A Guide for Child Support Professionals | Why Should You Care About the State Legislature?

April 2018

State legislators form opinions and vote on legislation that affect child support every year, including establishing, modifying and enforcing child support orders. Even during times when other policy issues take precedence, lawmakers continue to take actions on a range of issues related to child support.

Because of the variety and complexity of the policy issues before them, state leg­islators often rely on their staff, researchers, experts in the field, lobbyists, practi­tioners and community members to gather information and develop policies that address a need or respond to an opportunity (such as new federal funds). Legis­lators have access to research through legislative staff or research organizations such as the National Conference of State Legislatures; however, they also rely on experts in the field—people like you—for information and first-hand perspectives about the effects of laws and public funding of child support programs.

This guide is designed to:

Understanding Legislatures and the Legislative Process

State legislatures vary from state to state, with differences in the number of legislative members and staff, time spent in session, legislative procedures, political make-up and so on. Despite these differences, how­ever, the general legislative process is similar across states. This section summarizes the basics of the leg­islative process, including how bills become laws and the people involved in the legislative process. It is important to know how the process works to communicate effectively with its participants.

Legislative Process

The legislative process—in theory—follows a predictable, rational path that goes something like this:

  1. A legislator introduces a bill;
  2. The bill is assigned to a committee;
  3. The committee holds public hearings;
  4. The committee acts on the bill (e.g., amends it, sends it to the full House or Senate for debate, or kills it);
  5. Legislators debate the bill’s merits, may amend it, and vote it up or down;
  6. If it is approved, the bill then goes to the other chamber, where the process is repeated;
  7. If the bill is amended during consideration by the second chamber, such changes must be approved by the first chamber, and it may go to a conference committee to resolve differences between the two chambers;
  8. Once enacted by the legislature, the governor may sign it, veto it, or in some states, let it become law without explicit approval through signature;
  9. If the governor vetoes the bill, the legislature may sustain or override the governor’s veto.

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In addition to an understanding of the legislative process, it is important for stakeholders to engage in the budget process. The budget process may fund child support or related programs, and the budget can directly affect child support policy.

While these are the steps in every state (except Nebraska, which only has one chamber), the human factor is a significant part of the legislative process. “Missing from the preceding list of steps in the legislative game is the human equation,” Tommy Neal wrote in NCSL’s 2005 book, “Learning the Game: How the Legislative Process Works.” “State legislators come from all walks of life and bring with them a smorgasbord of priorities, agendas, alliances, personalities and biases.”

Members and Staff

Many professionals support and interact with legislators, and each has a specific role in the legislature.

Time Spent in Session

States vary in how long legislators are in session, from nearly year-round legislatures like California, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, to sessions that last less than two months in Florida, Louisiana, Utah and Wyoming. Still others only meet every other year (Montana, Nevada, North Dakota and Texas). Knowing when your state legislature is in session is critical. See NCSL’s State Legislative Session Calendar for more information.

Rules of the Game

Every state has formal rules that affect the process, including requirements about how many bills a legislator can introduce in a session, the deadline for introducing bills, and the process for assigning bills to a commit­tee. Understanding the rules that govern the process in your state is critical since they determine the timing and flow of bills through the legislative process, and shed light on pressure legislators may face to prioritize issues.

If you want to provide input on a specific bill before a specific committee (the appropriate committee for child support issues various across the country), you need to know when committee hearings take place and the rules for presenting testimony. While the process may seem cumbersome, the rules were designed to protect against a rush to judgment and ensure policies are reviewed by many people before going into effect.

The Importance of Elections and Partisan Composition

For child support professionals looking to communicate with legislators, do not underestimate the role of elections and political makeup within each state and across the nation. In 2016, 5,917 of 7,383 state leg­islative seats nationwide were up for election. In the same election, just 12 states chose governors. About 1,263 of the elected legislators were new to the legislature after the 2016 elections. On average, 20 percent of legislators are new each election cycle, which can pose a challenge for them to learn about wide-ranging policy issues, budgets and the legislative process in short order.

See the political makeup of the country between 2010 and 2018 below. These maps can change over­whelmingly in just one election. Understanding this context can be critical to effective communication with state legislators.

The day after this or any election, people in the state legislature face new colleagues, shifts in the balance of power and executive priorities. Strategies for communicating may need to change to fit new human or political realities. Furthermore, any work you did to educate legislative leaders, committee chairs or your own representative last year will need to be updated and repeated.

How to Communicate Effectively with Legislators

Those who want to contribute information to the legislative process should understand the constraints that affect how legislators respond to public policy issues or proposals. Although there are many constraints, the good news is that most legislators see themselves as students. Child support is often only a blip on the political radar, but you can be the “blip” enlarger! Challenges include the following:

Four Strategies for Effective Communication

1. Establish Contact and/or a Relationship with Key Legislators and Staff

Identify the committees of jurisdiction and the legislators on these committees who have the greatest influence concerning child support issues. This may be the committee chair, interested committee mem­bers, or perhaps even your own representative. Contact key legislators, meet with them, and identify yourself as a knowledgeable and dependable resource. In short, establish yourself as the “go-to” person on child support issues.

In some states, the best way to reach legislators may be by building a relationship with key people on their staff. Follow up by contacting them periodically as a reminder that you are interested in being a resource. A good time to contact them, for example, might be on the heels of newly released data; you can help them interpret the data and discuss ways the legislature might address issues the data highlights.

If your professional capacity restricts you from such activities, consider making similar contact with your own organization’s government relations staff or other influential people who are allowed to contact leg­islators, or connecting with a community-based advocacy group to offer your expertise and assistance.

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2. Network with Others

As the adage goes, it’s not always what you know, but who you know that counts. Getting information into the hands of legislators may be more about the relationships you have—with the media, state agencies, foundations and other stakeholders—than your direct relationship with a legislator. Informing a network of individuals can efficiently and effectively raise awareness about a wide range of child support issues.

Furthermore, child support issues cross many jurisdictions and interest areas, among them human ser­vices, workforce development, public assistance and criminal justice. The broader your coalition, the more support a lawmaker can expect among his or her colleagues.

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3. Raise Awarness through Information and Resources

Why is education so fundamental? Because even experienced legislators need access to current data and objective analysis on rapidly changing issues. Child support professionals can play a role in raising awareness about issues affecting children and their custodial and noncustodial parents. When they’re not at work in the state capitol, legislators interact with the community in various ways and often orga­nize multiple venues for a “give and take” with their constituents—at town hall meetings, online blogs and conversations, and other means.

Another method to educate policymakers is to raise important issues with the people and organizations that legislators rely on for information, including legislative staff, researchers, the media, foundations and charitable organizations, state agencies, membership organizations and others.

For state employees, this might mean ensuring that your government relations person knows your priorities and has your most recent data to share with legislators. Although this may seem one step removed, it may be an effective strategy, particularly if the information is coming from a trusted source for the legislator.

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4. Frame You Message

At any given time, one or a small group of predominant issues or controlling ideas may be before the state legislature. For many years, states have been dealing with tight budgets; therefore, focusing on effective and efficient strategies is often the filter through which legislators evaluate all proposals and funding re­quests. As a result, it is important to frame the message by addressing several key points.

Consider the language or image you use to increase the odds that people will pay attention to your mes­sage. People bring their own experiences and frames of reference to bear, and the words or images you use can determine whether your audience will be open to the message or turn away from it. Creating receptive listeners requires that you pay attention to how you frame an issue so people feel that it ben­efits everyone. Ideally, messages should all align with “big ideas” or shared beliefs, such as responsibility, prevention or success. Many people have negative perceptions about fathers and child support, often characterizing fathers who don’t pay child support as “deadbeat dads.” Use your expertise as someone who works with fathers to make the distinction between deadbeat dads and dead-broke dads.

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