By contributor: Caylin Harris
The upcoming election feels enormous and all consuming and while it’s so, so important to vote for the president, it’s equally important to pay attention to local politics. While you can tick the boxes down the ballot according to your party affiliation, it’s still important to know what each candidate stands for or against—your local elections impact your daily life the most. I spoke with Lily Fielding, a Govern for America Fellow working as a budget and policy analyst in state government, to understand more about how to get informed about local elections and policy making.
Why Your Local Elections Matter
Why is it so important to get involved in your state government?
The federal government is the subject of most of the love, hate, attention, Twitter uproars, and media coverage. But your state government makes decisions every single day that impact your life in a huge way. State and local governments work at the level of the people—they’re smaller, so they have the opportunity to listen to their constituents. And be more responsive to people’s wants and needs. If you’ve ever felt like the federal government doesn’t understand you and isn’t fighting for the things you believe in (hello, all of 2020), state government is a place where you can exert a larger influence in areas like criminal justice, education, equitable access to the ballot, reproductive rights, Medicaid expansion, and more.
While the federal government has unique power to exert outsize influence over these critical issues and make broad laws that govern them, as well as to provide grant funding that states rely on, most of the actual decisions happen at the state level. At a time like this when the federal government is abdicating its responsibilities, it’s more important than ever to get involved with your state government—you can make positive change even when it feels like Washington is moving backwards.
What do I have access to as a citizen, what should I look at to understand how money is being spent in my state/ city?
Lucky for us citizens, the government is required by law to be transparent. This means you have access to a TON of information—after all, policymakers work for you—you just need to understand where to look. Think of the budget info you have access to in two separate categories—budget documents and budget hearings. Budget documents include the state agencies’ initial budget submissions, the Governor’s recommended budget, and the final state budget. Local news sources are often the first ones reporting on this. Find one you trust to keep you updated with an overview. If you want to read the actual budget, go on the state websites for both the governor’s recommended budget and the final budget passed by the general assembly. For both of these, it’s a good idea to turn to the executive summary sections, which highlight the most critical changes, inclusions, and exclusions in that budget year.
Budget hearings are a key place to make your voice heard!
Once the general assembly’s finance committees begins holding hearings on the governor’s budget, you will also have full access to those—thanks to open meetings laws, or “sunshine laws,” which exist in most states, meetings of public bodies are required to be open to the public. All general assembly hearings in RI are broadcast live on Capitol TV. So you can watch their commentary and stay up to date on issues that you care about.
Watching the hearings is critical to beginning to piece together how the general assembly might be looking to change the governor’s budget. And they can provide you with good intel to use if you are interested in calling your state representative’s office to advocate for a particular issue. Open hearings are also required to accept public comment. So they’re a venue for you to get more deeply involved if you’d like.
Where can you access info/ budgets/ representative’s info for your state government?
Luckily (now more than ever), you can access most info right on your state government’s website. I’ll start with where to find budgets. In order to read the governor’s recommended budget, you should visit your state budget office or office of management & budget website. In Rhode Island, it’s here. Usually, there’s an executive summary and then more detailed subject matter-specific sections. In order to read the General Assembly’s commentary on the Governor’s recommended budget, you should visit the websites of the House and Senate Finance Committees (in RI, here and here, respectively). You can also read all of the articles of the final budget on the House and Senate websites following budget passage.
And I’ll make another plug for local news here—they’ll usually offer great breakdowns of the key points of the budget that are perfect for busy people who want to learn a little more but don’t want to read all or part of a 400 page document (a choice I 100% respect).
To find info about your representatives, you’ll also want to use your state House and Senate websites.
Your district is represented by both a state senator and a state representative. It’s totally fine if you don’t know what state legislative district you live in—many people don’t! But it’s a great idea to get to know who your state legislators are, as they vote on super consequential legislation and are often easier to get in contact with than, say, your entire state’s senator or your Congressional representative. OpenStates has a great tool to help you find your state legislators. From there, you can get their contact information on your state House and Senate websites.
If you want to take a general look at how your state’s spending compares to other states, the Urban Institute has an awesome tool that compares state spending in several key areas (think: K-12 Education, Public Safety, Social Programs, etc.). This won’t have detailed information about where your state’s dollars are going. But it’s a great starting place to get a feel for what your state’s priorities are!
What can people do to help influence state legislation?
The easiest and most high-impact thing that you can do to help influence state legislation is VOTE. State races, save for the governor’s race, are often overlooked or seen as unimportant. Think about it—when was the last time you visited a campaign event for your state senator or perused their platform on their campaign site before casting your ballot? For most of us, the answer is probably…never. And every state legislator is up for election every two years in RI (and in most states). So there are lots of opportunities to vote.
The number one way to influence state legislation is to research the candidates running for state House and Senate in your district, especially during the primaries—a lot of state legislative seats are safe partisan seats, so the real challenge happens during the primary—and then get out and vote for people whose priorities align with yours and whose platform you believe in.
Once you’ve voted, ADVOCATE.
Contact your state senator or representative’s office or the governor’s office with a call or email if an issue you care about is being discussed—or you’d like to see it being discussed. Another option is submitting a comment on a bill that’s being discussed in committee. During COVID-19, most legislative committees have closed their in-person meetings. But during non-pandemic times, you can actually show up to a committee hearing and offer your opinion right then and there. Now, most committees are giving the public the option to submit written testimony or virtual verbal testimony. If you have something to say about something that’s being voted on, you can actually talk directly to your legislators.
And the last step I’ll mention is staying INFORMED. Your ability to vote and advocate is enhanced by keeping your finger on the pulse of what’s going on in your state—so finding a news source you trust and staying up to date is critical.
Is there someone/a website to visit to know what is being discussed/voted on and when by state?
All of the websites that I linked above—the Office of Management and Budget and House and Senate websites—are great resources, as is the Governor’s Office website. All these links are for Rhode Island, but other states are generally organized in a similar way and should have similar websites. The best place to go to understand what is being heard in a committee or voted on is your state legislative website (Rhode Island’s is here).
The committee agendas and committee hearings calendar pages provide a window into what is being discussed and/or voted on in small, subject-area-specific groups, while the floor calendar page provides an overview of which issues will be discussed and/or voted on by the entire legislative body. Often, committee schedules become available a week or less in advance. So if there’s a particular issue you’re interested in or bill you’d like to testify about, you should get in the habit of checking those websites regularly.
How have you seen citizens change legislation through involvement?
Since George Floyd was killed earlier this year, I’ve been heartened to see police budgets thrust into the spotlight. I think we’re seeing the beginnings of real change happening around the country. One thing I find specifically exciting is the redirecting of funds in a number of places toward crisis response outreach units that are staffed by social workers and other individuals who are qualified to respond to behavioral health crises. A lot of these programs are being modeled on the CAHOOTS program out of Eugene, Oregon, which is a pioneering initiative that aims to change how we respond to non-violent crises in which there’s no need for armed police response when someone is in need of services.
For a long time, we as a society have used the police as a response to every problem in our communities—but now, thanks to calls from citizens to change that, a lot of governments are stepping back to think about what actually requires police response and what does not. I think this is an incredibly exciting development.