Arizona lobbyists discuss the difficulties of remote policymaking
When asked how the remote nature of Arizona’s legislative session affected policymaking this year, Jessie Armendt, partner at Compass Strategies, was blunt:
“I don’t want to sugarcoat it. It’s been awful.”
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Armendt’s comments were part of a discussion between four “capitol insiders” at the 2021 Arizona State of Reform Health Policy Conference on Tuesday. Stuart Goodman, partner at Goodman Schwartz, Greg Ensell, vice president of government relations at the Arizona Hospital and Healthcare Association (AzHHA), and Marie Isaacson, principal at Isaacson Law Firm, also spoke on the panel.
The panelists’ conversation revolved heavily around the challenges of lobbying remotely — particularly during such a unique session. Armendt said the Senate’s audit of the Maricopa County election results divided the Legislature more than usual.
The lack of in-person conversations at the capitol made influencing policy in this hyper-partisan environment quite difficult, she said.
“We had weeks and weeks where there was no in-person testimony in any of the committee hearings. And still [up to] this point, many legislators are only meeting via Zoom and not doing any in-person meeting, which is great for ensuring that everyone stays healthy, but it really damages kind of the flow of information, those conversations that occur in the hallway, waiting around in the lobby, as folks do…”
She added that the remote session has made it easier for lawmakers “less inclined” to meet with stakeholders to refuse to do so:
“It enables them to avoid those engagements and just not schedule meetings. And there’s no ambushing folks as they come out of committee right now…”
Isaacson echoed Armendt:
“I feel like now we’re all experts on Zoom, but how many times have you heard, ‘Sorry, you’re muted’… when you’re testifying at the Legislature? So I think that was a big learning curve and distraction.”
Isaacson also said since people sometimes multitask on Zoom calls, it’s difficult to hold everyone’s attention as effectively as during in-person testimony.
“I myself have been guilty of multi-tasking when [I’m] on a Zoom meeting, so I don’t know that you really catch the attention of everyone and really are able to make the same points you are when you’re in person.”
Consequently, lobbyists have become increasingly reliant on technology as a tool for advocacy, as Isaacson explained:
“It placed a premium on emails, getting constituents to contact their legislators, and of course the Zoom meetings.”
Ensell stressed how critical the ability to text legislators and stakeholders has been.
“So many of us, during a regular legislative session, depend on our rolodex of cell phone numbers for texting, and I’m guessing everyone experienced what I’ve experienced — that the ability to fire off a text and get a response has been so critical.”
It was also difficult for lobbyists to keep track of vote counts for their bills. Isaacson said testimonies over Zoom were cut off after a certain time, and testifiers were disconnected before committee members held their final vote.
Armendt explained some of the difficulties she has encountered with this.
“I think vote counting has been much harder this legislative session…Because, you know, you have those members who don’t want to tell you ‘no,’ so they just kind of go dark if they’re not giving you the answer that you want. So you can fire off all of these text messages and try to count votes, and interpret the silence you get as you will.”
Ensell said having to testify remotely has placed increased responsibility on the stakeholders:
“The requirement to register to request to speak at least 24 hours in advance has really put the onus on the stakeholders to be coordinated about who’s going to say what long before the committee meeting is held.”
The panelists agreed that they’re looking forward to lobbying in person next year, without COVID-era communication constraints.