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Keeping Developmental Services on the Legislative Agenda: During Tight Fiscal Times

Merrill, Denise W. State Representative

Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics: February 2006 - Volume 27 - Issue 1 - p S41-S43
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  • When preparing testimony on developmental services, avoid the emotional angle and focus on being informative.
  • An important component of legislative advocacy is a cost/benefit analysis.
  • The key to raising legislative priority is to raise constituent priority.

In July 2001, as part of a gubernatorial initiative to address preventative care in behavioral health for children, the Connecticut General Assembly funded Help Me Grow. In the years that have followed, the legislature has offered strong support for this effort. However, fiscal times have changed, and many of the initial sponsors of this legislation have moved on. It is imperative that legislative support and commitment be reiterated each year in order to secure funding for developmental services. Similar services originally funded by the state and federal government have seen the erosion of their funding over time, even when federal matching dollars are available. A potent example is the Birth to Three program of preventive services for disabled children, which saw programmatic changes that impacted services as recently as last budget session. Maintenance of commitment to these efforts is imperative, and advocates are well-advised to continue to inform and cajole legislators and their leaders to fund these efforts.

There are dozens of strategies that advocates can employ to promote developmental services as a legislative priority. For the sake of brevity, I will focus on three main categories; testimony; raising public awareness; and mobilizing the constituency.

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The single, best method of promoting developmental services as a legislative priority is through testimony. Testimonies are extremely useful tools for legislators in making their decisions. Testimonies are also the best way for the voice of the citizen to be heard. However, there are good testimonies and there are not-so-good testimonies. I will highlight what I consider to be the most effective strategies for testifying to help avoid the pitfalls that make for ineffective testimony.

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Fiscal Considerations and Testifying

Connecticut is currently experiencing a budget crisis. Many programs and services previously funded are seeing massive cuts across the board. The Appropriations Committee is accountable for every dollar we allocate, which forces us to make decisions based on the best information available. Increasingly, we are focusing on the actual results that programs can document, including both long and short term evaluations and trends. Unfortunately, testimony at public hearings rarely focus on such data.

I have heard countless testimonies on behalf of services for children. My colleagues and I have the deepest sympathy for the special needs of children and we realize the importance of providing developmental services to them. However, many testimonies on behalf of children and developmental services focus on personal accounts and anecdotal information and not enough on the cost-effectiveness of such efforts. Personal testimonies, while effective in raising our awareness of a problem, do not provide us with enough information and evidence to warrant allocating funds to them, particularly when programs are being cut to meet budgetary restraints. While any and all testimony is welcome during public hearings, major fiscal decisions affecting thousands of people will not - and should not - be based solely on anecdotal information. That being said, I have certainly seen the power of one person's story affect many legislators in their attention to a particular program. This is a useful strategy, but cannot stand alone.

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The Power of Numbers

The best testimony is that which employs accurate and meaningful data into the argument. Statistics and evaluations are useful tools for legislators in determining the necessity of services. Make sure that whatever statistics you employ are meaningful and applicable to the program in question. Check your sources, when they were completed, and by whom. The most accurate and admissible information comes from non-partisan organizations. Government publications, academic journals, and university-sponsored research are good sources to cite.

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Speaking the Language

There are many ways that advocates can speak better "legislative language" when they testify before a committee. The Appropriations Committee loves to see a cost/benefit analysis when someone is testifying. Good testimony shows how money appropriated now can save the state money in the future, and this is, of course, the most powerful argument for the provision of preventive developmental services. Without such services, the children with special needs become the children in expensive special education programs and the adults needing extensive governmental support in later years. Essentially, the state can pay now or pay more to treat them later. Advocates and providers can point out, for example, that the number of people they service fails to reflect the number of people who actually need their services. Here is where statistical information about the need versus the availability of services is powerful.

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Organization and Structure

Legislators can be quickly overwhelmed by the number of programs that have been put in place to address a particular goal, such as prevention of developmental disabilities. There is a bewildering array of programmatic approaches and agencies involved in the area of early childhood health and development. Lack of planning has led to great confusion in this policy area.

For this reason, bullet points make a testimony much easier to follow. Bullets also allow legislators to quickly refer back to specific arguments. Besides bulleting, keeping an agenda focused is of utmost importance. All too often, testifiers discuss the general issues relating to their field of work without touching on why they are here. Begin a testimony with a very brief introduction of who you are and follow it immediately with a statement of purpose. What do you oppose or favor? Follow that with your reasons and evidence. Finish your testimony with a brief recap of your statement of purpose. This format is probably the best for keeping a testimony succinct and under the three-minute time limit. Also, when a speaker completes their testimony at the three-minute time limit, it demonstrates their preparation and organization. This can make a good impression on the legislators. It also keeps public hearings from dragging on for hours. Keeping a testimony to three minutes can be just as important as the testimony itself.

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Besides testifying, there are other ways that advocates can promote developmental services as a legislative priority. Getting real people affected by real issues to come down to the capitol building to speak with legislators is a very effective strategy for raising awareness. In particular, legislators are very attentive to the opinions and needs of their own constituents. Many times, I have become deeply involved with an issue based solely on the passion of one person in my district.

Holding legislative breakfasts and other events is another good way of raising the awareness of the community to your cause. Scheduling these can be a problem, since legislators are part-time and most have other jobs and obligations that prevent them from extensive meetings. Many times, the attention of a legislative aide is as useful as the attendance of the legislator, as they have immediate access to their legislator and can communicate directly with them on a daily basis.

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Real People with Real Issues

Unlike advocates and private providers of developmental services, constituents with their own personal story can have a great impact on a legislator. The welfare of children is a non-partisan issue. Providers and advocates should keep their testimonies centered around the cost and benefit of their services, while the constituents provide their own personal accounts. The juxtaposition of these two types of arguments gives legislators both a moral and rational foundation for allocating funds to developmental services.

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Food and Media

There is no doubt about the importance of holding legislative breakfasts and luncheons. Holding legislative breakfasts and organized events on behalf of developmental services can have a major impact on raising both legislative awareness and community awareness. Not unlike most people, legislators love food, a well-known fact if one is to judge by the number of food-related events that take place on a daily basis at the Capitol! That is probably because events such as breakfast and receptions raise awareness and establish relationships between advocates and legislators. Be sure to invite local newspapers and business leaders to attend these functions. This will make legislators more inclined to attend. The only thing that legislators love even more than food is the press. And attracting the media, constituents, advocates, and legislators at an event will also attract attention to your cause.

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We meet with lobbyists and constituents every day, in our offices, in the Legislative Office Building, in the cafeteria, and sometimes in our districts. Persistent contact with legislators keeps an issue fresh. Many times, it can be difficult to get appointments with legislators. You may have to call the capitol building many times to get an appointment with a specific legislator, particularly a committee chair. This type of persistence and dedication is essential in raising the profile of developmental services. If you are really organized, you may start a year in advance trying to meet with your legislator during the off-session, when there is less pressure. Be aware again, however, that many of us return to "day jobs," as well.

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One-on-One With Your Legislator

Legislators are, by nature, extremely busy people, particularly during the session. Schedule appointments with the appropriate legislators well in advance. While letters, emails, and phone calls are great ways to let your legislators know your position, meeting them in person is certainly the most effective. Bring relevant information supporting your cause. A testimony is only three minutes, but a meeting can be longer. One-on-one meetings can give you the time to argue your cause more effectively. It also lets you establish a more personal relationship with a legislator.

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The number one priority for all elected officials is re-election. Therefore, responding to constituent needs and concerns is of the utmost importance to legislators. Raising the priority of developmental services for constituents will consequently raise the priority of developmental services for legislators. District-based lobbying and informing constituents of upcoming hearings/forums are very effective means for mobilizing constituents. If advocates can mobilize citizens to voice their support for developmental services, legislators will follow suit.

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District-based Lobbying

The most effective way to reach a legislator is at home in the district. If a group of citizens are concerned about an issue, local events can be very effective in attracting the interest of legislators and the public. The advent of public access television has greatly enhance the ability of citizens to stay informed about the activities of state government, but by and large it is difficult for people to keep up with specific hearings and events unless advocacy groups let them know about it. Local action may be more effective than actual number of bodies at a hearing, but the televised hearings are a great way to showcase issues to the public as well as the legislators.

Your most potent tools are public interest in and understanding of the concept of prevention, particularly as a cost-effective, long-term policy strategy. At times, we seem stuck in forever reacting to immediate problems, but I believe funding is being slowly mobilized to address health and other needs at earlier ages, when human lives and families can be positively impacted. The state needs to focus on getting a more effective "bang for the buck" through results-based, accountability measures. If we begin to focus on the results of the programs we support, Help Me Grow should be among the most important efforts that we fund.

© 2006 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.