The NFIB-St. George Mess

nfib logoOn Thursday, one of three bills filed in the Louisiana legislature aimed at derailing the St. George incorporation had its day in the┬áHouse Municipal, Parochial and Cultural Affairs Committee. HB 768 by Rep. Ed Price (D-Gonzales) would do two things – change the way incorporation petitions are filed with the Secretary of State, and impose a 180-day deadline to complete a petition to incorporate a city.

Price’s bill sailed through House Municipal, which contains 11 Democrats, five Republicans and one independent, without objection. There was very little discussion of the bill in committee, and Price guaranteed in his presentation of the bill that it has nothing to do with St. George because he said it solely applies to future petitions.

What was interesting about the committee hearing on HB 768, though, was that one of the people putting in a “green” card, meaning going on the record in support of the bill, was Dawn Starns – the state director for the National Federation of Independent Business.

Starns, we’re told, took the position that limiting incorporation petitions to six months’ duration would limit the uncertainty small businesses would face with governmental changes looming on the horizon that might affect tax rates and so forth.

It’s difficult to justify that rationale as the basis for NFIB getting involved in a controversial bill which doesn’t involve core issues like taxes, regulation, unions and wages – the things NFIB actually lobbies at the legislature.

And it was noteworthy – and as it happens significant – because of all the trade organizations participating in the legislative process at the Louisiana capitol, few have as good a reputation for being focused on their core values and being straightforward about their agenda as NFIB does. That’s a member-driven organization which fights like a lion for the interests of small business people, and stays out of issues which don’t directly affect the membership.

That’s what has made NFIB one of the most effective lobby groups in the state.

Starns’ green card doesn’t exactly explode that reputation, as the bill would have come out of that committee anyway, but it has done some damage. The St. George organizers are livid about it, and they’re using words like “betrayal” and “conspiracy” to describe an organization which represents, in spirit if not in actual membership, a huge chunk of the people who live in their area and operate businesses in it and yet is seen in opposition to their aim.

From a St. George perspective, everything about the opposition to their petition has been underhanded and indicative of “good old boy” tactics. That includes Price’s bill, which he says doesn’t affect St. George but given the complete absence of a provision in it specifically stating that it wouldn’t apply to current petitions they don’t believe him.

They see a bill which would change the requirements for filing a petition to incorporate a new city with the Secretary of State and imposing a six-month deadline on fulfilling the petition requirements, and they believe as soon as that bill became law Kip Holden, John Delgado, Together Baton Rouge and the rest of the crowd will blaze a trail into the 19th Judicial District Court with a lawsuit seeking to apply it to the St. George petition. And they think the chances are superb that they’ll draw a super-sympathetic judge who will ignore the expressed legislative intent from the House Municipal Committee and find the new law applies to St. George. How much faith would you have, if you were a St. George organizer or supporter, that a Janice Clark would care what Rep. Price said in committee about the bill when the language of it doesn’t back up his statement?

And they’re concerned that a Holden-friendly ruling from a Janice Clark or a Wilson Fields would invalidate all of the signatures they’ve put on paper so far and then give them six months to reacquire them, too late to put the St. George incorporation on the November ballot.

They believe these things, and they are absolutely reasonable in believing them – because Delgado has already threatened to sue under any theory he can in order to stop St. George.

If nothing else, the passage of this bill would likely make for higher legal costs associated with the St. George incorporation.

NFIB involving itself in that bill is, from a political standpoint, a classic “own goal.” Stepping into a political firestorm that has no direct connection with a small business agenda is just plain dumb.

And here’s what’s interesting – after talking with a member of NFIB Louisiana’s board over the weekend, they know it. They knew it even before the reaction began to hit after Thursday’s action. They didn’t want any part of this bill, and they definitely didn’t want to be on the record one way or the other where it was concerned.

Problem is, they didn’t have a proper bill review before the session, and the list of bills for their Legislative Committee to review didn’t even go out to their members until two Fridays ago – just a few days before Starns put the green card in for HB 768. There was no direction from the membership to Starns on that bill.

That’s highly irregular, and it’s not how lobbying works. You might get the impression if you read political novels or not-so-well-informed media coverage of the profession that lobbyists run around legislatures with bags of money and entitled impunity to control everyone’s life, but that’s fantasy – if you’re the lobbyist for a trade group, let’s say, what you actually do is a lot more like real work. You get together with your membership, usually in the form of a Legislative or Governmental Affairs Committee, and you spend hours with them reviewing bills the majority of the members couldn’t care less about. And when you go to the legislature to try to affect the outcome of votes, you’re doing so armed with marching orders from your members on that committee who have made it clear at that bill review what legislation you’re going to push and what you’re going to try to kill.

Starns only took over at her job in February, so perhaps this can be chalked up to inexperience. But it’s an object lesson in how much damage can be done – and how quickly – when the legislative advocacy process breaks down and people don’t follow established procedures on how things are done.

Because of that green card, NFIB’s stellar reputation is taking a beating from people who are not only fans of the organization but generally depend on it. And because of that green card, NFIB’s board has work to do in making sure they’re being represented by a lobbyist who actually furthers their cause rather than muddles it.

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