An Inside Perspective from This Year’s Legislative Learning Session

Sarae Kurth

Earlier this year, several of our Association’s young professionals were awarded scholarships from the Foundation to attend a Legislative Learning Session in Washington D.C.

The multi-day event included visits to the offices of elected officials from Arizona, Colorado, and Wyoming, the offices of the National Credit Union Administration, and the Credit Union National Association (CUNA).

We sat down with Sarae Kurth from Denver Community Credit Union, one of the young professionals who attended this year’s Legislative Learning Session. We talked about why opportunities like this are important for young leaders, our legislators, and the Credit Union movement as a whole. This is our conversation.

Q: Thank you for speaking with me Sarae. Let’s start with a basic overview of the Legislative Learning Session. Can you give readers a high-level view of what the event entails?

Sarae: Sure. Most of the meetings were conducted over the course of 2 days – a Tuesday and Wednesday. But Monday, when I first arrived in D.C., there was a meet-and-greet that allowed me to meet the other young professionals who were representing Credit Unions from all three states – Colorado, Wyoming, and Arizona.

We were given an overview of what to expect, and useful packets of information that included data about legislative issues that are important to Credit Unions right now. Being equipped with that information was extremely useful, but we were also encouraged to speak with legislators about things that we saw impacting our members on a day-to-day basis. It was a great start that allowed us to hit the ground running on Tuesday morning, which began with a meeting at CUNA.

We met with CUNA staff who are involved in advocacy on capitol hill. Some of them are focused on state legislation, some on federal legislation, others on communications, training, social media, etc. They offered us a lot of useful tips about how to be better advocates for Credit Unions during that week’s meetings, but also on a local basis within our own communities. It was extremely insightful.

We also got to meet with the National Credit Union Association, which is the Federal Regulator of Credit Unions. Essentially this is the equivalent of what the FDIC is for banks. It’s an organization that ensures the money members entrust to Credit Unions is safe. They spoke with us about the risks they are concerned with right now, new areas of opportunity, and trends for the future. For example, I learned that since the last recession, Credit Union assets have doubled in size. In fact, the recession did not have a catastrophic impact on Credit Unions, largely because they are insured and extremely stable.

And then the next day we spent talking with legislators and their staff.

Q: What was the experience of getting to speak with our nation’s legislators like? Was it something you were able to prepare for?

Sarae: The day consisted of 5 or 6 back to back meetings with a variety of legislators and their staff. It was intense, but also an incredible hands-on learning opportunity.

I had participated in the Hike the Hill event for Colorado where I was able to go to the state legislature and meet with state representatives. That went a long way towards preparing me for meeting with legislators in D.C.

We spent a lot of time talking with the legislators’ staff, which in many cases is more useful than talking with the legislators themselves. It’s easy to assume that our legislators know a lot about everything, but in reality, they rely heavily on their staff to be the subject matter experts.

No one can be an expert on everything.So, legislators surround themselves with smart people who are experts on very specific issues. Many legislators and their staff are also young professionals, which was encouraging.

Q: What were some of the things you discussed?

Sarae: Data breaches was a huge topic of discussion. When there is a data breach with a large retailer, those affected can have their money stolen from their checking accounts. What many people don’t realize is that the institution holding their money – the bank or Credit Union – is liable for those losses, not the retailer.

So, one of the big concerns is how to shift liability for retailers in an effort to encourage them to be diligent in how they handle and protect consumer data. Overall, it’s a tricky situation for Credit Unions because our members look to us to protect their money. When there is a breach with a retailer that affects them, our members don’t always understand that the problem was not our fault and we are restricted about what information we are allowed to give them. It’s really tough and affects everyone, so it’s a big subject.

We also talked about current legislation such as whether banks should receive the same benefits that Credit Unions for operating on military bases. Credit Unions can operate at reduced costs because we are not-for-profit institutions. At the time of the legislative learning session, a bill was being introduced that would allow banks to have the same privileges. This is a slippery slope and one of the things that struck me is how complicated every piece of legislation is. It’s not ever a matter of looking at one piece of legislation because each bill is tied to multiple measures.

We also talked a lot about the Safe Banking Act which includes provisions to make banking safe and more accessible for cannabis related industries. Being able to serve members in a safe way is important, but because we are federally regulated, our business is on the line if we find out that there is cannabis related money in our institution. It’s another complicated issue that affects how we are able to serve our members.

It was interesting to see the mix of knowledge about these issues between different legislators and their staff members. Again, no one can be an expert about everything. When we talked with people who sat on banking and other financially focused committees, they were extremely knowledgeable about these topics and we were able to learn a lot from them. And then there were others who were not well versed in these topics, giving us the opportunity to educate them. It was a fantastic exchange that served to educate everyone on a variety of levels.

Q: Overall, did the experience meet your expectations?

Sarae: It totally exceeded my expectations. It was a reinvigorating experience just to get to step out of my day-to-day functions and see things from a different perspective.

The Association staff did a wonderful job of getting meetings set up for us. Before we went, I learned that legislators look forward to events like this because so much of their input comes from high level executives and they don’t have many opportunities to talk with young professionals who are in positions that are more consumer facing.

That was one of the things I enjoyed the most – the mutual exchange of information and ideas that have a real impact on day-to-day life.

Q: What would you say to someone considering participating in this event next year?

Sarae: I would encourage anyone who is passionate about the Credit Union Movement and interested in the democratic process to jump at the chance to attend.

I’m a very hands-on, practical application kind of learner. I love opportunities to take new information and apply it. That’s what I loved most about the event. It was more than a chance to learn about the legislative process and current issues, it was a chance to be part of the conversation.

The Foundation does a great job of making programing available to young professionals that we wouldn’t otherwise have access to. I would encourage young professionals to take advantage of as many of those opportunities as they can, including this one. I’m so grateful that the Foundation continues to invest in young professionals.