Hitting the Hill with the N.C. team

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State’s industry delegation says its annual round of lawmaker visits ‘absolutely makes a difference’


How do you know Hill visits work? That was the question I asked a group of marine industry representatives from North Carolina who were kind enough to allow a reporter to tag along on their visits to members of their state’s legislative delegation at the American Boating Congress.

The group of six had packed seven visits into their 11:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. schedule. The day included several treks back and forth across Capitol Hill.

Jim Hardin and Kris Carroll of Grady-White, Keith Stevens and Joan Maxwell of Regulator Marine, Ron Brown of Ilmor Marine and Mike Bradley of the Small Business and Technology Development Center probably logged several miles May 5. Despite some blisters, they never strayed from their mission of letting the lawmakers know how they could help the state’s marine businesses.

North Carolina has more than 4,000 marine-related businesses, Bradley says. “And we let them know that. Our state has probably been the most aggressive in taking advantage of this opportunity,” he says. “These congressmen and senators want information from the horse’s mouth.”

And the industry’s unofficial lobbyists say there’s no doubt the Hill visits are an important part of doing business. “It absolutely makes a difference,” Carroll tells me as we sit outside the Rayburn House Office Building on this sunny spring day. “We find them to be supportive when we ask for specific things. They know our issues. You also get a feeling from them of what can happen and what won’t happen.”

Besides, she adds, “It’s hard to tell how many problems you’ve averted by being here.”

Hardin cites the Clean Boating Act of 2008, which excluded recreational boats from new permitting regulations meant for commercial boats, as a good example of how having these relationships helps not only his state, but the industry as a whole. Other issues, such as the state tax nexus, are discussed year after year, he says. And while nothing may happen this year or next, when this issue does come up for a vote, Hardin says he’s certain North Carolina lawmakers will remember where the boating industry stands.

“I feel like they’re listening,” says Brown, on a break between meetings. “They do understand and they do care.”

Stevens agrees. “They’re very responsive. They tend to be open and share their positions.”

In meeting after meeting, the group pulls out blue packets — with an NMMA logo and pictures of boats on the front — filled with easy-to-understand fact sheets on six different issues: proposed federal life jacket mandates, the need for tax policy reform, open markets, support for the Business Activity Tax Simplification legislation, the Sport Fish Restoration & Boating Trust Fund and ethanol. Each packet also includes a fact sheet on recreational boating and an invitation to a reception honoring the Congressional Boating Caucus — something many staffers will later attend.

The meetings go quickly, with members of the delegation taking turns presenting the issues clearly and concisely. Staff members don’t have much time to meet with any one group. Some of the meetings take place around small tables, with the group squeezed together. In other cases they are invited into the member’s private offices. In some offices, the group picks up packets of North Carolina peanuts that many of their representatives have available for visitors.

Many of the staffers know the issues thoroughly and can discuss their bosses’ thoughts, and others clearly are shocked when shown the Coast Guard’s latest ad to promote safe boating. “Wow,” says Kara Weishaar of Sen. Richard Burr’s office, agreeing that the ad may be over the top in its implication that boating could kill you.

In Rep. Renee Ellmers’ office, legislative counsel Mitchell Vakerics agrees with many of the industry’s concerns. “The amount of federal money going to subsidize ethanol is an issue for a number of different groups, and something the congresswoman is following closely,” he says. “The federal government doesn’t need to be in the business of mandating life jacket wear.”

Ellmers, who owns a 23-foot Robalo, comes out for a quick hello. She promises to work on the ethanol issue, and adds, “We’ve got to get the economy back on track so we can get people buying [boats] again.”

During the visit with Rep. Mike McIntyre’s legislative assistant, K. Stratton Kirton, Maxwell discusses the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund and the importance of using that money for much-needed dredging. Kirton wholeheartedly agrees with her. “We’re absolutely supportive of that.” The congressman, he adds, also is against E15 and for reauthorization of the Sport Fish Restoration & Boating Trust Fund.

When Hardin brings up fisheries issues, Kirton assures him, “I speak fish.”

“Well, then, you’re our guy,” Maxwell says, and the group continues its discussions.

At Rep. Walter Jones’ office, the group is warmly invited into the congressman’s personal office, decorated with photos and awards and flags. There are hearty handshakes and hugs — it’s clear this group has a long relationship with the nine-term representative from the Greenville area.

Jones starts the meeting by asking his visitors how their businesses are holding up during these tough times. “If you can hang in there, I think there are better times coming,” he says.

The congressman asks about financing issues, pressing the delegation on the No. 1 issue they’d like help with, and asks how many dealers the manufacturers have lost. This is clearly a man who knows the industry and its needs. “We have always been sensitive to your issues and we understand the impact of your industry,” Jones says, before being reminded by a staffer he has a call he needs to make.

“Keep us in mind,” Carroll says as she walks out the door.

Thom Dammrich, president of the National Marine Manufacturers Association, says the caucus reception at the end of the day was packed — a sure sign the industry is respected and listened to on Capitol Hill.

“How do we know it works?” he asks. “We know that it works because on a day-to-day basis, when our lobbying staff goes up on the Hill to meet with members of Congress, we get access because they know us and they know … the importance of the jobs that our members create in their communities.”

This article originally appeared in the June 2011 issue.


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