Dr. Baker is a retired professor of political science from Jacksonville University and former Board Chair.
It’s that time of year: the flowers emerge from their winter hibernation and the Florida legislature comes back into session this month. Limited to meeting only 60 days per year, those wishing to have an impact on what happens in the legislature regarding children’s issues must organize quickly.
Our elected representatives really want to do what’s best and welcome advice but one thing haunting them is their re-election. Failing to win voter approval again means everything else they have worked for disappears. Understanding that pre-occupation helps explain why politicians act the way they do. As such, the most effective advocacy is demonstrating how supporting your issues is not only good policy but will help them gain voter approval.
The main argument in appealing to elected officials for children’s issues is “Pay now or pay MORE later.” This issue has two dimensions: the ethical/social one involving moral responsibility and the economic one that shows how funding effective prevention programs today results in substantially fewer of the more costly remedial and custodial programs later.
The ethical/social dimension is relatively easy to understand and has a strong emotional appeal about improving the human condition (especially among those most in need). Fractured lives and families diminish the entire community. This dimension should always be included in your advocacy but the most persuasive argument is the economic one. Data illustrating the costs of prevention programs vs. the price of dealing with the consequences of not having those programs is essential. Pre- and postnatal programs — particularly those dealing with high-risk groups — can be shown to be very cost-effective especially when including lost earning potential (and the associated increased revenues that will be generated).
A typical legislator’s reaction to proposals is to agree with the goals but suggest not all problems are most amenable to government solutions. This is often followed by anecdotes about individuals or private groups that dealt with similar problems and enables the politician to appear supportive but make no commitment (a normal tendency among those whose assistance is requested by many different and competing organizations). One way of limiting this reaction is prefacing the discussion with something like “Surely not all problems are best dealt with by the government but one that IS involves . . .[insert your program here].” This sounds like a gimmick but reduces that diversionary tactic. Another qualifier is the inevitable discussion about the tax implication of your proposal. Again, the diversion can be minimized by prefacing your proposal with “We all want to see taxes reduced wherever possible but the costs of failing to deal with . . .”
In short, the best approach in dealing with elected officials is to look at the question from the perspective of a person about to face the electorate: this is democracy!