Plan for recovery, even in a recession

When I first moved to South Florida in the 1950s, much of the area was still made up of narrow roads and small towns. By the time I left Congress (Palm Beach County was part of my district), South Florida was one of the fastest-growing metropolitan areas in the country, with highways and byways and new people arriving every day.

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Part of what fueled the population growth was a mass exodus of retirees who moved from the Northeast to enjoy warmer weather, lower taxes and what they believed was a better way of living. Because the retiree growth was so strong, the demand for services well outpaced supply.

I knew, for example, that my district’s veterans needed a new Veterans Administration (VA) hospital. We had 5,000 veterans a month moving into the area. And yet I was told by other colleagues in Congress: “Sorry, Dan, there’s no money for that, and frankly we just don’t see the need.” This became an ongoing and personal battle for me, and finally I won a small victory: funding for a study that would analyze the needs for a new hospital.

When the study came back, it supported my thesis. It stated that was there a need for not only one hospital, but several hospitals. I am proud to say that the study then led to construction and new facilities. And despite the naysayers, we obtained appropriations dollars to pay for that construction.

In these times, ambitious plans and initiatives can fall victim to tight budgets, even when there appear to be some signs of recovery. “There’s no money for that” is still all too common a phrase in the lobbying sector today. Yes, we cannot anticipate how long the effects of the recession will be with us, but those of us on K Street still must plan for better times.

When the financial crisis hit, we anticipated reduced levels of participation from our credit union executives nationwide. Our sense was that executives would “hunker down,” travel less frequently and be more hesitant about leaving the office to come to Washington and lobby.

Instead, we found that our members remained engaged. They continue to make the time and absorb the costs necessary to maintain a regular, active presence on Capitol Hill. Several weeks ago, we announced a last-minute effort to have credit union executives do an additional “National Hike the Hill” to lobby for changes that we believe are needed in pending consumer protection and small-business lending legislation. Despite short notice, we now have more than 600 people in town this week visiting with their House and Senate members and staffs.

Another case in point: our annual legislative conference held here in Washington. In a recessionary year, we were uncertain as to how many trade association members would have the time or the funding to spend several days lobbying members and learning about new credit union trends.

Thankfully, we kept our funding for the event within normal range, and attendance was steady. Registration for the 2010 conference is running ahead of last year.

Planning for growth, even when the going seems tough, is a must. Yes, one has to be realistic. We implemented cuts this year and had to make difficult decisions in order to keep our fiscal house in order. But I think all trade association and lobbying firm heads should have several fiscal models in place. These models should include a best-case scenario with concrete plans included and a worst-case scenario with drastic budget cuts projected.

I concede that sometimes there is a gamble. In this unprecedented time, it is difficult to know what budgetary decision to make, especially when the economy is still volatile. That is why I recommend planning optimistically as well as pessimistically. Yes, you may be cutting now, but next year, even next month, your services, skills and organization could be more in demand than ever before.

Mica is the president and CEO of the Credit Union National Association (CUNA), which represents nearly 8,500 credit unions with 90 million members. Rep. Mica (D-Fla.) served in the House from 1979-89.