Protecting local control: a chapter advocacy success story in Tennessee

Elizabeth Kelsey
Government Affairs Assistant
APWA Washington Office

Sometimes new policies seem to come out of nowhere. Suddenly a regulation has changed, or a law has been passed that changes the way we do business. Other times, we may know change is coming in advance, but feel that decisions have already been made at a higher level. Part of our duty as citizens and as workers is to comply with changing specifications and standards even when it means adapting our familiar workflow—it means that problems can be caught and changed as well. Once in a while, though, proposed policy changes threaten more than our customary routine and have drastic implications for local budgets and operations. One all-too-familiar proposal is the attempt to circumvent local authority.

The tremendous growth of telecommunications technologies in the past few decades has raised new policy issues affecting local control and management of public rights-of-way. Most recently, the debate has shifted from the federal stage to the states. Many large telecommunications companies have pursued state video franchising legislation that would allow them to negotiate right-of-way use with a single state entity rather than with individual local governments. State franchising legislation has become law in more than fifteen states so far, including Texas, Indiana, Kansas, South Carolina, North Carolina, New Jersey, California, Michigan, Missouri, Virginia, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Illinois, Nevada and Ohio. Similar proposals are also being considered in Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York, Washington, Wisconsin, Connecticut and Pennsylvania.

In one state, APWA members took action on a state franchising bill. The APWA Tennessee Chapter had developed an Advocacy Committee to monitor and respond to state legislation and regulations, and was active in following the federal debate on franchising that ultimately resulted in Congress determining that the issue was best resolved by the states. When chapter members heard that legislation had been introduced in the House and Senate of the Tennessee General Assembly, they worked with the APWA Washington Office to develop an action alert so Tennessee Chapter members could send a message to their elected representative. Legislators weighed support for the bills against opposition from local governments, their APWA member constituents and other public interest and consumer groups, and the proposal was ultimately withdrawn by its sponsor. He cited concerns from local government entities as the reason behind his withdrawal of the bill. Tennessee joined Colorado, Idaho and Utah in rejecting state video franchising.

The legislation failed in Tennessee, but became law in six other states during the same time period. One reason is that legislators are highly responsive to the constituents they represent when individuals inform them of the legislation's impact on their lives and jobs. Monitoring state legislation and responding to bills are crucial to ensuring that public works departments have the authority and resources they need to carry out their essential functions, and chapters have many tools available to enhance their chapter advocacy efforts.

The first and best resource chapters have is their members. Chapters can establish a government affairs committee or designate a single member to monitor legislation. Members who already take an interest in government affairs can become more involved in chapter activity by performing this function. Once chapter members are charged with monitoring legislation, keeping tabs can be as easy as reading the local paper, the municipal league newsletter and other local trade publications, and chatting with people—particularly those who are already involved with state governmentabout legislative issues. Scanning the headlines and letting folks know of APWA's interests in certain issues is key: When the state franchising bill was introduced in Tennessee, people who were active in the state capital alerted chapter members who had expressed interest in right-of-way issues.

Recognizing a potential issue early on is important because it gives chapters time to assess how legislation will affect their activities, develop key points to make their case, and execute an action plan for delivering their message to legislators. Many times, APWA positions (available at www.apwa.net/advocacy) lay out a clear stance on legislation. The APWA Washington Office can provide support in developing a strong message and facilitating a letter-writing campaign like the one in Tennessee. Contacting the Washington Office also ensures that your chapter is consistent with APWA policy.

Defeating a proposal in the legislative process is much easier than changing an existing law—or putting up with a bad one. Many times, a legislative battle is won by the side displaying a broader and more compelling commitment to the issue. Participating in APWA advocacy efforts can have huge results for public works. As stewards of public infrastructure, APWA members perform a valuable service by using their expertise to weigh in on legislation and contribute to sound, effective public policy.

APWA member Kathleen Davis briefs Congress on SAFETEA-LU

Elizabeth Kelsey
Government Affairs Associate
APWA Washington Office

Policymakers in Washington, D.C. often talk about the difficulty of writing national laws without adequate input from experts "outside the Beltway"—experts who are keyed in to how policies will actually affect communities and their residents. With the major transportation funding reauthorization deadline fast approaching, APWA member Kathleen Davis, Director of Highways and Local Programs for Washington State Department of Transportation, came to Capitol Hill to brief congressional staff on how the current law, SAFETEA-LU, was functioning in the "other" Washington.

Congressman Rick Larsen (D-WA), member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, introduces APWA member and briefing speaker Kathleen Davis. Davis discussed transportation issues before an audience of congressional staff.

Ms. Davis' office assists local agencies that receive federal funding and oversees compliance with the many regulations that accompany use of federal funds. Created to facilitate the complex process of obtaining and administering federal grants and matching funds, the Office of Highways and Local Programs is funded solely by the state. Few other state agencies house such an office, but Davis—and Washington State—have found tremendous benefits, and have even gotten requests from other states for a copy of their guidance manual.

On Capitol Hill, Davis, who serves on APWA's SAFETEA-LU Reauthorization Task Force, offered insights and guidance for staffers who will soon begin work on a rewrite of SAFETEA-LU, which expires in 2009. She explained her agency's role and shared her unique perspective on difficulties local agencies face when using federal funds, including unexpected rescissions and burdensome regulations. She recommended that Congress build additional flexibility and funding into the next authorizing bill.

Staff members express continued interest in hearing from APWA members who are subject matter experts in their fields. The APWA Washington Office sponsored Ms. Davis' presentation as part of an ongoing series of congressional staff briefings designed to bring the expertise of APWA members to bear on pertinent legislative issues. Past presentations include briefings on the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway after Hurricane Katrina, chemical regulations at wastewater facilities, and avian flu.