Watch the States or Miss the Action

Watch the States or Miss the Action

Most organizations can keep tabs on the action in Washington. The tax bill. The spending bill. Some action in the agencies. It’s not always easy, but there are plenty of resources to help.

But are you watching the action in the states? The simple truth is that a great deal more legislation and regulation gets passed in the states than in Washington. Dramatically more. Bills in Congress number in the hundreds each year. In legislatures across the country, they number in the tens of thousands.

If you are not watching the states, you are only seeing part of the picture. Savvy organizations will be tracking their issues at the state level when the legislative sessions heat up in the first quarter of 2018 — and they’ll be watching the state elections next year too.

States Make Policy — A Lot of It

We have all heard the common wisdom about how states are laboratories for various policy experiments. But in this case, it is certifiably true. Just think of some of the sea changes in policy that we have seen sweep across the country in the last decade.

The decriminalization of marijuana comes to mind. So does the legalization of same-sex marriage. And states have led the charge to create laws that combat the opioid epidemic, and the attendant spike in overdose deaths, which is now the leading cause of death for Americans over 50.

In all of these cases, Congress would not or could not take bold action. But state legislatures could — and they did. In fact, they often act much faster than Congress. In some states, a bill can go from introduction to passage in a matter of days.

To underline just how productive state legislatures are, consider some numbers. Thus far in the 115th Congress, which began in January, about 8,000 bills were introduced, 363 passed both chambers and 92 became law, according to GovTrack.

There is no readily available comparison in the states for that period, but a recent study suggested in the first half of 2016 that states introduced 23 times more legislation than Congress. State senates passed 19% of their bills, compared to 3.4% for the U.S. Senate. State houses passed 13%, compared to 1.9% in the U.S. House.

One could argue that advocacy professionals who are not watching state activity are dangerously out of touch, and organizations not advocating in the states are missing opportunities. Someday, the boss is going to wander into the office, holding a news clip and asking, “Did we know about … ?”

Tracking State Action — and Elections

So how do you watch 50 state legislatures and 50 gubernatorial administrations? Much of that will depend on your organization and the resources at your disposal. But it starts with a dedicated person or team and the right set of tools.

Many companies offer state legislative tracking software that is capable of watching hundreds of issues in all 50 states based on keyword searches. CQ’s StateTrack is one. State Net by LexisNexis is another. You can do this work with a spreadsheet and a web browser. But serious organizations opt for professional tools.

Tracking the election is important too. If state policymaking is important, it stands to reason that it will be important to track which party is controlling the legislature in all 50 states. There will also be gubernatorial elections in 36 states and three U.S. territories in 2018. New York Magazine called these races “the most underappreciated … aspect of the 2018 midterm elections.”

The outcome of these races could have a dramatic impact on state-level policy. And, just like Congressional races, these gubernatorial contests will be a referendum on the Trump administration’s performance.

Like legislation, you need the right tools to properly track state races. While there are several products available, our favorite is VoteWatch 2018, a collaboration between 720 Strategies and The Cook Political Report. VoteWatch will keep you up to date on both congressional and gubernatorial races with video updates. It can also be customized with your branding and logo, if you want to use it to inform your members or customers.

Whatever tools you use, don’t ignore state policy and elections in 2018. Those who do might just get that visit from the boss.