Nayantara Mehta

How an Idea Becomes a Bill: The Art of Persuasion

Nayantara is a senior counsel for AFJ and is participating this year in the Women’s Policy Institute fellows program. She is writing periodically about her experience.

As part of a team working to repeal a policy that discriminates against low-income women and families in California, I’m happy to share that our great bill has crossed its first hurdle. AB 271, which repeals the “family cap” the government places on families receiving federal aid that limits the number of children they can have, passed out of the Assembly Human Services Committee on a vote of 5-1.

This first win is thanks in large part to powerful testimony and championship of the issue by the bill’s dynamic author, Assemblymember Holly Mitchell. The Assembly Appropriations Committee, which determines the financial impact of legislation, essentially put the bill on hold until later in May. Then we’ll find out if AB 271 survives to be voted on by the entire Assembly, and go on to the state Senate, and finally to Governor Brown for his signature.

As much as we’d like to take a little break after the two practically back-to-back committee hearings in April, we have to keep working actively to ensure the bill makes it through the Appropriations Committee.

We need to convince key lawmakers to support the bill, and remind them that the cost of the status quo is much higher than that cost of passing AB 271.

Refining our message

We can’t assume that people we are speaking with know or care about the issue as much as we do. We must hone our message and talk about our bill in a way that grabs others, just like it grabbed us when we first started working on the issue.

This is where the art of persuasion comes in. To help us with that, the Women’s Policy Institute brought in Full Court Press Communications to give us a day-long training on messaging. The wonderful Dan Cohen and Edit Ruano of Full Court Press challenged us to anticipate the arguments against our bill and generate responses.

Dan led us through one of the more useful exercises for advocates: Identify the question you are most afraid of being asked, and think about how to answer it in a way that is honest but not apologetic.

We want to convince the people we are speaking with of the rightness of our views, or at the least, neutralize opposing views.

Practice matters

We all prefer to avoid even thinking about uncomfortable questions, but without planning for them we are likely to come across as disorganized and unprepared. One of the questions we are expecting relates to the fiscal impact of the bill. Given that California is just climbing out of a deep budget crisis, we expect to be asked: Why should the state spend the additional money that the repeal of the family cap rule would require if AB 271 passed?

Our immediate and straightforward answer is twofold: It saves the state money in the long run, and it’s the right thing to do. Although the response sounds simple, we did have to practice our delivery and talking points.

So we talked about the data on poverty and its effects on children’s physical and mental health and education. We talked about the fact that the policy simply doesn’t work—women have children for any number of reasons, but we are confident that collecting about $100 a month from the state is not one of them.

We talked about the unfairness of keeping a failed policy in place when its only known impact is to hurt children and place their families more firmly in poverty. Those are a lot of ideas, and part of preparing for meetings is prioritizing these ideas, and presenting them in a succinct, clear, and honest way.

Next: Preparing to meet with legislators

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