Promoting business-friendly regulation

Phillip Perry Square Headshot

With the presidential campaigns in full swing, you're probably assessing each candidate's support for business- friendly legislation.

The priorities of the nation's leaders can make the economy rise and fall, of course. But consider this: Day in, day out, your profits are more likely affected by laws and regulations passed closer to home.

"Issues at the city and state level are often more important to business owners than issues at the federal level," notes Nancy Ploeger, president of the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce in New York City.

That makes sense. Think about local tax rates, business fees and unanticipated business regulations that throw a monkey wrench into your plans.

And how about unmaintained streets, filled with potholes and ruts? They can keep customers from visiting your place of business. Then there are slow police response times that can magnify the financial costs of burglary and robbery. Does your fire department lack sufficient funding? Your whole business might go up in smoke.

And so on. Getting things to work right often depends on the priorities and the capabilities of your city or town politicians. "What government does and how they regulate is important to your business," says Al Arnold, director of the Academy of Local Politics, Rice Lake, Wis. "It's your bread and butter. Your city officials can help you or kill you."

Here's some good news: You needn't take problems lying down. You can get the local mechanism running in a way that grows your profits.

All Politics is Local

Decisions made by your local politicians can have a dramatic impact on your business profits. How can you affect those decisions?

"Start by learning how your local government operates," suggests Arnold. "Politics is a game. In order to be successful in any game you need to know the rules."

Arnold advises attending one local government meeting each year to "watch, listen and, by observation, learn" how local government works. "One meeting won't make anyone an expert, but over the years you will become more knowledgeable about your local officials and how they work." Learn how your town develops its annual budget - the pivotal document for taking action. "A city budget is not just a financial document," explains Arnold. "It is a policy document."

Where tax money is being spent, or not spent, gives a clear indication about the priorities of your city council. Furthermore, funds have to be available for the city to take any action you may desire throughout the year. "It does no good to complain about something that needs to be done if the money is not in the budget," says Arnold.

Indeed, policy decisions can have more of a bottom-line impact than the local tax rate. "Saving a couple of bucks in taxes can cause your business to burn to the ground if fire protection is inadequate," points out Arnold.

All Politics is Personal

Personal networking is a powerful tool for influencing local laws. "All politics is personal," says Nancy Bocskor, a political consultant in Arlington, Va. "Even in our modern world of e-mail, getting things done still comes down to whom you have a relationship with."

In developing relationships, make the telephone your friend. "Call your local politicians at the city and state level and meet with them," suggests Ploeger. "These politicians are looking for ways to help constituents. They don't know how to do that if you don't speak up." If you remain hidden, your politicians may vote in ways that unintentionally harm your business.

Don't wait until you have concerns before meeting with your local representatives, adds Ploeger. "Your politicians will often have issues they are grappling with, and they need to talk with business people about the effects of certain regulations."

Developing a relationship can mean more than phone calls and meetings. Consider hosting a fundraising event. "Help a politician raise money by having a coffee in your home," suggests Bocskor. "Offer to invite your friends, neighbors and colleagues over to listen to the candidate."

Stay Informed

New local issues come up all the time. Many of them can affect your business operations. Don't rely on the local newspaper to learn about them. "Newspapers normally report on what has happened, not what might happen," says Arnold. "And if they do report on what might happen, it might not be what you are interested in. There is only one way to keep on top of proposed local government issues, and that is by following committee agendas."

Learn which committees are likely to deal with business issues. "Find out where agendas for committee meetings are posted," suggests Arnold. "Many times they are on the town Web site. Make a point of following these agendas on a regular - monthly if not weekly - basis. This is the only way to catch issues before votes are taken."

Offer your input as early as possible. Will a proposed legislation or regulation have unanticipated consequences? Call and let your politicians know.

"Issues are like rolling snowballs," says Arnold. "They get bigger and bigger with time. It is easier to destroy a hand-sized snowball than it is Frosty the Snowman."

On the state level, the best way to follow issues is to belong to an organization that does this for you. "If your business has a statewide association, pay the dues and belong to it," suggests Arnold. "If there is no such association, join an independent business group of some kind to get your information. And when your association asks you to respond to a 'call to action' on an important issue, do so."

The Power of Numbers

Running a business leaves you only so much time to communicate with your politicians. So leverage your relationships with organizations that can help communicate your message. "Your local chamber of commerce will often talk with political leaders," notes Ploeger. "Many chambers have legislative directors or advocacy managers. Usually the presidents of the chamber are involved with that aspect."

Group action can be a powerful force in getting things done, notes Ploeger. Consider a recent example: Working together, the New York state chambers of commerce convinced the governor to reduce the workers' compensation insurance rates by some 10 percent. Attend meetings or volunteer to serve on the chamber committee that is responsible for developing positions on local political issues.

Get Involved

Effective lobbying is a process, not a destination. Don't expect your representatives to agree with you all the time. They won't. But over time, if you participate in small ways by attending meetings and voicing your opinions, you can have an influential voice when really big issues arise. "You have to be a citizen activist," says Bocskor. "When you are not involved, it is amazing how fast laws are passed that have unintended consequences."

Don't let that happen. Reach out to your local politicians and you will end up with a more productive business environment. "I get so angry when people say they are too busy," says Arnold. "You can't be too busy to not follow what government is doing to regulate your business."

Resources For Local Politics

Moving Mountains and Molehills: Local Politics 101, by Al Arnold.

How to win issues at the local level. Publisher: BookSurge.

Local Politics: A Practical Guide To Governing At The Grassroots, by Terry Christensen. How to deal effectively with local officials. Publisher: M.E. Sharpe, 2006.

The Academy of Local Politics

University of Michigan Documents Center (Web links to associations of local officials.)

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