Sacrificing Vacation Time Not A Sacrifice, Says 1 Volunteer
Many times in the past 13 years, Becky Harsh has used time off from her job to visit Washington. But don't look for her at the popular tourist spots-she is far too busy meeting with members of Congress and spreading the credit union word to be spending time in museums.
"They are usually impressed with the fact we came on our own vacation time," she said of the members of Congress she meets on her visits to the U.S. capitol. "We are not paid lobbyists, we are just citizens. Legislators have told us we are very effective."
Harsh, a senior technician with the Salt River Project-an electric utility and water conservation company here in this fast-growing Arizona metropolis-is chairman of the board for Salt River Project Credit Union. She began her CU involvement about 24 years ago, when she was asked to be an alternate on the Salt River Project CU's credit committee. After 11 years on the committee, she ran for, and won, a board seat.
In addition to writing numerous letters over the years to both state and federal lawmakers, Harsh regularly attends CUNA's Government Affairs Conference, and participated in the Hike the Hill event in 1998 in support of landmark credit union legislation HR 1151.
In 2004, Arizona had a state version of the GAC, and Harsh was there to meet with the state senator from her district.
"I am interested in all issues that affect credit unions, such as bankruptcy reform and taxation," she said. "The credit union pays for my airfare and lodging when I travel, but all of these events are on my personal time, which puts a limitation on how much I can do."
One of the things Harsh encounters regularly is misinformation about the credit union movement. She said some lawmakers tell her CUs get favorable treatment.
"These things they say probably are from sheets the bank lobbyists have given them. We have to explain what the real situation is. We correct it, but we are never argumentative," she said. "We stick to the facts, explain what is happening, give them a fact sheet and offer to answer any questions they might have."
Arizona's congressional delegation has been around for several years, knows what CUs stand for and are supportive, Harsh said. Often, however, the legislators' staff members will call Harsh asking for information. If she doesn't have the answer, she gets it from the Arizona Credit Union System. She said it is important to develop a good relationship with staff people, because they have the elected official's ear.
Another key to success, Harsh said, is brevity. Lawmakers are extremely busy, and appreciate if lobbyists can sum up their points succinctly.
"Banks have not had success attacking us on the federal level, so they are attacking us on the state level," she said. "As a result, we are trying to develop better relationships with our state legislators. It has been a fabulous experience."
One negative with state lawmakers is the effect of term limits. Harsh said newly elected Arizona politicians "are under a tremendous strain to learn in their first couple years. It is a huge education process. About the time you get them up to speed, their term limit kicks in and they run for a different office."
Most lawmakers want to learn about credit unions if they don't already know, she said. Best-case scenario: they already are members of a CU.
Asked to share the best stories from her years of lobbying on behalf of credit unions, Harsh insisted she had none, allowing only, "It is very satisfying to have a good meeting with any lawmaker on the state or federal level."
"I just keep plugging along. I make a contribution when I can, but nothing spectacular," she said. "I write letters. I keep getting the word out-that's all I can do. I remind legislators of our story, our mission, our purpose. I remind them we are a non-profit and don't make money for shareholders."