Whether you like it or not, politics affects all of us – and your business or industry isn’t immune either. Decisions made in Washington and the state capital can either help or hurt your bottom line, and if you don’t have a seat at the table with decision makers you could – to use a technical term – get screwed.
Ben Popkin is a Targeted Persuasion client and founder of Popkin Strategies, a consulting firm that focuses on healthcare and insurance issues in North Carolina. Ben worked for the State in various positions for years. Few people know more about the inner workings of state government than Ben. Below, he explains why it’s important for business leaders to keep a close eye on the goings-on in the legislature, even if you don’t have a political bone in your body.
TP: Tell us about your background and why you decided to go into consulting.
I studied health policy and law at UNC and had a brief stint in rural health research at the Cecil G. Sheps Center at UNC after graduate school. Eventually I found my true fit when I started working for the North Carolina General Assembly. I first worked as a staff attorney in what was then called the Research Division, (now the Legislative Affairs Division) where I covered an assortment of topics, from criminal law to health and insurance, but my main focus was on the health-related issues, responding to constituent issues and staffing standing and study committees. That role made very clear to me the value of our legislature’s use of non-partisan staff. These non-partisan staff serve as subject matter experts to provide accurate, unbiased information about their particular areas to legislators on both sides of the aisle in both chambers. I also spent time in the Legislative Drafting Division, with staff attorneys who play a similar, but different role to the Research Division staff. Direct involvement in the budget process was probably my favorite aspect of that role. That work gave very interesting insight into State policymaking for sure.
“Unintended consequences can and do happen as a result of legislative action, and it is very hard to predict any and all effects of a bill before its implementation.”
When the federal government passed Affordable Care Act, I was hired by the NC Department of Insurance as they were gearing up for State level response and action to what the federal legislation directed the states to do. There, I was project manager for the ACA grants that we had received from the federal government. At the time, we had been awarded upwards of $90 million to assess and plan an approach for creating a health insurance exchange and doing it in a way that was best suited for North Carolina. It was definitely an interesting time to be working on health law and policy and navigating the federal and State roles and actions was something I’ll never forget.
From DOI, I moved to the Department of Health and Human Services to serve as Assistant Secretary of Legislation and Legislative Counsel… I recently left DHHS and started my own firm – Popkin Strategies – to work in the same areas I have for years, but with greater flexibility than as a full-time state employee. I offer an assortment of consulting services including government affairs, legislative analysis, and drafting, as well as legal services to those operating in the healthcare and insurance spaces. I have discovered that there is no shortage of need for informed legal assistance relating to Medicaid Transformation, and look forward to remaining extremely busy from here on out. I continue to work as I always have, to help our State policy makers make the most informed decisions they can for the good of the State and its people.
TP: Why is it important for business groups to monitor what’s going on in their state legislature?
Obviously, understanding the laws and regulations that affect the areas in which associations or businesses operate is vital. And actions in what you may think are unrelated areas could have significant impact on a group’s interests. For example, the Department of Insurance has wide ranging jurisdiction over areas far beyond what might think – from firefighters, building codes and fireworks to disaster relief. Those familiar with the Department and its operations may know this, but it could be extremely difficult for an association focused on their own area of expertise and operations to be aware of all of the many areas to monitor that could affect their own operations. Any association will be well served by having someone who is knowledgeable about the legislative environment and the areas of importance to the association so they can understand the implications of what is happening in Raleigh and be positioned to act to protect and further their interests.
“In a void of information, legislators can have very little time to do background research, so they’re going to be reasonably reliant on stakeholders to give information about issues coming before the legislature. I would say developing those relationships is about the most vital thing an association can do as far as policy making goes. The goal is to make sure that the information they have is shared with the legislator so they can make the most informed decisions when drafting, debating, and voting on bills.”
TP: Can you think of a particular example during your time in government where a private company or association was blindsided by a piece of legislation or government change?
I can do better than that, I can give you an example where private businesses were protected from being blindsided by a piece of legislation. Several years ago, the General Assembly was considering addressing smoking in public places. With strong leadership from Representative Hugh Holliman and a recently issued US Surgeon General report on the effects of smoking, the issue of negative health effects of smoking on the person smoking and those near the smoker was given significant discussion in the legislature. As we all know, tobacco is and has long been a very important agricultural crop in North Carolina, with strong economic and cultural ties to our State.
The debate was lengthy and vigorous and throughout the course of the deliberations and development of the legislation, representatives of the various businesses that would be affected by the legislation remained engaged with the legislators and other stakeholders. These association representatives’ aim was not to block the policy, but to help guide the policy so that the aims of the bill could be achieved while the interests of the businesses represented could be preserved. The end result of all of this, which was uncertain during that process, is that North Carolinians can now go to eat in restaurants and bars that are all smoke free and these businesses were able to stay in afloat – selling food and employing people without suffering unintended financial harm following enactment of the law. Unintended consequences can and do happen as a result of legislative action, and it is very hard to predict any and all effects of a bill before its implementation. In this case, however, the actions of the association representatives helped prevent their member businesses from being blindsided by the bill and helped us all be able to go out to eat without coming home smelling like an ashtray.
TP: How important do you think it is for associations to have one-on-one meetings and relationships with influential legislators?
I think it’s vital for associations to have the opportunity to share their priorities and perspectives with their local, State, and federal officials. The job of a legislator is not an easy one. No one can expect a legislator to be an expert in everything. It’s the job of the constituents, in this case the associations, to make their interests and priorities known to the legislator. In a void of information, legislators can have very little time to do background research, so they’re going to be reasonably reliant on stakeholders to give information about issues coming before the legislature. I would say developing those relationships is about the most vital thing an association can do as far as policy making goes. The goal is to make sure that the information they have is shared with the legislator so they can make the most informed decisions when drafting, debating, and voting on bills.
TP: Can you talk a little about the committee meeting process and how that impacts the final bill that gets put on the floor?
Everyone knows that there are a lot of ideas that get generated. Bills are then developed when a legislator has a particular interest in an issue. They’ll work with the relevant stakeholders to assess what the current state affairs are and what type of change they would like to see. In the committee process, you have the opportunity for other legislators and stakeholders to raise any issues and really vet the pros and cons of any action. As the bill moves from one committee to the next, it gives people the opportunity to make sure their concerns are addressed. It’s a great chance to air out any issues. Ideally before bills get to the floor for a vote, a bill will have been reviewed and improved by addressing issues raised in the committees.
TP: What advice do you have for associations when the legislature is considering legislation that could negatively impact their industry?
Remember, unless the legislator is already an expert in a particular area, they must rely upon information they get from other sources. This will come either from their own research, from unbiased, non-partisan staff, or from stakeholders, including their constituents and associations. The best thing an association can do is know which legislators are interested in issues relevant to the association’s area of interest, develop a relationship with that member and share their expertise on issues and perspective on the real-life impact of legislation that’s under consideration. It is exceedingly difficult to fully understand the full breadth of a bill’s potential impact or to foresee every eventuality. The legislators often have to rely on associations or other interested parties to make the best decisions they can for the State. Having real life examples of impacts of legislative change on constituents is vital. If an association can share information that is relevant and accurate to the issue at hand, that is helpful to the legislator and important for the good of the State.
Want out find out how Targeted Persuasion can help your business or association develop relationships with legislators or monitor the goings-on in your state government? Contact us today.