Community Alliance plots summit to sway lawmakers

Florida's historic and new capitols. Courtesy State of Florida

“Scared and ticked off” about constant threats of cuts to their state funding, a coalition of Sarasota County health and human services nonprofits are planning an aggressive new campaign to let Florida lawmakers know exactly why their work is so valuable.

The first legislative summit of the Community Alliance of Sarasota County won’t actually be held till Oct. 16, but seven representatives of the Alliance’s legislative advocacy committee met at the county Health Department May 16 to begin finalizing details of the event. The decade-old Alliance’s mission is to foster collaboration among the area’s many health and human services nonprofits; the summit is one of the committee’s first attempts to bring that integrated message to Florida legislators.

Last year’s legislative session, the first dominated by the wave of Tea Party-friendly lawmakers ushered in by the 2010 elections and overseen by Gov. Rick Scott, sparked “fear” in local community service organizations, according to Kathryn Shea, the president and CEO of The Florida Center for Early Childhood and the chairwoman of the legislative advocacy committee. “We saw huge cuts from the previous year and were hearing horrible things,” she tells the News Leader.

Rather than just get angry, the Alliance members decided to get organized, and convened their first legislative breakfast last year. The idea was to invite the area’s legislative delegation, other elected officials and the public to a breakfast during which community health groups could present information about their good works and make their case for continued funding. The event was a hit. “We thought if we had 40 people it would be a success,” Shea says. Almost 100 turned up.

The Alliance based its strategy on one used by social services organizations in the Treasure Coast area, which were pioneers in uniting to lobby their legislators. Elizabeth Barbella, a representative from that area, traveled to Sarasota last June to deliver a presentation on how those groups were effective at communicating with lawmakers. The Alliance is copying their strategy, which includes the legislative summit in addition to the “Legislative Breakfast of Champions.”

The Treasure Coast advocates “just found it to be so effective in reaching the Legislature and building relationships and really lighting a fire,” Shea says. “And we felt the need to do the same.”

In late August, the Alliance will issue invitations to any local stakeholders, asking them to suggest issues that the Legislature needs to focus on. Alliance members will then vet those proposals before presenting them to different work groups at the Oct. 16 summit. Those sub-groups will debate the issues and offer potential legislative solutions, be they changes to statutes, budgets or agency priorities. From that process, the Alliance hopes, will come concrete suggestions the group can then present to state legislators, who can make them happen during the 2013 spring session.

The May 16 meeting covered the mundane must-dos of any morning meeting (i.e. who’s bringing the coffee?), but the committee’s strategy shows that local agencies are getting serious about making sure those in Tallahassee know why their work is important. And they’re working together, instead of competing for funding. Of course, as Shea notes, “fear is a good motivator.”