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Advocacy Angle: Making your way through the legislative maze 

by League Director of Public Affairs Scott Mooneyham

Awhile back, I ran into a former lobbyist who has been a fixture at the North Carolina Legislative Building even longer than my two decades hanging around the place. Discussing the pros and cons of the nearly completed session for cities and towns, he remarked how the organization that he once headed, years ago, would file five bills that he was certain an opposing but influential advocacy group would want killed. 

“We only wanted one of them passed, but if we got that one, then Mike could tell his folks that he killed four bad ideas and tried his best on that fifth one,” he said. 

The legislative world has changed a bit since those days, and those same tactics might not get my old friend’s group so far today. Nonetheless, the story illustrates how everything cannot be taken at face value when it comes to legislative policy and politics, and that deciphering what is actually happening within the cement-block walls on Jones Street only comes with experience. 

That became apparent regarding two major issues that the League worked extensively on this year: restoration of historic tax credits and mitigation of a damaging Senate proposal that could have meant the elimination of some municipal service districts. 

Regarding the first, a coalition of groups, which included the League and was led by Secretary of Cultural Resources Suzan Kluttz, had been meeting since before the legislative session to plot strategy about how to gain passage of historic tax credit legislation. At one of those early meetings, a suggestion was made that the group begin preparing a Plan B, that it seek sponsors and draft legislation for a plan that would be something short of an actual tax credit. 

Secretary Kluttz, with the backing of most of the group, smartly nixed the idea. It’s true that legislative politics is more art than science, but what those with experience on Jones Street knew was that even hinting at a less satisfactory compromise, unless you expect to lose, is usually not a good idea. There would be time for that in July, but not in January or February. The expectation in the room was that 2015 would be different than 2014, and that historic preservation tax credits would be a winner with a unified, focused effort. 

Of course, it was. 

That art came into play again when the Senate rolled out its budget, and it contained an unexpected and previously unseen proposal that could have eliminated municipal service districts through a petition and referendum process by district voters. 

The effects of the provision would have cut out the business owners who typically pay the additional MSD taxes and are the primary beneficiary of the additional services they bring. 

The League would have liked the provision to go away, but once it was there, the best we could do was be involved in discussions that led to a provision that was far less onerous, one that dropped the petition and referenda in favor of more public input. 

Why was that the best outcome possible? Because a legislator – in this case, Sen. Trudy Wade – had ownership of the provision. With ownership, legislators don’t like walking away with nothing. 

It is something else you learn only through seeing the same time and again.