Keys to Grassroots Policy Success: Wide Net, Narrow Focus

A roomful of citizens gathers at the Caperton Center in Clarksburg to discuss policy priorities.

If you spend any time at the West Virginia state capitol during the annual 60-day legislative session, you’ll notice many voices clamoring for the attention of our state’s part-time lawmakers.  All citizens are welcome to approach legislators with ideas and requests, but average citizens generally don’t have the time or the know-how to impact state policy decisions.  One grassroots initiative has been working to change that. 

In Lewisburg, Clarksburg, Hurricane and Martinsburg, citizens are meeting this month to celebrate policy success, learn how to advocate for the issues they care about and craft initiatives to champion in the upcoming legislative session.

The Our Children Our Future Regional Policy Workshops, co-sponsored by the West Virginia Center on Budget & Policy, the West Virginia Healthy Kids and Families Coalition and the West Virginia Community Development Hub, are an effort to build momentum and consensus for this year’s legislative agenda.

The initiative casts a wide net to solicit ideas, narrows the focus to a manageable list of priorities and then works collaboratively to engage state government officials.

Chris Kimes is Political Director for the West Virginia Healthy Kids and Families Coalition. He says these workshops provide an avenue for people from around the state to learn about the issues, get energized and to believe they can participate in the process.

“As an active community member I can come, learn the skills that I need to begin working on policies and actually learn about specific policies that groups are thinking about advancing in the next session.” 

And they have experienced success. This past year alone, seven of the group’s top ten priorities became law or were implemented into public policy.

  • Funding was restored to Family Resource Networks and other programs that help children and families.
  • The minimum wage was increased.
  • The state board of education approved a policy to increase daily physical activity in public schools.
  • A pilot for a parent mentor program was launched.
  • Cities and counties will now have a new tool to combat the problem of abandoned properties.
  • New protections for pregnant workers were put in place.
  • And the West Virginia Future Fund was established to set aside a portion of natural gas severance taxes to create an endowment fund.

Senate President Jeff Kessler says his hat’s off to this group, whose grassroots groundwork can be a real help to lawmakers as they try to stay in touch with the needs of their communities.
“I represent 110,000 people in my district. I can’t shake all their hands and ask them all face to face, but when you get having a series of forums throughout the entire state where people that do have issues can come forward, present them, collect them, and put them in some type of rational agenda that we can now understand why they’re important,” says Kessler. “Sure it helps to pass policy and pass legislation that does have a direct and immediate impact on improving the lives of our people in our communities, so yeah, this is the way to get it done.”

House Speaker Tim Miley agrees that it’s an effective approach to advocating for public policy issues.

"So they have learned to come together as a large group with various interests, but a common theme to strengthen our communities. And by doing so they have created a very loud voice in Charleston for the legislators to hear and listen to and recognize by way of their agenda items. So it is very effective." – House Speaker Tim Miley

Not all of the group’s initiatives made it through the process. But Kimes says, even in defeat, there are lessons to be learned. That’s the case with last year’s effort to pass a prescription pseudophedrine bill and that group of citizens will try again.

“We literally were outspent there,” notes Kimes. “Big Pharma came in and made their voice known, but an interesting thing about that, is just last week at Lewisburg that team is back again. And they’ve learned from those lessons and they’re gearing up and they’re broadening the base and getting more people involved in the discussion and I think they may have a better try at it in this next legislative session.” 

Two workshops remain – Thursday, July 24, 2014 in Hurricane and Tuesday, July 29, 2014 in Martinsburg. Organizers say walkups are welcome.

On September 9-10, 2014, groups from across the state will gather in Charleston for a Policy Symposium and in November, this year’s legislative agenda will be set.