William Felkner: Not All the Answers, Just a Few Things That Worked

According to Rasmussen, when given a choice between a government that provides fewer services and sets lower taxes and one that demands higher taxes but offers more services, Americans choose smaller government by a 59% to 28% margin. So, if these views are in the majority, why is it that our elected representatives do the opposite?
Maybe the answer lies in how we communicate with them.
Recently, I had the opportunity to spend a few days in a large meeting room with individuals from other state think tanks, advocacy organizations, state parties, and the different branches of our government. As the nation slips into an economic abyss, or becomes more RI-like, people there were asking the same question we do here at home: “How do taxpayers communicate their wants with policy makers more effectively?”
Like most meetings, it was 90% complaining and campaigning, but I did find a few examples around the country that showed success.
The first order of business is to establish an infrastructure of advocacy. I used to call it the Poverty Institute–One RI–Working RI model. Then I found the good people at the Sam Adams Alliance working on a similar program, but on steroids, called the Six Capacities. This model suggests having the following tasks performed:

  • New Media Capacity — Blogs and other online venues can refute and direct the 6:00 news (think Drudge Report and Monica Lewinsky).
  • Political capacity — Taxpayer groups are the political muscle to rally, lobby, and influence policy makers at all levels.
  • Legal capacity — He who wins the case, influences policy. We have long been losing in this category.
  • Intellectual capacity — Create empirical evidence that is timely and made for general consumption.
  • Investigative capacity — Lets face it, newspapers and TV don’t have the resources or, sometimes, the will. We can perform this function and let them report it.
  • Leadership training capacity — Like anything else, a political party needs to develop the majority of its team through a farm system.

In a perfect world, our side would be funded in parity with union dues and tax (or litigation) funded advocacy, but it’s not. That being said, we do have each of these functions covered, at least in part. Once the infrastructure is in place, we need tactics and strategies. I heard a ton of these over the week, but two struck me as consistently successful.
I heard from more than one state that voters want assurances of candidates’ intent on issues they cared about, which is provided by a simple and straightforward process. First, review the Democrat and Republican Party platforms for those items in which they are diametrically opposed. Second, review the poll numbers on each of those issues and find the ones with the most voter support. Third, have each candidate sign a “Pledge to the Taxpayer” that those issues will be supported.
Each and every area that implemented this system had success.
The next idea having the most success provides a more direct path to changing the law, especially relevant to states like Rhode Island that do not have voter initiative. This strategy has been mentioned on this blog before: initiate change via referenda at the municipal level.
The General Assembly does have authority over municipal decisions on some issues (education and costal development come to mind), but that doesn’t mean they have to intervene or that they would if the will of the people were squarely opposed. Besides, there are lots of things the General Assembly might not be able to stop (such as tax caps). So rather than fighting the special interest groups at the State House, champion reform in your own back yard.
For relatively little money, a grassroots effort at the municipal level can be a very effective strategy. One example given involved referenda at three different towns. The local teachers’ union spent money at a ratio of 30:1 more than our side, but they only defeated two out of the three.
If we are correct that our views on issues like school choice, tax caps, and transparent governance are universally supported then local referenda can be our voice.
Those are the basics of what I learned on my field trip. Specific issues relevant to specific areas will require unique tactics, but it’s the job of the six capacities to figure them out. It may sound as if it is out of reach in far-gone Rhode Island, but Justin showed in a piece on the statewide battlefield, we already have most of the infrastructure, and many of you are already doing your bit (this blog front and center). We just need a little more collaboration and a little (lot) more funding.
Bill Felkner, executive director of Ocean State Policy Research Institute writes this letter as an angry taxpayer and not in a professional capacity.

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Tom W
Tom W
13 years ago

Well said!
Just a little hard to read for I’m getting dizzy as Rhode Island’s circling in the bowl is getting faster and faster … and nauseous as I realize the adding more people to the food stamp rolls and shopping in Rhode Island isn’t going to slow it down!

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