With the arrival of a new year comes another annual event in the Commonwealth of Virginia: the convening of a new session of the Virginia General Assembly.

The session takes place in our state capital. As a Hampton Roads business owner, you may think what happens in Richmond stays in Richmond. Not so with the General Assembly and its multitude of overwhelming activities; namely the passage or defeat of new statewide laws. All this takes place in either a “short” session, a 40-day time period, or a “long” session which lasts 60 days. New laws are squeezed into day and night committee meetings, private meetings and votes which could impact your business model on an annual or even daily basis.

The pace of a General Assembly session is so extreme and fast that it is next to impossible for a busy business owner to keep track of proposals that are on the session calendar. Here are some tips that may help.

Join an Association With Advocacy Expertise in Your Industry

In Hampton Roads we are blessed with a multitude of associations specializing in industries that are key to the economic survival of our communities. If you find an association that focuses on your business’s specific trade, find out if the staff includes a government relations expert or lobbyist (a highly skilled professional who is successful in educating legislators about issues impacting your business). Some associations may not employ a staff lobbyist but will choose to retain a lobbying consulting firm.

Either way, this type of expertise can greatly impact your bottom line. A new law may have an adverse or positive effect on your product, taxes or commercial enterprise. Government affairs experts routinely communicate with an association’s members in their newsletters, emails, social media and briefings.  Make a practice of reading this material and attending legislative meetings.

Get Involved at the Grassroots Level

Wikipedia describes grassroots lobbying as “lobbying with the intention of reaching the legislature and making a difference in the legislative process.” Grassroots lobbying is different from the direct lobbying of a staff government affairs expert or consultant. It involves the mass mobilization of like-minded folks around a legislative issue.

Legislators are much more apt to vote for or against a bill when they actually hear from the business owners, especially if the businesses are from the legislator’s district. In addition to an advocacy expert transmitting their association’s message, individual members voices can strengthen an argument for or against a legislative proposal.

A group of individual members attending a committee hearing or a meeting in an individual legislator’s office and testifying to the legislation’s impact on the business can make or break a legislative proposal. Writing or calling legislators is a back-up plan if you cannot get to a Richmond meeting.

Learn As Much As You Can About the Legislative Process

Otto von Bismarck once said: “If you like laws and sausages, you should never watch either one being made.” In other words, the legislative process, though messy and sometimes unappetizing, produces results; positive or negative. In Virginia, the General Assembly website, virginiageneralassembly.gov, is a great place to start learning the structure of the legislature and where the delegate or senator from your business’s district is involved.

Virginia has a bicameral or dual body legislature, the Virginia House of Delegates (100 members) and the Virginia Senate (40 members). The assembly’s committee system is key. In the business world, the key committees are the House and Senate Finance Committees, Commerce and Labor, Courts of Justice and House Appropriations (state budget). Most business-related bills will show up in these bodies. A committee or subcommittee (in the House) vote will determine if a bill lives or dies before it gets to the floors of the Senate or the House for a full vote.

When your trade group has identified a bill that’s good or bad for your industry, check communications from the group’s lobbyist about which committee the bill has been assigned to. Go to the state website and look at the committee members. If you see your delegate or senator on the committee let the lobbyist know that your business is in their district and you are available to be a grassroots voice. A business from the legislator’s district has much more impact than one who is outside the district.

If your lobbyist needs you in a private meeting with a legislator or legislators on the committee or to testify in the committee hearing, make arrangements to leave your business for a day and GO TO RICHMOND. You have the power to change a legislator’s mind, either for or against your business. And, as mentioned, one bad law can cost you a great deal on your bottom line. Equally, one good law can have the opposite effect.

Ray Mattes
Ray MattesPresident & CEO, Retail Alliance