possible, when it comes to monitoring every piece of legislation in all 50 states, our team is simply not large enough for the monumental task.

To reach this level of productivity, we need your help!

There are many things you can do to become more engaged with local and state advocacy. One particularly valuable way to become more involved is to help organize a government affairs committee at the chapter level. The benefits of having a dedicated group of members to monitor legislation at the chapter, and thus, local level cannot be understated. You will have increased opportunities to meet with lawmakers and will be able to inform them, personally, of the importance you place on protecting the interests of public works personnel.

Often when we think of a contribution on this scale, we are held back by time constraints, work priorities and other commitments that are very real. However, keeping on eye on what affects your state doesn't have to be time consuming at all. Remember, we are not asking you to be a full-time government affairs specialist. All we ask is that you communicate your local concerns to APWA staff in Washington. Think about it. How many times have you heard about local laws and regulations that hamper your ability to do your job? Chances are you're not alone in being concerned about the issue. Now just think what it would be like if you could add your voice of concern to a chorus of hundreds, even thousands. Now you can see the power of advocacy.

All it takes is a little vigilance, and your voice as a public works professional can suddenly grow loud enough to be heard nationally. The APWA Government Affairs staff have decades of experience in working with local, state, and of course, the federal government. They are eager to help you become more involved, and stand ready to answer questions from how you should dress when meeting with a legislator, to providing guidance on how to properly organize a chapter (or multi-chapter) government affairs committee. They are only as helpful as you allow them to be.

So the next time you hear something through the grapevine that concerns you, give us a call in Washington, D.C. We will make it our personal mission to make sure your concern is addressed in a way that will help you, your state and your profession. In the end, it benefits all of us.

Dan Jensen can be reached at (202) 218-6734 or djensen@apwa.net.