Legislators want to hear from you -- even when you disagree

Advocacy

Andrew Seifert, JD, tax consultant, Wipfli LLP | November 2017 Footnote

It has been said that the world is run by those who show up. The same is true for the Legislature.

Legislators are elected to represent a group of individuals who share a common geographical location, possibly the only attribute they may have in common with their neighbors. Yet, each of these people are voters and are entitled to share their opinions.

Sometimes, you may agree with your legislator and, other times, you might wonder if he or she is from the same planet. Either way, your presentation style can be just as or more important than the facts you present. It is important to remember that positive communication is more effective than engaging in argumentative conversation.

Studies have shown nonverbal communication through body language, tone of voice and even inflection account for about 90 percent of communication. The words you speak only account for about 10 percent. Actions often speak louder than words. Don't let your words get lost in nonverbal messages.

No matter what your position is, be firm but not disrespectful. Smile, make eye contact and be open to a constructive conversation. Convincing someone to support your position and change their own can take time. Don't be impatient, defensive or make assumptions about a legislator's position. Don't ruin your chance for change by making a bad first impression.

Understand a legislator's approach

The relationship a legislator has with every person he or she meets is not unlike that of you in your work as a CPA.
As a CPA, you form opinions and make decisions based on your academic training, life experiences and business experiences. You also rely on the experience and expertise of colleagues who have dealt with similar issues and, perhaps, have more knowledge of the best way to solve a problem.

Legislators form opinions and make decisions based on the same criteria you use to make business decisions. Legislators can't possibly know everything about every issue; they rely on experts to provide them with information. As a CPA, you are a trusted business adviser who can guide legislators' decisions by sharing practical knowledge and management best practices that might help a new law work better or avoid unintended results.

Sometimes, it takes time to see change

I'm sure you remember the debate this year on whether Sunday liquor sales should be allowed in Minnesota. Since the change became effective in July, perhaps you have made a trip to your local store before the football game or grabbed a bottle of wine for Sunday dinner; perhaps, you were opposed to the change. Whatever your position, it is important to know this change didn't happen overnight.

For many years, there had been overwhelming public support for the change, yet legislators resisted changing a law that was rooted in the Prohibition Era. Supporters of Sunday liquor sales continued the dialogue despite continued roadblocks and unreceptive legislators. As the conversation changed over time, some legislative opponents retired and were replaced by individuals who were supportive or listened more closely to their constituents.

One constant in the debate was the public's support for change, and legislators realizing the collective power of constituents who presented facts and data to support the cause. Does that sound familiar?

An example of a long-term effort more closely related to CPAs is the recent changes to the Minnesota Department of Revenue (DOR) residency factors. As you know, two 2013 Minnesota Supreme Court cases cited the location of a taxpayer's professional advisers as a determining factor in the DOR's case to prove domicile in Minnesota for income tax purposes.

The fallout from the 2013 court cases created a competitive disadvantage for Minnesota-based advisers with clients in other states. Non-Minnesota-based advisers used the cases as a marketing tool to try and convince people to sever all ties with advisers in Minnesota, or risk having the business relationship used against them in an audit.

The only solution to mitigate the court decisions' effects was to introduce legislation prohibiting the DOR and the courts from using the professional adviser's location as a factor. When the issue was first addressed at the Legislature, there was moderate bipartisan support, but it also faced strong opposition. The opposition was enough to prevent any changes.

Over the next several years, MNCPA efforts continued and each year, more CPAs engaged in the dialogue by sharing their personal story with legislators. Some legislators who were temporary adversaries and initially opposed to the changes either were persuaded by the CPAs' stories, or left office and were replaced by more receptive legislators.

What led to these successful efforts? In part, it was positive, persistent and consistent communication by advocates who supported their positions with data and personal stories. Success also resulted from taking time to understand the opponents' position and respecting it while disagreeing.

The MNCPA advocates on behalf of its members and represents the collective opinions of the profession, but we also rely on you -- the expert -- to share information with policymakers. A personal story and supporting data from a CPA constituent always outdoes non-constituent input.

Tactful, respectful approach matters

Remember, legislators are trying to do the best job possible, and approaching differences in a collaborative, non-adversarial manner will get a better response. They surely do not know everything, and a respectful approach from you may be the seed needed to convince them months (or years) down the road to support an issue that benefits the profession, your business or your client.

Get to know -- or at least introduce yourself to -- a legislator and take the time to better understand their positions. Invite them to your business or firm so they can learn more about issues important to you, but also take a little time to learn their background. Be prepared, be respectful and know it is OK to disagree -- and don't take it personally if they do.

Have questions?

Do you have questions or want to get involved in the legislative process? Contact Geno Fragnito at 952-885-5550 or gfragnito@mncpa.org.