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Get in on the Action in Your State Capitol
December 5, 2012
With elections nearly a month behind us, advocates are honing strategies to approach leaders and legislatures, new and old. With so much focus on federal budget and policy, it’s easy to overlook that all but half a dozen state legislatures will be in session by the time President Obama is inaugurated for a second term. At that time, state legislators will already be addressing budgetary issues and health care reform, two factors that will play huge roles in homelessness assistance next year.
A lot of the action on the issue of homelessness will be taking place in state capitals, and advocates can learn more about how to get involved on Tuesday, December 18, at 3 p.m. ET, when the Alliance hosts a live webinar, “Strategies to End Chronic Homelessness: Pursuing Innovative Policies at the State Level.” Field experts will show you and your community partners how to can make the most of new opportunities in your state. You can register for the webinar here.
The political landscape in the states has shifted a bit since the 2012 elections. So advocates in these 50 separate arenas must tailor their approaches in light of the election results in their states. Five new governors will assume office in 2013, but only in North Carolina did the gubernatorial seat change party hands. Party control shifted in just four states (Arkansas, Maine, Minnesota, and New Hampshire), and a handful of state legislatures are nearly evenly split between Democrats and Republicans.
Homelessness advocates are going to have to involve themselves in what’s happening in their state legislatures, and that means keeping track of the activities of leaders, lobbyists and grassroots organizations, and answering questions like, “Is the issue of homelessness on the state agenda? Are the leaders even interested in addressing homelessness? Do we as state advocates have the kind of access to leaders and influence that we need to affect state policies? Every state is different, but here are a few points worth noting, from a national vantage. First the bad news:
- As in the federal arena, programs require funding, so a lot of the big state policy decisions will be made during the budget debate. Unlike the federal government, however, many states are required by their constitutions to balance their annual budgets, which means more pressure to get the bottom line right year to year. Legislators may be tempted to skimp on state funding for housing and assistance in the expectation that federal programs and local coffers will make up the difference.
- Though the economy is improving, states continue to feel the effects of the recession. Many states last year had to contend with shortfalls in state revenues, and they made up for the shortfalls with spending cuts. Again, the openings for advocates to propose and enact new policies – even cost-effective ones – are few and far between.
Now, the good news:
- For people working to end chronic homelessness, the implementation of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) will present real opportunities as it moves to the states. In the next two years, a number of states (hard to know how many) will expand their Medicaid programs to cover many homeless adults who have gone without health insurance, for years or perhaps their entire lives.
- A number of states will choose still other options under the ACA – such as Medicaid health homes – that will add capacity to the systems of care for chronically homeless people.
The Alliance’s policy team has been thinking about new ways to help our advocates affect state policymaking, particularly with regard to identifying and making the most of ACA opportunities. This fall, we reached out with an online survey to learn what issues are most pressing in the coming year when combatting chronic homelessness. Respondents from 32 states answered the call, and identified four relevant policy topics:
- Funding for state mental health programs that offer supportive housing;
- Expansion of Medicaid to cover all adults up to 133 percent of the federal poverty level;
- Policy decisions to increase Medicaid coverage for behavioral health care; and
- Funding for state programs to help people exiting jails and prisons.
We also learned that there is a nearly unanimous need for state-level strategies and tactics for addressing these challenges, with state advocates citing “data” as the primary tool that they lack The Alliance has already begun to respond to these needs, with Alliance tools and materials and by connecting people with outside experts and resources. Now is the time for homeless advocates and their partners to define their role for 2013 in their states. Here are some basic steps to get started:
- Know your key statewide coalitions and make sure they know you.
- Stay current on state legislative affairs – through your state representatives, local news sources and opinion-leaders, and state think tanks. Understand the big picture.
- Prep your champions and spokespersons– are their messages up-to-date and relevant?
- Have an “ask” for your state legislators that will engage them in your most important issues – whether it’s funding for behavioral health, public investment in supportive housing, or reporting of data needed to advance state solutions.
- Build relationships for the long-term. Keep up with your contacts working in state policy settings, and inform them about your issues and your goals
The Alliance's Economic Development Policy Fellow, Edward J. SanFilippo, contributed to this blog post.