By Michael Green, Manager, State Government Relations, Food Marketing Institute
State Issues Retreat 2016

The 2017 state legislative sessions began in the heart of winter. On frigid mornings in January and February, lawmakers from Salem, Oregon to Columbia, South Carolina stumbled up steps and into office buildings, heavy coats pulled close and hoods pulled tight overhead, guarding against the icy cold that cut like a blizzard on the Moscow plain. Heads down, sleeves rolled up, nose to the grindstone, they commenced the work of legislating.

Seven months later, with the country now locked in summer’s steamy grip, only three states remain in regular session. For unlike the federal Congress, which toils year round, most states complete their work in a frenzy of activity between January and July. But this compressed timeframe is no obstacle to passing legislation.

FMI tracks 60 issues at the state level and 10 priority issues at the local level. Solely in these issue areas, nearly 7,000 bills were introduced at the state level in 2017. Of those bills, 2,038 passed one chamber, 1,205 passed both chambers, and 1,036 were signed by a governor or otherwise enacted into law. And this number does not reflect the thousands of ordinances adopted by cities, counties, and towns across the country.

To assist our members in making sense of this legislative chaos, FMI holds the State Issues Retreat in August, an annual conference that brings together food retail grocery associations and grocery company government relations professionals from each state to discuss state and local legislative and regulatory issues of interest to the food industry. As activists drive more and more policymaking to the state and local level, this meeting provides an important opportunity to learn the lessons of 2017 and strategize for 2018. This year, we’ll be holding the conference at the Lansdowne Resort & Spa in Leesburg, VA from July 31 to August 2. We are set to discuss a number of developments at both the state and local level.

Indeed, the state versus local dynamic itself was a major theme we saw play out during the legislative sessions this year. One of the areas where localities are getting more involved in policymaking is in the wage and labor arena – especially on minimum wage, paid sick leave, and mandatory scheduling. To counteract this increasingly heavy hand of local government, more states are explicitly prohibiting municipal governments from acting in these areas.

This year, five states enacted laws preempting local regulation of businesses. Specifically, Georgia, Iowa, and Missouri have prohibited localities from mandating minimum wages or employee benefits of any kind. Indiana, meanwhile, has preempted local regulation of employer use of criminal background checks. Finally, Iowa and Minnesota have preempted localities from prohibiting plastic bags. In total, 26 states now preempt municipal efforts to increase the minimum wage.

Despite efforts to restrain local power, another local issue is gaining steam this year: beverage taxes. A tax on sugar sweetened beverages took in effect in Philadelphia, PA in January 2017, and could become effective in Cook County, IL in the next few weeks, depending on the outcome of a lawsuit. In June, Seattle, WA enacted a 1.75 cents per ounce tax on the distributors of sugar sweetened beverages, while voters in Santa Fe, NM defeated a similar proposal at the ballot in May. Measures are currently pending in Multnomah County, Spokane, and Tacoma, Washington, as well as Davis, California. And there are several bills percolating at the state level too. The challenges of advocacy at the local level, as well as strategies for advocating for local preemption, will be a major topic of discussion at the State Issues Retreat this year.

But that is just a taste of the breadth of issue discussion that will occur in August. Additional discussion topics will include Emerging Issues, Environmental and Sustainability, Food and Beverage Taxes, Pharmacy, SNAP/WIC, and Wage & Labor. Key officials from the White House and critical supervisory agencies will be speaking as well – including Ray Starling, Special Assistant to the President for Agriculture, Trade and Food Assistance, and Andrea Gold, Director of the Retail Policy and Management Division at USDA FNS.

For any retailer seeking information on what advocacy strategies were the most effective in 2017, or hoping to being planning for the 2018 legislative sessions, the FMI State Issues Retreat is a can’t-miss meeting. See you in August, and leave your winter coat at home.