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Not Just for the Big Dogs: Legislative Action

Just one of the articles from Pet Care Pro Quarterly, IBPSA’s digital magazine for pet care services professionals. Read all issues online here. The following article was originally published in our Q4 2017 issue.

by Jessica Wolfe

Even a cursory glance at the news this year has revealed more legislative activism than many of us have seen if not in our lifetime, then certainly in many years. From massive crowds flooding the streets in Poland to protest a judiciary bill, to wheelchair-bound healthcare activists in the U.S. camped out in congressional offices, people working to influence the actions of legislators have been on full public display. But these actions to persuade – to lobby – the legislators is certainly nothing new. While we may see it on our computer, phone, and television screens more often now, as long as there have been legislators there has been lobbying behind the scenes. 

Earlier this year, Carmen Rustenbeck, IBPSA’s founder and CEO, had the pleasure of meeting Jessica Wolfe at a Pricing For Profit workshop. Jessica is not only the co-owner of The Sniff Shack, a doggy daycare and boarding facility in Denver, Colorado, she is also a government affairs and public policy consultant for the healthcare industry with almost 15 years of lobbying experience. She has worked for industry leaders including Boston Scientific, for whom she created their first State Government Affairs Program, actively monitoring and lobbying state-based healthcare legislation, regulations, and public policy initiatives across the country. Today, Jessica not only takes excellent care of furry family members, she also serves as a contract lobbyist for a British biotech company. In short, when it comes to legislative persuasion Jessica knows what she’s talking about.

 Jessica and Carmen discussed some of the concerning legislation happening in the United States that directly impacts pet care services providers. But what can the average pet care business owner do when faced with unfavorable legislation? How can any of us have a meaningful impact on our legislators and legislative action? Because IBPSA is not a lobbying group, but does offer legislative support for association members, Carmen asked Jessica if she could share some of her insight.

As the co-owner of a doggy daycare and boarding facility, I have the good fortune of working with pets and pet parents to provide safe, high-quality care while the humans attend to life’s demands. Those of us in the pet care services industry appreciate the challenges that come from an animal client base that speaks a “foreign” language. But how many of us consider the other humans around us who do speak our language, but often in such foreign terms and concepts that we may not appreciate how very much they are a part of our business?

Understanding a foreign language

The federal, state, and local legislators, rule-makers, and agency staff that regulate and enforce the laws governing our industry are these other humans. Understanding what these lawmakers mean when it comes to legislative processes and regulations that may have a huge impact on our livelihoods can take some getting used to. Prior to joining your furry ranks as a doggy daycare and boarding facility owner two years ago, I spent my days lobbying for the healthcare industry in state capitals and Washington, D.C. While our leadership team runs the fun ship at our pet care facility, I still have my day job in the healthcare lobbying trenches. From this unique position, I’ve taken note of the surprising proliferation of pet care facility legislation spreading in state legislatures.

While anything that helps ensure the highest levels of care and safety in our industry is welcome, the punitive legislation targeting pet care providers has been rather alarming and something we, as an industry, need to be aware of. As we know all too well, caring for animals can be highly unpredictable. Conditions like bloat or an unprovoked attack can often be almost impossible to prevent. The reality is we are dealing with complex animals who don’t speak our language. If left unchecked, this expanded liability legislation can have a chilling effect on the pet care industry and result in a host of unintended consequences. These cumbersome laws could lead to less access to care for pet parents as qualified pet care providers leave the industry, or more expensive care due to overly burdensome pet industry regulations.

While we need to start paying attention to the world of regulations and litigation around us, we can take several steps to engage not only on issues that might negatively impact us, but also on issues that might be beneficial to the pet care services industry and the pets we care for.

Where to start?

A good place to start if you want (or need) to dive into local regulations and bills that might impact you is the homepage of your state legislature’s website. Thanks to the internet, we are all now just a few clicks away from getting real-time information on all the bills, rules, and regulations for every city and state across the country. You have no idea what a gift this is. When I started my lobbying career many years ago, we scurried around the basements of state capitol buildings begging legislative drafters for the latest version of the bills we were working on.

Once you land on your state legislature’s homepage, you should find a search field in which you can type a few common terms related to our industry such as:

  • “Pet care”
  • “Kennels”
  • “Animal vaccines”
  • “Animal care ratios”
  • “Expanded liability”
  • “Veterinary care”
  • “Domestic animals”
  • “Animal shelters”
  • “Grooming” or “animal aesthetics”
  • “Animal care facilities”
  • “Pet services”
  • “Board and train” or “kennel and train”
  • “Pet/animal care technology”

Once you find legislation or rules that apply to our industry, do your best to find the most recent version of the bill or regulations. Secondly, look at the sponsors of the bill as these will be the people or state agencies most fluent in the issue and understand the reasoning of the group(s) who brought the legislation forward. Lastly, you need to find out when the next public committee hearing or vote is taking place and get yourself on the agenda to testify or have a legislator lined up to testify in support of your position if necessary. Lobbying takes work, and you need to spend as much time as you can meeting with stakeholders on both sides of an issue, the earlier the better.

Timing is key

It’s important to understand legislative cycles and deadlines. Most state legislatures typically convene December through early February and adjourn anywhere from 30 days to 180 days after they start, although a small minority of states (California, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, Ohio, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and D.C.) do meet year-round. Legislation is typically drafted and conceived in the late summer and fall each year, so it’s imperative that you look at your state legislature’s website to see if legislation impacting you has been run or even passed in years past and, if so, arrange meetings with the involved parties as soon as possible.

The National Conference of State Legislatures has a helpful calendar with legislative timelines for the 50 states in the U.S. On their website at ncsl.org look under the “Legislators & Staff” tab for the “Legislative Session Calendar” link.

The devil is in the details

If I’ve learned anything in almost 15 years of lobbying and public policy work, it is this: the devil is in the details. Just because you identify a bill that pertains to the pet services industry, it doesn’t mean it is designed to advantage one facet of our business over another, or attempting to shut down an entire segment of the industry. The most important thing you can do if you hear a rumor about a bill or you become aware of a bill in your state is simple just read the bill in its entirety. Many bills are making small technical corrections to improve efficiencies in a particular industry, and not power grabs by big corporations trying to shut down the mom and pop operations.

Remember, when you engage in lobbying or the educating of elected or appointed public officials, you need to be aware of lobbyist registration and gift ban rules for the jurisdiction you are lobbying in. Generally, at a minimum, you need to register as a lobbyist and then file periodic lobby activity reports (monthly, quarterly, or yearly) and it’s best not to provide dinner, drinks, entertainment, or anything of value to elected or appointed officials or you may run afoul of gift ban laws. Lobbying is generally defined as attempting to influence, amend, repeal, or alter legislation, rules, or regulations. It may seem silly to have to register after a brief conversation where you asked a state senator for her support on a bill she will soon vote on but, believe me, failing to register as a lobbyist not only puts you at risk for fines and bans from lobbying, but puts the elected official you are talking to in danger of ethics violations. Lobbyist fines and ethics violations are the surest way to erode your credibility and lose crucial support for your issues.

The National Conference of State Legislatures also has a comprehensive overview of state lobbying and ethics laws in all 50 states. Just enter “lobbyist regulation” in the search bar at ncsl.org.

For more information on the expanded liability legislation, the American Veterinarian Medicine Association (AVMA) maintains considerable data and legal positions on national, state, and local issues. Look under the “Advocacy” tab at avma.org.

We can make a difference

My journey into the pet care services industry has been rewarding and exhilarating, and I often marvel at the different reactions people have when I tell them what I do based on the setting I’m in. When I tell someone I’m the co-owner of a doggy daycare and boarding facility, they frequently exclaim, “you have the best job in the world!” But when I say I’m a biotech lobbyist, the response is more along the lines of “well, I bet that’s interesting,” accompanied by a slightly repulsed look like they want to wash their hands. In both cases, they are right. Being in the pet care industry is the best job in the world, but helping to shape laws and rules in our democracy is equally interesting and important. I like to encourage people and remind them that, in the United States, we all have a First Amendment right to “petition the Government for a redress of grievances” under our Constitution and lobbying is vital to the health of our democracy. Most lawmakers are only experts in the fields they come out of. Before they cast consequential votes, it’s our collective job to educate them on issues to which they may never have been exposed.

Every organization, the good, the bad, and the ugly, from the American Cancer Society to “Big Tobacco”, actively lobby their governments. There is no reason we should be on the sidelines as our elected and appointed officials craft laws that dictate how we do business.