Advocacy Case Study: Natural Gas Incentives in Florida
Legion Founder and President, Eric Criss, created the Florida Natural Gas Vehicle Coalition when a client approached him about securing cash rebate incentives from the State of Florida for the purchase of natural gas vehicles (NGV’s).
One early challenge was partly a function of geography. Existing incentive programs were offered mostly in gas producing states such as Texas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas. Florida was not a gas producing state. Moreover, Florida, like most states, was experiencing a tough budget cycle. With a conservative house, senate and governor, approval of a program like ours seemed doubtful at best.
After thoughtful consideration and strategy discussion with our allies in the coalition, we decided to frame our proposal as an “investment” with a specific return to the state and its taxpayers. To improve our chances, we narrowed our proposal to end-users of compressed natural gas (CNG) and liquefied natural gas (LNG), including businesses like our beer distributors, but also companies involved in retail, trucking, and waste management.
We reached out to trade associations and companies such as the Florida Natural Gas Association, Waste Management, and United Parcel Service. We also found that some utilities such as TECO People’s Gas were highly supportive. Eventually, these companies joined the coalition. Together with their in-house and contract lobbying teams, we made a big push in the Capitol in Tallahassee.
We knew jobs would be created through a reduction of commercial fleet costs. Moreover, in the public sector, taxpayers would benefit from potentially significant fuel savings to both state and local government due to CNG fleet conversion. Therefore, we set a big goal and asked the legislature for a $30 million incentive package over 5 years.
But the Florida Natural Gas Vehicle Coalition involved more than traditional lobbying. To be successful, we needed to convince policymakers that our program would create new jobs. A claim like that is easy to make up but it’s worthless unless you can back it up with facts. Those facts had to be documented and easily shared with legislators and staff. That’s why the digital component of our plan became very important. Here is a quick rundown on each aspect of our advocacy program:
Our digital campaign was anchored to a coalition website—where even the domain name reflected our primary claim that our proposal would create jobs: fuelforjobs.com. The content included an aggregated newsfeed and a “Fact vs. Fiction” page about natural gas. Most importantly, the site included all of our economic reports and public opinion research.
We also created an aggregated electronic newsletter on natural gas issues. We sent the newsletter out on Fridays with stories we found around the Internet and from industry publications such as Platts or industry websites such as the national NGV Coalition. We kept in touch with members whenever there was breaking news through regular email updates with press clippings, news briefs, and research findings. Using these digital tools, along with social media, search engine optimization and more, we were able to accomplish our goal of providing genuinely newsworthy content and facts to back up our story. This helped tremendously in the effort to legitimize the coalition.
Economic Impact Study
The economic impact study was a key component of our plan of attack. We hired an outside firm and told them we didn’t want the study to simply tell us what we wanted to hear. We wanted it to be real. To produce any other type of study would be, in our view, not only a waste of money but also a political liability. Giving false or misleading information to legislators is a bad idea for any lobbying effort.
Our initial study came back the way we hoped. Our economists demonstrated how the incentive package could create 10,000 jobs, $300 million in new wages and $1 billion in economic output over 20 years.
Public Opinion Survey
By February of 2013, HB 597 has been introduced in the Florida House by Representative Lake Ray and SB 560 by Senator Wilton Simpson had its first committee stop in the Transportation Committee. The bills encouraged commercial fleet owners to invest in new natural gas vehicles through grants administered by the Office of Energy at the Florida Department of Agriculture.
The same month, the Florida Natural Gas Vehicle Coalition (FNGVC) announced the results of a public opinion survey conducted by TelOpinion Research. The survey found that 72% of Floridians supported an incentive program to help decrease U.S. reliance on imported oil, create jobs, and improve air quality. The survey also found that 68% of respondents were aware of recent discoveries of large quantities of natural gas in the United States.
Of the 600 people polled, 96% of respondents believed it was important to promote energy independence in the United States; 93% believed it was important to create, new well paying jobs; and 95% believed it was important to protect Florida’s environment. Therefore, it was not surprising that 429 respondents, or 72% of people asked, supported a government sponsored incentive program to help address such issues.
These survey results boded well for our proposed legislation. In a press release, coalition chair, Eric Criss asserted, “We believe that public support for the use of natural gas as a vehicle fuel is both broad and deep. This survey confirms that fact beyond any doubt.”
Earned Media Campaign
Our first press release on August 14, 2012 announced, “Fifteen companies are banding together to promote the use of natural gas-powered vehicles in Florida and seek incentives from the state.” Platts picked up the story, as did other natural gas oriented outlets. Several major newspapers in the state took note, soon writing their own stories. These include big papers such as the Tampa Bay Times and the Business Journals in Tampa, Jacksonville and elsewhere. We touted natural gas as a clean, efficient alternative to gasoline and diesel. We also pointed out something that was true at the time—there were only three public and eight private compressed natural gas refueling stations in Florida.
Our bill sponsor in the House, Representative Lake Ray, said in his own statement that he believed the legislature would consider NGV incentives because they were “vital to Florida’s economic future” while coalition chairman, Eric Criss, told gas industry media outlet, Platts, “We have reached the tipping point for compressed natural gas vehicles –this is the real deal. The technology is already in use across the nation and around the world.” Criss further asserted that an NGV incentive program “could produce hundreds of millions of dollars in new wages, with taxpayers reimbursed 100%.” To fund the incentives, the group has proposed a tax of $0.05/gallon equivalent of CNG.
The coalition’s direct lobbying effort was highly effective. We met with Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, whose agency would oversee the proposed $30 million program. After gaining his support, we visited with key committee chairs where the bill would be reported out favorably or die a quick death. In Florida, if your bill is the subject of a committee hearing and you don’t get out of committee on a majority vote in favor, your bill is dead and likely will not be resurrected. Because many of us had experienced in-house and contract lobbyists, we often visited legislators together, worked from a shared set of talking points, and when time demanded, we divided up entire committees based upon who had the best relationships with which members. We also had great bill sponsors who pushed hard for passage of the incentive package. It’s true that your prospects in the Capitol go up dramatically with the right bill sponsors.
The timeline for most legislation is measured in years, not months. But thanks to our outstanding team, the Natural Gas Vehicle Act was passed and signed into law by Governor Rick Scott in May of 2013. There wasn’t one thing that pushed the proposed legislation over the top. Rather, a great group of people came together and worked really hard to move the project from conceptualization to a new law on the books in less than 12 months.