Chapter members visiting with legislators in 2018. Front row from l to r: Justin Petcosky, Brian Terrell, Trisha Merkle, Jimmy Fantauzzi, and Stacey Fantauzzi. Back Row l to r: Mike Petcosky and Dan Merkle.

Making a Difference Through Legislation

Upstate New York Chapter and Lobbyist Firm
Form Productive Partnership

As business owners, we frequently hire subject matter experts (SMEs) to assist us in being more proficient in business practices and mitigating risk in the day-to-day operations. We all have accountants, attorneys, engineers, insurance brokers, and financial advisors for retirement plans and keyman policies. How many of us have a legislative expert, a lobbyist? For many of us, we rely on ancillary trade associations, the Chambers of Commerce, and our national associations to navigate the state and federal legislative bodies creating laws we don’t know about until we are in a reactionary position.

Well, that reactionary position is where the Upstate New York (NY) Chapter of the American Fire Sprinkler Association (AFSA) was in June of 2019. The chapter quickly reached out to AFSA National and other associations, then decided we needed to have an SME of our own to understand the legislative process. The lessons we learned have been invaluable and sometimes surprising. We asked our lobbying firm, Ostroff Associates, to participate in the creation of this article. The following is the list of lessons learned from this new relationship: 

How does a business reach out to a legislator? 

Building relationships with legislators takes time and effort. The best way to build relationships is on equal ground before there is a need for action. To do this, the chapter encourages business owners and its members to get involved with local elected officials in a friendly capacity through helpful or informative outreach. Legislators want to know the people in their communities who are providing jobs and opportunities, so informational meetings are a great way to start. These meetings are often done in the district and not the Capitol. As a first step, businesses can reach out to legislators’ offices to set an introductory meeting. Business owners can take this opportunity to develop a relationship with the legislators and inform them of the work you do in your community. 

Another way for businesses to build relationships is to be proactive in their communities with their outreach to legislators. For example, if you are opening a new location or announcing a number of new jobs, inviting legislators to speak at the opening is a good way to get to know them. Justin Petcosky, president of our AFSA chapter, and his team at Petcosky Fire in Vestal, New York, and other members, like Chris Ribando of Approved Fire Prevention from Long Island as well as our team at North East Fire Protection Systems, Inc in Ballston, New York, have long been active in engaging our politicians at a local level. When we first gathered as an AFSA chapter, this was our strength and the common ground that built our chapter.

How does one understand the ebb & flow of a legislative session? what do you do and when? 

One of the most important functions of a lobbyist is having a guide who understands the terrain of the government to help make contact as productive as possible. It’s important to understand the workflow of the legislature in your areas, so you are not disrupting overwhelmingly busy times on a legislator’s schedule. In normal times here in New York, the legislature holds to a fairly predictable schedule—the legislative session begins in early January, the State budget is due April 1, and the session ends in June. There are periods of time when it’s productive to engage with legislators and times when it is unproductive. For example, in the weeks before the budget is due, legislators and staff are completely focused on completing that task, and any engagement on non-budget issues can backfire. As veterans of the process, lobbyists help our clients understand when to engage and when not to in order to produce the most favorable results.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the normal process of the legislature and government has been completely upended. The legislature has been forced to implement new voting procedures, the Capitol has been closed to visitors, and the budget process has been disrupted by deficits. The process has been overtaken by uncertainty, so having a lobbying team in place who works with government constantly is essential to be informed on what is happening and when opportunities and threats could arise.

What does a lobbyist do for an association?

The primary responsibility of a lobbyist is to advocate on behalf of the association’s positions—but we do much more than that. We seek to elevate the awareness and perspective of the association’s industry with people who work in government. That means not only directly lobbying on legislation, but also building a profile and a reputation for the industry so that lawmakers have a positive perspective of the work that you do. To accomplish this, we take the time to learn the association’s issues and do extensive research on the industry to advocate on the association’s behalf effetely.

Keeping clients informed of what is happening in government is critically important, so we track and analyze every bill that is introduced, along with all regulatory activity, to evaluate any impact on the industry. We then work with the association’s leadership to form a strategy to best affect a positive outcome. We help prepare memos in support and opposition, written testimony, talking points, and other communications. Our team also organizes the association’s lobby days and sets meetings for the membership to meet with key lawmakers.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the government has played an outsized role in how businesses are allowed to operate—if they are allowed to operate at all. Keeping businesses informed of the latest regulations, closings, and openings, and new operational rules has been a large part of our work recently. At the height of the pandemic, keeping in close contact with the government was an important way to limit how long the construction industry was shut down. 

Representing a number of industries and clients means we are constantly meeting with legislators and their staff to discuss issues, which means we are able to build strong relationships with decision-makers. We get to know these people both professionally and personally through working together, so we understand how to best approach them. We also work with other lobby firms and their clients on a number of issues, so we are able to make connections for the association to build stronger coalitions. Additionally, we can use our experience to identify parties and lawmakers who may be inclined to oppose our positions. In our work for AFSA, we were able to unite the various fire sprinkler industry interests to negotiate a bill that would satisfy all parties. We were then able to approach legislators as a unified industry to advance our position, which has been effective.

Working Together to Make a Difference

The AFSA Upstate NY Chapter wishes to thank Ostroff Associates for their hard work this past year. They have strengthened our resolve, tempered our passion, and focused us on relationships in the state legislature that provide us with solid footing for future success.

ABOUT THE AUTHORS: Stacey Fantauzzi is vice president, operations at North East Fire Protection Systems, Inc., Ballston, New York. Her experience at North East Fire Protection Systems, Inc. spans from time spent in the fabrication shop, to the field, as an installer, inspector, service technician, and project manager. Fantauzzi is chair of AFSA’s Legislative Committee, a member of AFSA’s Membership Committee, and secretary of the AFSA Upstate NY Chapter.
   Jay Holland is a vice president at Ostroff Associates, Albany,  New York. He has extensive experience guiding lobbying efforts and leading political campaigns

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