Have Faith in NCSL: My Vision for the Future
By Senator Richard T. Moore
NCSL President 2010-2011
As I begin my term as NCSL President, I want to focus some of my energies on helping states with the implementation of health reform. I recognize that it was not achieved with the bipartisan coalition that we might have all desired, and that it remains a contentious issue for many of our members. Nevertheless, helping all of our constituents to gain access to affordable, high quality health care should be among our priorities whether it’s achieved by federal law, state action or private sector leadership. While we may not all agree on the means of achieving health reform, I hope that we might all agree that wellness and prevention—health rather than health care—could be one of our priorities in the coming year. After all, if we don’t get sick or injured, health care can be very affordable!
During the coming year, however, I’d like us to think about making our states—and our nation—healthy. Now, I don’t mean just in the physical health, or even mental health, sense. I mean healthy in the values we embrace as Americans and healthy in the political discourse that, I believe, has taken a less healthy tone and direction. Perhaps our theme could be: Healthy States … Healthy Nation?
Nearly 80 percent of Americans say they have little faith that the massive federal bureaucracy can solve the nation’s ills, according to a recent survey from the Pew Research Center that shows public confidence in the federal government at one of the lowest points in a half-century. Majorities in the survey call Washington too big and too powerful, and say it is interfering too much in state and local matters.
The public’s mood, according to several surveys, has been moving in this direction for some time. I believe that state government, and state legislators in particular, have the best opportunity since the founding of the National Conference of State Legislatures in 1975 to gain the confidence and trust of the American people.
However, the decline in faith in our federal government does not automatically mean that Americans support state or local government more. There is a significant part of the population that doesn’t seem to believe in any level of government and a larger percentage that is certainly skeptical of all levels. We must work harder to earn the support of our constituents by our deeds as well as by our words.
Unfunded Federal Mandates
Certainly, the Pew Research Center’s survey results strongly suggest this is the time to demand the federal government strengthen the Unfunded Mandate Relief Act (UMRA), which earlier this year observed its 15th anniversary. NCSL, one of the primary forces behind the original act, needs to lead a new coalition of state and local government associations and advocacy groups to make states more equal partners in our federal system. Even though the current president of the United States and a majority of the Congress are former state lawmakers, we must sometimes remind them not to forget the important role of states in our federal system.
Those of our state legislative colleagues who argue in favor of greater meaning for the 10h Amendment or even support nullification of federal laws ought to recognize that an “UMRA on steroids” would be a significant victory for their beliefs. While the concept of “state’s rights” does not enjoy universal support, and even engenders dark memories among some of our fellow Americans, increased state responsibilities to manage our own affairs while protecting the rights of all of our citizens could be a theme embraced by most of us. Of course, as former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich reminded us at our Spring Forum in Washington last April, while advocating relief from the mandates of Washngton, we must also take care to relieve our counties, cities and towns of unfunded mandates lest we be accused of a measure of hypocrisy.
Our NCSL staff in Washington, with its new leadership team, are constantly focused on representing state interests. They play a key role on our behalf in seeking federal funding for the states and opposing federal efforts to pre-empt state roles or mandate new unfunded or under-funded programs on our states.
An important role for NCSL had emerged in recent years through supporting litigation and appeals in the federal courts where state powers are challenged. NCSL is increasingly asked by state legislative leaders to file amicus briefs where principles of law that help to further define state roles in the federal system are in dispute. Preserving the legislature’s prerogatives against executive encroachment is another potential area where we can seek support from the judicial branch.
The Importance of Ethics
NCSL’s Ethics Center offers legislators and staff another important resource in helping to earn the public’s trust and confidence. In fact, that is precisely the Ethics Center’s mission. In the public’s mind, if one of our colleagues is accused of unethical or illegal activities or conduct, we are all tarnished by the same broad brush. NCSL offers guidance and support for promoting ethical behavior among legislators, staff and advocates. Since most states will be welcoming new legislators after this fall’s elections, NCSL should be seen as a resource to getting new members pointed in the right direction.
Forty-four states include some type of ethics training in their new member orientations. In 16 states, training for new legislators is mandatory. Formal, ongoing training is available to all legislators in 17 states. States are almost equally divided as to whether the ethics commission or the legislature conducts the training. In at least seven states, the ethics commission or another body is mandated to provide such training, but legislators are not required to attend. Twenty-two states offer ethics training for legislative staff, and an increasing number offer similar training for lobbyists. Attendance usually is not mandated. California is one of the few states that require every person who registers as a lobbyist to periodically attend an ethics course.
It's Redistricting Time
An important opportunity to demonstrate that state government deserves public support is on our national agenda this year as we face the responsibility to redistrict the U.S. House of Representatives as well as our own legislative districts. The degree to which we place principle before party by a process that is more bipartisan or nonpartisan could go a long way to restoring faith in state legislatures among a public that so desperately wants the Republican and Democratic parties to work together to find reasonable solutions to the very real problems facing America today.
Here again, NCSL continues to provide leadership in presenting policy and process information to legislators and legislative staff. Redistricting seminars in San Francisco and Chicago last year, and Austin so far this year as well as programs at the Legislative Summit and Spring or Fall Forums, State Legislatures Magazine articles, and a wide range of resources have been developed by NCSL to help us do the job right.
“Redistricting Law 2010,” the fourth edition of NCSL’s publication, summarizes the extensive legal framework that governs the process of redistricting and is a practical guide for those of us directly involved with drawing new maps or in analyzing or litigating district plans. Just as important as developing maps that can withstand court challenges is the development of districts that survive the test of common sense if we are to reduce public skepticism of our actions. As a resident of the state that invented “Gerrymandering,” I can attest to the fact that our actions on redistricting will go a long way to developing the public trust and confidence, or lack thereof, in state legislatures.
Preparing the Next Generation
One of the areas of NCSL activity that is especially important to me, and I hope to all legislators and staff, is the work of the Trust for Representative Democracy. I have the honor of co-chairing the Trust’s Advisory Committee with Past NCSL President Dick Finan of Ohio. Much of our work over the past 10 years has been to provide resources to help the public—especially students—to understand the concept of “representative democracy” upon which our American experience is based.
Through award-winning programs such as America’s Legislators Back to School, American Democracy Television, public service announcements and the new Representative Democracy in America Professional Development Seminar for Teachers, NCSL and state legislators and legislative staff can help build trust and confidence in state government for the next generation of Americans. Encouraging our youth toward civic engagement and an understanding of the legislative process, democratic principles and how to become involved is among our most important responsibilities. During my term as NCSL President, I want to encourage every state legislator to participate in this process, especially through our Back to School Program.
The NCSL Executive Committee has established the Kevin B. Harrington Memorial Award, named in honor of NCSL’s founding president, the late Massachusetts Senate President Kevin Harrington, to recognize individuals and legislatures who go above and beyond their duty of educating our future citizens. The first award will be presented at the NCSL Executive Committee meeting in Boston in May 2011. There ought to be many strong candidates among our membership that would merit such prestigious recognition and I want to challenge all of my colleagues across the nation to make a special effort to nominate outstanding candidates for this recognition.
“We Are the World!”
Over the years of its existence, NCSL has welcomed countless international legislators and legislative staff to our meetings and to our respective state capitol buildings. Many of our members have visited the parliamentary bodies of other countries and their states or provinces. We have sometimes been called upon to assist emerging democracies in building capacity for representative democracy and for stronger legislative branches in these democracies.
While the U.S. Constitution gives considerable legal authority to the national government for international relations, states play an important role in the actual building of these relations. Many of us enjoy sister state or sister city relationships with our counterparts in the international community. Consuls general representing other nations often serve in our states and need to demonstrate effectiveness to their home governments by working with state officials. Our public universities share research as well as students and faculty with universities in other lands. Especially important to our state economies in this global marketplace is the trade relationships of companies in our states who may be foreign-owned or who have business activities in other countries.
NCSL is actively building relationships with governments of other nations—especially those with states, provinces or regional councils comparable to our states. Our friends in the Quebec National Assembly are longtime participants in NCSL and the leaders of the Scottish Parliament have expressed a desire to become more active with us. We have long-standing associations with international organizations that parallel NCSL such as the Russian Federation’s Council of State Legislators, Brazil’s U.N.A.L.E, the Partnership of Parliaments in Germany and Austria, Italy’s Regional Councils, the Parliamentary Confederation of the Americas, the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, and others. During the next year, and hopefully, beyond, we will continue to strengthen NCSL’s relations with the international community.
I want to encourage state legislators and legislative staff to build upon these activities and, especially, to make a special effort to welcome our international delegates to our meetings and to their home states. We have a wonderful opportunity to host L.E. A. P. fellows from other countries in our legislative offices for short intervals for valuable information sharing. A new task force is being established to focus on the growing international role of states especially on the impact on jobs and economic growth in our states and with other countries.
It's the Economy
As we continue to wrestle with the enormous fiscal challenges facing our respective states as a consequence of the current national recession, we have perhaps our most significant opportunity to build public confidence and trust in state legislatures. We cannot tax our way out of the recession. We cannot cut our way out of it. We cannot borrow our way out either. The answers may well involve some combination of all of these methods. However, this is also an excellent opportunity to promote reform and to share ideas among ourselves of what might work. The dire economic circumstances we are all facing is probably the best time to consider ideas that might have been politically unthinkable only a few short years ago.
One of the greatest challenges that we will face in the next few years is the effort by those in Washington to tackle the problem of our rising federal deficit. Most legislators are used to our Constitutional requirement to balance our budgets, although we sometimes rely on some creative accounting to do so. We generally understand and support the need to get the federal fiscal house in order so that we don’t defer our extraordinary appetite for spending on the backs of our grandchildren and beyond. As Abraham Lincoln told Congress in 1861: “The struggle of today is not altogether for today, it is for a vast future also.” The struggle today for a “more perfect union” is focused on the economy and the fiscal relationship of states to each other and to the national government. How the national deficit is brought under control without bankrupting the states is, however, a major concern for state and local governments.
NCSL will be updating and revising its policy on the reduction of the federal deficit in the coming months. Every member is encouraged and welcome to participate in this important task and a new Task Force on the Impact of Federal Deficit Management is being established. It is essential to all of our futures that state legislators have a voice in the President’s Fiscal Responsibility Commission. We must be prepared, and aggressively promote, the state and local viewpoint in conjunction with the other major national state and local government associations. Deficit reduction must not be a code word for shifting the federal financial burden built over the last decade to state and local government. We must ensure that common sense prevails in the commission’s report to Congress!
Perhaps the most important thing that the president and Congress could do to relieve state revenue shortfalls would be prompt passage of the Main Street Fairness Act. Closing the growing loophole in state sales tax revenues would not be a tax increase. It would simply allow enforcement of existing state sales tax laws for purchases made beyond their borders. It would level the playing field for small businesses in our states that must comply with sales tax laws while easing the administrative burden of sales tax collection on businesses that rely heavily on interstate sales. The reform would also allow states to reduce their tax enforcement administration by no longer having to audit out of state entities. If there was ever a win-win tax reform plan that helps the private and public sectors, it’s the Main Street Fairness Act. I hope that it will finally become the law of the land during the coming year!
The voters are also seeking greater efficiency and accountability from government. Transparency is the mantra of the day. State governments can achieve this kind of reform more quickly than our friends inside the Washington Beltway. Massachusetts is seriously debating “sunset” legislation modeled on the experience of Texas and several other states. NCSL serves as a vital forum for the exploration and discussion of such seemingly radical solutions. Our NCSL fiscal policy staff are among the most highly regarded experts in the nation and are often sought for their knowledge by the media. In fact, we can take great pride in all of our NCSL staff and the research and policy advocacy that they have always provided.
NCSL Continues to Serve Us
Legislators and legislative staff who have come to rely on NCSL services understand and appreciate the value of our national organization. As with all of our state funded services, however, states are hard-pressed to meet the cost of ever-increasing dues payments. Those of your colleagues who serve as officers and members of the NCSL Executive Committee are sensitive to the fiscal constraints of the day and NCSL is tightening its collective belt just as you are doing at home. We are also redoubling efforts to seek federal and foundation grants as well as increased private sector support for the essential work of the NCSL Foundation. We can all help by identifying opportunities to expand our contacts for additional program support and referring prospects to our research or Foundation staff.
The Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award is administered by the National Institutes of Standards and Technology. It has come to be recognized as a cornerstone of quality improvement philosophy and practice in the United States and around the world and could be a good methodology for improving the already high quality of NCSL programs and services. The Baldrige Criteria for Nonprofits can be adapted to fit NCSL’s unique challenges and culture and help us evaluate performance, assess where improvements or innovation are most needed and get results.
Thousands of organizations have used the Baldrige criteria and core values as a guide for organizational excellence—a systematic framework for delivering continuously improving value to customers and improving overall organizational performance. This includes organizations that have applied for the award and those that have used the award criteria solely for self-assessment.
Organizations everywhere are looking for ways to effectively and efficiently meet their missions and achieve their visions given the challenges facing them. Thousands of organizations use the Baldrige Criteria for Performance Excellence to guide their enterprises, improve performance and get sustainable results. NCSL might well use this proven improvement and innovation framework which offers any organization an integrated approach to key management areas: leadership, strategic planning, customer focus, measurement, analysis and knowledge management, workforce focus, process management and results.
I welcome your feedback on this article and, most important, I welcome your active involvement in your NCSL. The officers and Executive Committee members are only as effective as you want us to be by your support and actions.
Let me take this opportunity to appeal to the Senate presidents, speakers, legislative leaders, and every legislator and staff member to take an active interest in the work of NCSL. Like the proverbial “Uncle Sam,” NCSL needs YOU! The policy positions taken at our meetings need to reflect as broad a consensus among legislators from both parties—conservatives and liberals, and across all regions as possible if they are to truly guide our lobbying efforts with the federal government. It’s important that you give us your views at Leaders Forums, NCSL Committee meetings and in other ways—especially before the policies are voted—so that NCSL is really representative of states’ views.
As I look forward to an ambitious NCSL agenda during this challenging time for all levels of government, this is also a good opportunity for us all to thank outgoing NCSL President Don Balfour of Georgia, outgoing Staff Chair Nancy Cyr of Nebraska, Immediate Past President Joe Hackney of North Carolina, and Immediate Past Staff Chair Gary VanLandingham of Florida, departing members of the Executive Committee and Committee Officers, as well as recently retired Deputy Executive Director Carl Tubbesing for their service to our NCSL. Please join me in saying a collective NCSL THANK YOU.