The Answer is “NOW”!

So what’s the question?

As part of our summer blog series, we’re asking state and local government leaders in Florida to share their advice for successful advocacy. And one of the questions we’re posing is, “When is the best time to ask you to sponsor legislation for our city, organization, business, industry, etc.?

Their response might surprise you since they’ve just wrapped up their 2018 legislative session. But according to State Representative Bobby Olszewski (R-44)*, “NOW is the time to begin the conversation, especially if you’re going to ask for appropriations.”

“It’s not just about putting a dollar amount on a project. You have to know who the committee chairs are, and how they are going to look at a project, and where the funding will come from. There’s a lot more “I’s” to dot and “T’s” to cross when it comes to appropriations, so the earlier the better.”

I’m going to share a brief story about appropriations to highlight Representative Olszewski’s advice, and hopefully help you avoid a terrible mistake when asking a lawmaker for money.

In 2015 I was working as an advocacy consultant for the Florida League of Cities. They are a statewide member based organization that represents cities. One of the tasks I was asked to do was attend local legislative delegation meetings within the counties where I worked. These are public meetings held a minimum of once each year where members of the legislature that represent the area, convene to listen to the priorities of their constituents. This usually encompasses cities, counties, schools and non-profit agencies within the region.

On one occasion I attended a meeting in St. Lucie County, Florida. The Chairman of this particular delegation was a very powerful and influential legislator, Senator Joe Negron, who just completed his term as President of the Florida Senate.

During the meeting a representative for a local non-profit agency addressed the delegation, asking for money. The Florida legislature had appropriated several thousand dollars to the agency the prior year. This was well known by all of the lawmakers. In fact, it is not unusual in Florida for organizations to ask for money every year. In many circumstances, the State is their largest financial supporter.

The representative gave a very good presentation, highlighting the agency’s mission, the area and population they served and the services provided. She also shared several statistics about their success/failure rate. After stating they were actually serving less people and struggling to provide adequate services (even with more money from the State), she proceeded to ask the lawmakers for additional funding.

This turned out to be a HUGE mistake. The Chairman interrupted her mid-sentence with the following question, “You mean to tell me we gave you XX amount of money last year and you’re doing worse, so this year you’re asking us for more? Please tell me why on earth we would give you anything if you couldn’t improve your services with what we gave you last year!”

Not only did the agency representative not have a response, she asked a senior colleague to join her at the podium and SHE didn’t have a response either! Needless to say the Chairman was very unhappy, which led him to give a twenty minute dissertation about making an appropriation request and being responsible with taxpayer dollars.

I share this story not to deter you, but help you understand there is a right and wrong way to approach a lawmaker to ask for something.

Legislators want to demonstrate to their constituents they are working hard on their behalf and always have their best interests in mind. And they want to show they are being fiscally responsible with taxpayer money! Understanding their mindset and what’s important to them, goes a long way towards getting their support for your bill or appropriations request.   

Representative Olszewski shared the following advice about how to decide what you should ask for that will help them do just that.

  1. “Look at what the legislator tried to do in the previous session. Also research what passed and didn’t pass. If a bill passed the House but not the Senate, it’s likely they will sponsor the same (or similar) legislation again in the upcoming session.” For House members in Florida, they are only allowed to sponsor six bills, so that will take up one already.”
  2. “Know what impact the legislation will have on the community. Especially those that reside within the legislator’s district.” “I need to demonstrate to my community that I’m here to serve them and want to sponsor legislation that will do the most good for them. “For me the balance is about looking at what will do the most good for the greatest number of people.”
  3. “Be prepared to work for what you want. Some lawmakers may expect you to do the majority of the work, some may do it for you. But it’s best to prepared either way. You have to demonstrate you’re willing to work as hard as they do for your money or legislation.”

Legislators got elected to serve the people they represent. That means they are ready and willing to help. But they won’t know you need them unless you ask. And there’s no better time than NOW to take that first step.

Your Partner in Advocacy….Kathy

* We would like to thank State Representative Bobby Olszewski for his public service to the people of Florida House District 44 and for participating in our summer advocacy series.