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Finding common ground with legislators 

by Scott Mooneyham, NCLM Advocacy Communications Strategist 

More than a decade ago, a group of activists came to the North Carolina Legislative Building and suddenly began tossing tea bags from the House gallery onto the state legislators sitting below. The move so infuriated one House member that he stormed upstairs to the gallery and, amid security hustling people out of the place, told an offending constituent – someone whom he had presumably met with earlier in the day – that he would never help him again. This tale of how not to make friends and influence people at the North Carolina General Assembly may represent an extreme when it comes to failed advocacy efforts. Nonetheless, it is surprising how often and how easily groups with interests before state government harm their causes with shrill actions or rhetoric that only serves to alienate the legislators whom they hope to influence.

The N.C. League of Municipalities is fortunate to have a network of municipal officials in 540 cities, towns and villages who can convey a message to state lawmakers of how strong, vital municipalities keep North Carolina economically strong and sound. When municipal officials come together for events like Town Hall Day, presenting a large, energized front to lobby for policies beneficial to municipalities, legislators notice. When they  contact legislators in unison to take a stand on issues seen as crucial to the future of municipalities, their voices are not ignored. When they make indirect appeals through the media, their influence is felt.

Still, as we’ve seen over the last couple of years, not all legislative battles can be won. Sometimes municipal interests run headlong into those of other groups. Sometimes policies beneficial to municipalities run counter to the philosophies of powerful lawmakers. Sometimes electoral politics overwhelms all other considerations. So, it becomes imperative to pick and choose battles, as the League does with its advocacy goals process.      

One key way to win those battles is by making calm, assertive, well-reasoned arguments that nicely dovetail with the very ideas that legislators may be promoting with their legislation. A good example is the ongoing push for tax reform in North Carolina. The legislative leaders pursuing tax reform tout the need for changes to the tax structure based on a desire to keep the state economically competitive. Of course, a pending casualty of that push is the local privilege license tax, now scheduled to expire on July 1, 2015. One of the arguments that the League has made to legislators regarding a replacement source of revenue for the privilege license tax is the pressure that the change puts on local property tax bases. A part of that argument is how critical modest property taxes are to economic development and to that same desire to see North Carolina remain economically competitive.

There are other examples of advocacy to be found and pursued that can benefit municipalities’ positions on key policy issues while fitting with the stated goals of legislators. Sometimes lawmakers just need reminders of our common ground. What they do not need or want are shrill, accusatory arguments. And they sure don’t want to see a rain of Lipton pouring down on their heads.