Big Opportunities at the State Level

Much has been made in recent years about the increasing role of state government in the regulation of the telemarketing/teleservices industry. This publication has touched on the issue in years past, but with the increased legislative activity at the state level, it bears a further review.

Every year, more and more legislation is introduced in statehouses nationwide, all supposedly in an effort to curtail the fly-by-night thieves who taint this industry’s image. By now, most of you are aware of state initiatives calling for the registration of telemarketers, the creation of state-run do-not-call lists and additional disclosure requirements.

What has not received much coverage, however, is why the state legislatures have become this hotbed of activity for telemarketers and most of the rest of the business world as well. When and why this shift to state regulation occurred is open to many interpretations, but it is clear that no matter how many underlying explanations there may be, there is one giant engine driving the train in that direction.

That engine is the near-complete shift of the role of government protector from the U.S. Congress to the states. As author and editor Alan Ehrenhalt wrote in an article in Governing magazine, “Over the last decade, without ever quite admitting it, we [the American people] have ceased to rely on Congress, or the federal government for that matter, to deal with our most serious public problems.” These days, when faced with the challenges of our times, the American people no longer look to Congress for solutions; they look much closer to home to the people they know, trust and can talk to.

For example, in 1997, one of the few major accomplishments that the federal government could point to was a rewrite of the nation’s welfare laws. Yet in that action, Congress did not actually write a new welfare law but rather ordered each state legislature to craft its own. The grand edicts that now come from Washington rarely contain step-by-step blueprints of what must be done. They provide broad outlines and mandates of goals and leave it to the states to fill in the particulars. As a result, state legislatures have become very good at studying issues and designing detailed legislative solutions.

The only problem with this model is that the overwhelming majority of state legislatures are still part-time bodies, meeting for only a few months each year. Unlike Congress, which was designed by the Founding Fathers to be a very deliberative and slow-moving branch of government, state legislatures move at a dizzying pace.

Oftentimes, as we have seen with varying results recently, legislation is introduced, studied and passed in a matter of weeks. That, combined with the great number of bills that are introduced and the relatively small number of staff available to state legislators, places most state legislators in dire need of information. Though this short time frame can put a great burden on the telemarketing/teleservices industry, it also presents a unique opportunity. This is where the industry can end the damaging and false rhetoric that haunts its public image.

Unlike our federal legislators, whose daily calendars are full of meetings with well-connected lobbyists and powerful special-interest groups, state legislative lobbying often can be accomplished in a more informal manner. Many a state bill has had its fate decided by a handful of legislators and concerned citizens meeting in the cafeteria in the basement of the capitol. The vast majority of these legislators are genuinely interested in learning the substance of the issues they are voting on. They have very tight schedules, but they will almost always find the time to meet with a constituent or business owner to talk through the effect of proposed legislation.

The story the telemarketing/teleservices industry has to tell is exactly the kind state legislators want to hear: job growth that outpaces the national average by more than 3-to-1; employment opportunities for those who, because of disability or day-care necessities, may not be able to hold down a 9-to-5 job; and an economic boost that may help fill government coffers at the end of the year. These are the issues that drive state legislatures to act, and the telemarketing/teleservices industry is on the right side of all.

Despite this shift, the old ways of Washington are not yet dead. Congress is still discussing issues that affect the industry, and regulators from the Federal Trade Commission and other federal bodies are still on the lookout for the bad apples. However, the days of Washington being the sole problem solver for the nation are over.

Whether thrust upon them from Congress or demanded by citizens, state legislatures have taken the lead in addressing the issues. The more issues they deal with successfully, the more they will be expected to handle.

This devolution of power from Washington will certainly continue throughout the next decade. This shift poses a great opportunity for the telemarketing/teleservices industry to put its story of job growth and economic opportunity on display. The states are willing to listen.

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