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March 15, 2022

CA Government Affairs: COVID-19 and Advocacy in California

By Matthew Allen, Vice President, State Government Affairs

 

The arrival of 2022 brings with it renewed hope that the COVID-19 pandemic is waning and that daily life will return to a recognizable normal. This anticipation is bolstered by both state and federal officials, who are increasingly discussing the need to treat COVID-19 as an endemic disease and that we need to learn to live with this unfortunate virus much like we do with the cold and the flu. This acknowledgement, combined with effective vaccines and new therapies, is expected to allow our society to move forward in a much more productive manner.

As one of WG’s California lobbyists, I’m ecstatic that some level of normalcy will be returning to life in the Golden State. Being an effective advocate for our members has been a daunting challenge since COVID-19 shutdown our economy in 2020. One of the institutions that “virtually” closed was the California State Capitol. In an instant, lobbying as we knew it shifted from in-person meetings and interactions to phone calls, emails, and endless Zoom discussions.

I am very proud that our entire advocacy team made this transition appear seamless. However, there have been great challenges in the ability to collect, decipher, analyze and advocate on both legislative and regulatory issues. An issue that once took a day or two to analyze and then mobilize a lobbying response, now takes up to a week since legislators and their staffs have been unable to hold meetings in person. This lag time is created by the time-consuming process of getting formal meetings scheduled across multiple offices, legislative committees and coalition groups. It is not unusual to have 50 or more meetings over a 10-day period for just one bill. Committee hearings are also taking unusually long; often eight hours or more to give people time to queue into the clogged phone system to testify. This is a critical part of the lobbying task, but ties advocates down for many hours at a time. A normal, pre-COVID-19 schedule provided the ability to juggle many more tasks within a shorter time frame.

Am I complaining? Yes! But not for the reasons that you might expect. The work has been hard, challenging and rewarding but I want the ability to work even harder for our industry. I want to get back to the Capitol to have lengthy in-person meetings with legislators and their staffs. I relish getting back to the days when you can stop by a state agency for a quick meeting to immediately address an emerging issue. I’m not alone in this feeling. Most of the lobbyists that WG interacts with daily cannot wait for the ability for traditional lobbying to return.

Just being present in the Capitol offers the opportunity for legislators to stop and visit with you in the hallways in order to catch up or to provide a pitch on whether, or not, a bill concept will be helpful for the agricultural industry. There have been countless times when WG lobbyists have been able to preemptively stop new legislation from even being introduced because of these informal hallway meetings. These meetings are so critically important because they build additional rapport with legislators and the “third-house” (lobbyists).

The lack of transparency in the state budget process since COVID-19 has been especially glaring with legislative offices either being closed or operating with a skeleton crew. Unfortunately, we have seen several instances where budget bills have been introduced at the last possible deadline hour and subsequently passed; thereby avoiding the opportunity for stakeholders to make substantive comments and amendments. While this is legal, it violates the fundamental concept of open government, which allows the public the ability to legitimately engage in the legislative process. Transparency on this process will become much greater with the reopening of legislative offices.

In closing, I see a very bright future for a renewed ability to continue our effective advocacy for California agriculture in the halls of the state Capitol.