Volunteer Who Has Lobbied For Other Groups Has Advice
A lobbyist who does not know what is going to come out of a hearing before it starts has not done his or her job.
That is the axiom Scotty Bowman, chief of staff for the Office of Hawaiian Affairs here, has followed during his more than 30 years of lobbying experience. Bowman's legislative history includes lobbying on behalf of the Hawaiian telephone company, the Hawaiian Association of Realtors, the Waikiki Beautification Committee and the government affairs department of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs.
"Lobbying is the same no matter what the issue is," he told The Credit Union Journal. "You have to know the issue, you must be perfectly honest, and you must provide any information you say you are going to provide, and provide it expeditiously. Most important, you have to establish a relationship with the elected official. You do not want to talk to them in a hearing. You have to sit down and talk one-on-one before it gets to a hearing."
"I keep abreast of all the issues and challenges all credit unions face," he said.
Bowman, who serves on the Hawaii Credit Union League's government affairs committee and is a former director of the Hawaii league's board of directors, described the Office of Hawaiian Affairs as a quasi-state agency that is unique in the United States. It is responsible for the betterment of conditions for native Hawaiians. The office works on a congressional level to recognize a Hawaiian nation, and Hawaii's senators have been working on the issue for more than five years.
Hawaii's credit unions also have several unique features that distinguish them from their counterparts on the U.S. mainland, Bowman said. For example, all but three of the 97 CUs operate under federal charters. Fifty percent of the local population are CU members, compared to about 25% in the rest of the country.
"Another thing is, we have a good relationship with the banking community here," he said. "Our friends on the mainland do not understand that. Banks do check processing for credit unions and work closely with them. Because of this, we have not felt the need to lobby for legislation."
The Big Tax Issue Is At County Level
The biggest issue for Hawaii's credit unions occurs on the county level-which is where Bowman enters the picture. The state's CUs are exempt from paying real property taxes, which in budget crisis times can make them an inviting target. The state's four most populated islands-Oahu, Maui, Kauai and Hawaii-each are considered a county and have a council that meets to make local laws.
"We are always aware that the lack of funding for some county programs may prompt a desire in county government to repeal that tax exemption," Bowman explained. "What is really unique is, we are trying to ensure the exemption does not go away, and we try to do so without calling attention to it and raising red flags. It is a ticklish situation."
Credit union lobbyists such as Bowman keep a low profile until they are tipped off by people on one of the county councils.
"Our friends know we are interested. If they hear of any effort on the part of a council to change things, they give us a heads-up. We go in and explain why the tax exemption was put in in the first place. It is an extension of the reason credit unions are tax exempt on the mainland-the services we give to our members. We remind them of that, and we ask them not to fix something that is not broken."
Not every credit union in Hawaii owns property, but Bowman said the state's CUs have resisted the urge by opponents to divide and conquer.
Bowman and his fellow lobbyists have been very successful over the years.
He said the last time the subject came up was about two to three years ago, and it never got past the talking stage.
"We have been able to have the meetings necessary to change the minds of people who are looking to roll back the exemption. We look to nip it in the bud, which avoids people getting locked into a public position and then refusing to back down," he said. "The only way to do that is to be alert and go talk to them early in the process. To me, that is the way to do it-not in the public domain."
According to Bowman, the lobbyists remind the county councils other organizations also have a property tax exemption: churches, schools, cemeteries and unions. "We say if you repeal it for credit unions, you should repeal it for all. This tends to end the discussion, because no one wants to tax schools and churches."
On the state level, Bowman said Michael Leach, the Hawaii Credit Union League's legislative officer, examines all proposed legislation to make sure nothing that could negatively impact CUs slips through.
"We make sure credit unions do not take a hit. There have not been any bank attacks at the local level to change the structure of credit unions, so it is difficult to get credit union people excited about contributing to PACs (political action committees) or to go to (CUNA's) Government Affairs Conference. There is an ongoing educational effort on our part to let people know what is going on and encourage them to go to the GAC. Fortunately, we have not had to fight the battle."
If the day does come that a major legislative fight looms, the Hawaii Credit Union League is prepared.
Because the league several years ago became aware of changes to PAC regulations regarding distribution of contributions, it established an "issue mobilization fund." This fund does not fall under the parameters of the PAC, Bowman said, and does not require the filing of a campaign spending report. The money raised cannot be spent on a campaign, but it can be used for a specific issue.
"If the repeal of the tax exemption were to come to a head, we could dip into the fund to communicate with all of the state's credit unions. For example, we could buy full-page ads in the local papers or send out mailers asking for members' support."
Bowman said he devotes so much time to lobbying because he believes in the credit union movement. He has been a member of Hawaiian Tel CU for many years, and believes credit unions are the "best deal in town" for financial services.