Advocacy in the Time of the Coronavirus
Updated: Apr 24, 2020
Each fall, I meet with clients to celebrate victories, identify goals for the upcoming year and strategize pathways for achieving them. In 2016, as in years prior, these meetings were scheduled for the days following the November elections. Pre-work had been accomplished assuming a Democratic victory. My clients were enthusiastic about their legislative prospects under a Clinton Administration. Their wish lists were long but seemed within reach. And then Donald Trump won the Presidency. The entire landscape changed overnight. Priorities shifted. Legislative plans were discarded in lieu of new strategies. Those days share a striking similarity as the state’s priorities shift in the wake of another crisis: COVID-19. 2020 began with enthusiasm. California had a budget surplus. A robust Rainy Day Fund. Our state’s leaders demonstrated their commitment to equity and the promise of a California for All through the introduction of over 2,300 legislative proposals. And then, the coronavirus outbreak happened. These legislative proposals, some of extreme importance and necessity, now must be re-evaluated and in many cases discarded. Our budget surplus and Rainy Day Fund will be stretched to their capacity as the state now faces a recession. Energy, time and resources must be devoted to addressing the immediate crisis and to fortifying the safety net, with an eye toward recovery. COVID-19 may not have not created many of the problems we face, but it has illuminated many and exacerbated others: The stakes have never been higher. Of course, these new challenges don’t supplant existing state needs. They simply compound upon one another, limiting resources and making advocacy more complex. So, now what? As an advocate, how do you make your case in the time of coronavirus? Some considerations and suggestions are below. Timelines Will Be Subject to Change. There are two key constitutional deadlines of which to be mindful: The first requires that the legislature pass a budget by June 15th and the second requires the legislature conclude its two-year cycle on August 31st. All other published deadlines and legislative calendars are subject to change. We can expect that state leaders will take the necessary steps to keep staff and the public safe, which means that timelines will be fluid and committee schedules impacted. As a result, even with many legislators reducing their bill packages from 20 to 2, we need to plan for extremely long policy and fiscal committee hearings. If you need to provide public comment, send in your letter two weeks in advance and plan to make a statement remotely consistent with the rules laid out by each individual committee. Unfortunately, this compacted schedule also means that reconsideration for measures is unlikely, if not impossible. Any measures that fail in committee will need to be re-introduced in January of 2021. Policy Making Will Happen in the Budget. And the Budget Will Happen in Stages. True, the constitutional budget deadline is June 15th; however, this does not mean that the budget process will be complete by this date. In a typical legislative cycle, numerous pieces of legislation known as “Budget Trailer Bills” follow the one main Budget Bill to clarify the expenditures agreed upon in that measure. Traditionally, major pieces of policy are not passed in Budget Trailer Bills. However, it is not unheard of. This year, given the uncertainties in need and in state revenue, one should expect that significant policy may be proposed and passed as part of the state’s Budget Trailer Bill package. This could include items with state costs as well as policy proposals of importance that could not be heard as part of the regular policy committee process due to time constraints. Substantive public policy can be amended into Budget Trailer Bills up until 72 hours prior to the August 31st constitutional deadline. Your Favorite Bill is Probably Dead. For Now. Almost 2,400 pieces of legislation were introduced in California in 2020 alone, effectively doubling the volume of bills introduced in the two-year cycle. Given the need to shelter in place and the changes in the legislative schedule, there is simply not enough time to pursue each of these proposals as part of the normal policy process. As a result, legislators in both houses are in the process of limiting their legislative packages from 20 or so bills down to single digits. Unfortunately, this will result in the shelving of many important pieces of legislation - for now. If the legislative proposal you are advocating for is among the lucky few to move forward, you are not out of the woods yet. The merits and cost of each proposal will be weighed against the state’s overall needs, pandemic response and budgetary constraints. Advocates should be prepared to explain why specific pieces of policy are necessary this year, why they are immediately relevant to (or in spite of) the COVID-19 and should be able to justify any cost associated with their proposals. The dramatic paring down of legislation does not, however, mean that the legislature will not be hard at work. There is much to do and much to look-out for. Utilize Technology Wisely – and Respectfully. Rest assured that even in the absence of in-person meetings and public hearings your elected officials and their staff are hard at work. Advocates, lobbyists and journalists are all hard at work too. The ones I have spoken to have schedules like mine – or worse. That means 8-10 hours a day of calls and video conferences, back to back, in 15- to 30-minute increments. Advocacy calls to your legislator’s district office? They’re being re-routed to the homes of staff, who like many of you are working from home while managing home-schooling children or dueling conference calls with partners and roommates. How do you get your message through? Reach out in writing to schedule a time, clearly articulating your request and why it is urgent as a matter of pandemic response - or is otherwise immediately important to residents and the state. Attach relevant background documents, articles and information, making sure to include anything you would like them to review in advance. If you’re dealing with a coalition or multiple stakeholders, mass emails or repeated phone calls to the same legislative office (and therefore, a staff person’s home) are unlikely to be well-received at this time. Instead, consider a targeted social media effort, Op Eds, coalition sign-on position letters, and coordinated calls between stakeholders and legislative offices.
There is No Such Thing as a Recess. Once the legislature concludes for the 2019-2020 cycle, it is possible that a special session may be called to meet the state’s needs. Even if this does not happen, we can expect a significant workload to face the legislature when it reconvenes in 2021. Rightfully so, as many important and necessary issues will have to take a backseat in the midst of the immediate crisis. As a result, it will be critical for elected officials and advocates to engage in the work of outlining outstanding needs - and strategizing solutions - throughout the fall of 2020. If you have issues that need to be addressed in early 2021, don’t plan on a legislative recess. Instead, plan ahead.