January 5, 2022 | Cole Karr
Special districts elevated their voice in Washington, DC, in 2021 as the National Special Districts Coalition (NSDC) formalized its federal advocacy program and doubled its membership! The Coalition is looking forward to further growth and opportunities in 2022!
NSDC began its 2021 endeavors with the official establishment of its advocacy partnership with The Ferguson Group and Paragon Government Relations. Paired with its grassroots advocacy program, the Coalition solidified its membership structure, as outlined in a revised memorandum of understanding, and expanded beyond the original five founding special districts associations in California, Colorado, Florida, Oregon, and Utah to now include members in South Carolina, Texas, Washington, and Wyoming.
In its first formal year of federal advocacy, NSDC took official positions on 13 bills. The Coalition formally communicated letters of concern to congressional leadership and executive agencies regarding major policy matters impacting special districts – from full funding of programs to bolster mosquito-borne disease monitoring, to advocating for Congress to fully fund forest management accounts, to ensuring the Internal Revenue Service would not place additional regulatory burdens on districts and tax burdens on customers for using COVID utility arrearage assistance funds. All in all, the Coalition advocated in favor of legislation that would strengthen local government programs while also ensuring special districts are not overlooked in their eligibility.
NSDC’s members directly engaged with key leaders and members of Congress and the Senate to discuss districts’ policy priorities. Through these actions this year, Congressional and executive branch officials have grown more aware of special districts; why they exist, the services they provide, and their policy priorities and concerns on the federal level. Educating federal representatives and their staffs, as well as promoting awareness of special districts, remains a pivotal point of the Coalition’s priorities for 2022.
Advocacy actions were executed in accordance with the Coalition’s inaugural Federal Legislative Platform, which the NSDC Executive Board approved in June. The 2021-2022 agenda and priorities include securing a federal definition of “special district,” ensuring all special districts have fair access to COVID-19 recovery funds, strengthening federal programs to boost resiliency and emergency preparedness, investments in federal infrastructure programs, attention to policies focused on providing public services in “disadvantaged communities,” and monitoring major regulatory issues of broad concern.
Two major focuses of the year’s legislative activities, as for all sectors of local government, were COVID recovery and infrastructure.
NSDC’s prime achievement of the year was leveraging sponsored legislation to definitively permit states, counties, and cities to transfer crucial pandemic relief and recovery funds established under the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). The success was borne from bipartisan efforts to move the Special Districts Provide Essential Services Act, as the Coalition advocated for the provision’s inclusion within the underlying bill. NSDC will continue to provide resources and support for member associations’ advocacy of these federally-sourced funds to ensure districts providing critical infrastructure and essential services to millions of Americans have access to these funds – just as Congress intended with ARPA.
Special districts have a major stake in federal infrastructure initiatives, for which 2021 was a notable year. Among the Coalition’s top federal legislative priorities is the passage of policies investing in the nation’s physical and natural infrastructure and assuring special districts have definitive access to infrastructure programs, thus enhancing district operations and services in communities across the country. NSDC applauds the passage of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which provides historic authorizations for program funds for use on special districts’ infrastructure. Among many provisions, this expansive law authorizes major federal investments in water and wastewater infrastructure, transit and highway programs, power generation and electric grid reliability, broadband expansion, cybersecurity, western water infrastructure and drought programs, wildfire mitigation, and federal land management.
As NSDC closes the book on its first year of federal advocacy, there is more to look forward to in 2022. The stage is currently being set to move forward on the Coalition’s priority goal of defining “special district” in U.S. Code. This mission is more complex than it may seem. Under many current laws, special districts can access federal funding on a non-guaranteed pass-through basis but have difficulties reaping the benefits of many programs other local governments may utilize, such as the Community Development Block Grant. Other programs provide direct access on a competitive basis, while other programs may require population certifications that special districts do not officially have. NSDC is currently researching the broad scope of local government programs for which districts are either directly or indirectly eligible, and our team of advocates are carefully examining the language defining eligibility. The Coalition is seeking to formalize its findings with help from a nonpartisan Congressional research office, which would elevate this monumental mission to all members of the U.S. House and Senate. NSDC members can anticipate further action to be announced in late 2022.
This year will also bring opportunities for special districts to engage with their communities through the Districts Make the Difference public awareness campaign. Not only will NSDC special district members have access to tools for engagement with the residents they serve, but also the ability to work with local high school students as part of a national student video scholarship contest. The program is aimed to develop awareness of districts’ services among the students and their families with the submission of a 60-second video highlighting special districts’ services and how they make a difference in their communities. Contest details will be announced soon.
NSDC will continue to advocate for special districts’ consideration in all local government policy matters for enhanced access to grants, financing opportunities, and favorable policies at large. The Coalition looks forward to deepening engagement, further growth, and greater accomplishments in 2022!