From Hobbyists To Lobbyists

The industry is increasingly looking to operatives to advance its agenda at state houses and on Capitol Hill.

Top-Level Takeaways

  • Some credit unions hire lobbyists to supplement the work of leagues and trade groups.
  • Lobby effort includes a focus on specific issues as well as raising awareness of credit unions.

The credit union movement has long relied on its trade associations and leagues to handle the heavy lifting when it comes to lobbying Congress and state legislatures, but it’s not unusual for larger cooperatives to hire their own, too.

That can take the form of in-house staff or outside help or both, and the topics they tackle run the gamut of the credit union enterprise, from the tax exemption to cybersecurity, interchange fees to raising awareness of the movement itself.

The nation’s largest in-state credit union ? and fourth-largest overall ? takes what it calls a multi-faceted approach to government relations. BECU ($17.2B, Tukwila, WA) has an internal government relations team, as well as a contract lobbyist at the Washington State Legislature and a DC lobbyist for customized advocacy targeting the state’s congressional delegation and key policymakers in the nation’s capital. ContentMiddleAd

Through a robust program that promotes real-time communication both internally and externally, government relations efforts at BECU continue to grow along with our membership, says Alison Phelan, government relations director at the credit union. This is a key component of ensuring that BECU can continue to deliver high-quality financial products and services at the speed and with the functionality required in today’s evolving financial marketplace.

Phelan says BECU’s current priorities include financial literacy partnerships with local communities and educators, tax exemption protection at both the state and federal level, and general regulatory reform at the federal level, including expanded authority to use alternative sources of capital.

The government relations and engagement chief at Visions FCU shares how teamwork makes the dream work at the New York-Pennsylvania-New Jersey credit union in Lobbying And Advocacy At A Northeastern Credit Union.

Subject Matter Experts

The credit union also encourages advocacy among its employees who are involved in groups such as the Mortgage Brokers Association and the National Association of Appraisers. Those are the kinds of staffers who also serve as the people in the know for advocating on specific issues.

That’s also a clear objective for whoever becomes the next government relations manager at Pennsylvania State Employees Credit Union ($5.0B, Harrisburg, PA).

Barb Bowker, VP Marketing & Membership Development, PSECU

At the state level, we’ve worked to strongly position PSECU as a subject matter expert for government and legislators, says Barb Bowker, the credit union’s vice president of marketing and membership development.

According to Bowker, PSECU has for years had someone in this role, which extends beyond pure lobbying to include developing and maintaining productive relationships and communications with Pennsylvania’s business communities, such as trade organizations and chambers of commerce.

The position has been open since the incumbent left for an administration job in Washington, DC. Whoever fills the role will serve as an integral member of the PSECU membership development team, Bowker says.

Keeping PACE

Whoever gets that PSECU job will have to bring and build connections, because politics is a relationship business. So are credit unions, which is why a group of southern California credit unions joined forces to hire a political advocacy team.

Six of the 18 credit unions in San Diego have created the San Diego Credit Union Federal PAC and hired a local firm to execute on the political action committee’s strategy.

Todd Lane, President/CEO, California Coast Credit Union

The advocacy team has the connections and experience to target up-and-coming lawmakers and local officials, such as mayors, who can help credit unions achieve what needs done in town, in Sacramento, and beyond, says Todd Lane, president/CEO of California Coast Credit Union ($2.3B, San Diego, CA).

According to Lane, one legislative success is already in the books. The San Diego PAC helped advocate for regulatory improvements to the Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) marketplace.

The bill is now on Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk and provides the first regulatory oversight and new underwriting standards for PACE lenders, which provide clean energy loans that are paid through the borrowers’ property taxes.

PACE loans carry high interest rates and penalties, and they have a super-lien position over mortgage loans.

We don’t make PACE loans, no credit union does, but we make solar loans all day long through the normal lending process, Lane says.

7 Tips To Touch-Up Lobby Efforts

PSECU positions itself as a subject matter expert for government and legislators in Pennsylvania. Here, Barb Bowker, the credit union’s vice president of marketing and membership development, offers tips on how other credit unions can do the same.

  • Periodically assess the need for a government relations professional.
  • Look for a lobbyist with good, relevant experience.
  • Consider outside government relations/lobbying firms to assist with needs.
  • Aim to have an active presence in government.
  • Tell the credit union’s story. Let people know what the credit union stands for and why it’s participating in government.
  • Establish strong relationships with legislators.
  • Where possible, develop and/or participate in grassroots efforts.

The San Diego Credit Union PAC joined with the California Credit Union League and others to help make PACE more favorable to consumers, including credit union members.

A Team Effort

Hiring outside help is an efficient way to add heft to the advocacy effort that even billion-dollar shops can’t easily do on their own.

None of us have hired our own lobbyists, specifically, although we do have specialists within our credit unions who have that within the scope of their responsibilities, Lane says of the San Diego Credit Union PAC.

With Callahan online seminars, 30 minutes is all you need to learn from the tried-and-true practices of industry peers. Check out Callahan’s upcoming webinars.

Their work also adds to what the industry already has going.

In addition to our individual initiatives, Phelan says, BECU is a member of both state and federal trade associations that advocate on behalf of all credit unions, create partnerships within the credit union community, and promote the overall credit union movement.

That resonates with Mike Wishnow, senior vice president of marketing and communications with the Pennsylvania Credit Union Association.

We don’t see them as competition at all, he says of the PCUA members who do their own lobbying. It supplements the work we do. The more messaging that gets out there, the better.

November 2, 2017

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