Lessons Learned from Saving the Historic Tax Credit: Building an Advocacy Network to Connect with Legislators

By Special Contributor posted 05-24-2018 16:52

  
By Renee Kuhlman, Shaw Sprague, Michael Phillips, Andy Grabel, and Sarah Heffern

On December 20, 2017, during the final hours of congressional action on the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, the historic tax credit (HTC) was added back into the bill. The HTC is the single most important incentive for the preservation of our nation’s historic buildings and has been instrumental in preserving more than 42,000 nationally significant resources. The National Trust for Historic Preservation, the National Trust Community Investment Corporation, and the Historic Tax Credit Coalition were able to catalyze strong political support for the HTC through our most significant political advocacy campaign in decades. 

By documenting our successes and lessons learned, we hope to assist future advocacy efforts at all levels of government. This three-part series covers launching the HTC campaign, building an advocacy network to connect with legislators, and messaging through media engagement and high-level resources. 

As with all successful advocacy campaigns, members of the historic tax credit (HTC) campaign team spent a great deal of time building relationships not only with congressional representatives—and their staffs—but also with constituents in key congressional districts. The campaign team recognized that successfully delivering our message would require bringing together voices from the preservation and business communities to make the connection between the social and economic benefits of preservation clear.

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Advocates spent time talking to congressional leadership, including Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisc, about the importance of the historic tax credit in their communities. | Credit: National Trust for Historic Preservation

Building an Advocacy Network

To recruit advocates for the HTC, the National Trust for Historic Preservation focused on engaging primarily with colleagues in state historic preservation offices, statewide and local preservation organizations, and Main Street organizations to encourage outreach in support of the HTC. Meanwhile, the National Trust Community Investment Corporation (NTCIC) and the Historic Tax Credit Coalition (HTCC) reached out to developers and real estate professionals. The campaign organized HTC summits as well as smaller advocacy days throughout the year, uniting preservation and business leaders in Washington to fine tune messaging and participate in Capitol Hill meetings together. 

The campaign communicated with advocates in two different, but coordinated, ways. Advocates who had participated in previous lobbying efforts and events—and had established relationships with their representatives—received frequent updates and action requests that required fast turn-arounds. We also sent the broader National Trust membership messages encouraging and facilitating their outreach to Capitol Hill. As a result, we created a powerful combination: trusted grassroots advocates communicating with members of Congress supplemented with new advocates contacting their representatives (many for the first time) to indicate their support of the HTC. 

In many cases, engaging with one advocate led us to discover others. The National Trust’s work in support of state HTCs, for example, greatly expanded the number of informed stakeholders who could easily repurpose their talking points to support the federal HTC. Additionally, site visits in key congressional districts helped us find community members who were willing to become involved and build strong relationships with their legislators. 

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Belmont Hotel, a historic tax credit success story located in Dallas, Texas. | Credit: National Trust for Historic Preservation

The ubiquitous nature of HTC projects prompted an ever-expanding list of advocates to engage their legislators, which allowed us to strengthen our ties with local community leaders concerned about the fate of the credit. For example, our campaign developed a strong working relationship with the town manager of Janesville, Wisconsin, who has a keen sense for strategies to strengthen the local economy, including adaptive reuse of buildings in the downtown area. The town manager traveled to Washington, D.C., to convey his support for the HTC to his congressional representative. Thousands more advocates around the country also heard our call to action. Thanks to the broad popular support that the HTC enjoys, and with additional training and guidance from the National Trust, many local leaders began advocating for the credit during tax reform. 

The campaign also made a point of establishing a visible presence during conferences and other gatherings of key constituencies. The importance of HTC advocacy was conveyed at each of the National Trust’s PastForward conferences, and the National Main Street Center offered multiple sessions, tours, exhibits, and events about advocating for the HTC at their annual conference. Campaign staff also participated in numerous professional HTC conferences organized by leading law firm Nixon Peabody and accounting firm Novogradac & Company. 

While the advocacy network we created was constantly expanding as more constituents and organizations joined the effort, our goal was not to create a comprehensive network. Instead, we were focused on building an effective network capable of showing the diversity and depth of support for retaining the HTC during tax reform. Not burdened by a mandate of including all possible interest groups, we were able to focus on identifying which constituents had the closest relationships to key members of Congress and encouraging our network to regularly reach out to their representatives. 

Using Our Network to Engage Legislators

The fundamental purpose of creating a successful advocacy network was implementing regular contact with congressional offices about the value of the HTC. But given inevitable limits on resources and capacity, it was key to make strategic choices that would support the longevity and eventual success of the campaign. While the credit’s reach is broad—it touches every state and nearly all congressional districts—connecting with stakeholders in every district would have overwhelmed the capacity of the National Trust. Instead, our campaign focused on stakeholders in a select number of politically strategic states, which then enabled our organization to support this work over an extended period.

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Our outreach was further concentrated on congressional representatives who had a role in assembling tax reform legislation—in other words, largely congressional members in leadership or on tax-writing committees. When we discovered that a legislator could not be persuaded, the campaign pivoted and approached other congressmembers. Conversely, once a member indicated possible interest in supporting the HTC, we made every effort to ensure that all their questions were answered and provided them with the data, stories, and support they needed to raise the issue with their colleagues. Staying in the fight and converting challenges into opportunities was a key element of keeping the HTC campaign moving in a positive direction.

The campaign deployed targeted outreach strategies for the congressmembers we considered the strongest potential champions of the HTC. These ranged from advocacy emails and phone calls to Capitol Hill visits from individuals with close, personal relationships with their representatives. Our campaign amplified those personal messages using case studies that highlighted specific HTC projects in the legislators’ individual districts. We also arranged in-district site visits that allowed legislators to see first-hand the jobs that the HTC had created and economic development it had spurred. During these meetings, advocates shared personal stories as well as lists of HTC projects in the state, district, or city.

Giving our allies in Congress the tools and information necessary to write or sign “dear colleagueletters in support of the HTC was crucial to sustaining our advocacy throughout the tax reform process. The broad framework of our outreach allowed new champions for the HTC to emerge and step into leadership roles.

Renee Kuhlman is the director of policy outreach, Shaw Sprague is the senior director of government relations, Andy Grabel is the associate director of public affairs, and Sarah Heffern is the director of social media at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Michael Phillips is the public policy manager at the National Trust Community Investment Corporation. 

Read the rest of the posts in this three-part series which focus on launching the HTC campaign, and messaging through media engagement and high-level resources. 


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