Members of state legislatures are very busy people as the lawmaking session moves into high gear. Even aviation's most devoted advocates in state legislatures can have their hands so full voting on bills of all description that it can be hard to get their full attention when aviation needs it most.
Fortunately, the adjournment gavel finally falls and the legislative "off season" provides less pressured opportunities for AOPA's state government affairs team to make aviation’s case with policymakers, always looking to the future.
Those opportunities include informational gatherings such as legislative conferences held by both political parties—events that make it possible to introduce general aviation’s economic and community advantages to new lawmakers, and hold focused, individual conversations with aviation’s tried-and-true supporters.
"There are few other venues where 400-plus state legislators from across the nation convene in one place," said Jared Esselman, AOPA director of state government affairs. "Being able to attend an event and talk about general aviation one on one with legislators from multiple states is invaluable to the work AOPA does as an industry advocate."
AOPA had such an opportunity recently when Esselman and Sean Collins, AOPA Eastern regional manager, attended the Republican Legislative Campaign Committee’s annual meeting in Boston July 29 through 31. The association also attends national Democratic legislative conferences.
The importance of meeting with lawmakers when they have the time to focus on the nuances and complexities of aviation policy cannot be overemphasized, Collins said.
"Often when we try to speak with legislators at their state offices during legislative sessions, our pro-aviation sentiments can be diminished by the constant bombardment of other constituent issues," he said. "Attending events like these in the legislative 'off season' allows us to cement new relationships with legislators who can impact state aviation policy and state aviation funding levels. Building up aviation funding—and protecting it from diversion to other uses—was an important focus of out 2015 state legislative advocacy efforts."
Some of the meetings with lawmakers are introductory or to present general aviation’s interests to a new listener, but AOPA's advocacy team always attends gatherings of legislators with specific issues to address as well. The team met with state legislative leadership members from Wisconsin and Iowa to Hawaii as they planned for 2016’s round of lawmaking sessions.
In one such meeting, Esselman expressed AOPA’s concerns about the removal of $15 million from aviation accounts in Arizona with that state’s House Speaker, Rep. David M. Gowan Sr. (R-District 14). Esselman took up the matter of pilots serving on airport authorities in Florida with state Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto (R-District 30). Meeting with Kathy Szeliga, Republican whip in the Maryland House of Delegates, Esselman discussed a number of issues in preparation for the 2016 session with the lawmaker from District 7 in Baltimore and Harford counties.
Other meetings were held with House and Senate members from North Carolina, Texas, and Vermont.
Not all the discussions concern pending legislation. Often it is important to analyze a state’s general political climate to determine what may be accomplished in a certain policy area, "rather than try to swallow the whole pie," Esselman said. For example, if passing an aviation-friendly tax exemption doesn’t seem possible in a state, what alternative might fly? Finding out is crucial to the proper management of the association’s advocacy resources, Esselman said.
Collins added that an important takeaway for him from the conferences held by the red and blue legislative coalitions is that aviation fares better once personal connections have been forged. That’s what he means when he explains in his meetings with AOPA members that state advocacy is "a contact sport."
"It’s hard to get legislation passed if you are not acquainted with those who control the agenda," he said. "You can’t call on them out of the blue. You need that face time."