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A conversation with three NCSL officers.

William T. Pound, executive director of NCSL, sat down with three officers of NCSL to discuss their views on the importance and effectiveness of NCSL now and into the future. Oregon Senator Bruce Starr (R) is NCSL’s president. New Hampshire Speaker Terie Norelli (D) is NCSL’s immediate past president. Michael Adams, director of strategic planning in Virginia, is a former staff chair of NCSL.

William Pound: What do you find most special, most attractive about NCSL?

Terie Norelli: NCSL is the organization that deals with only state legislatures—not with governors, not with local municipalities or other branches of government. It is just for state legislatures. And I also think it’s really special that NCSL is the voice of state legislatures in Washington, D.C.

Bruce Starr: It is the bipartisan organization. It is clearly defined by its balance. That’s what really makes it special. And you mentioned the voice of the states. It is critically important. There is no other organization that has as much staff and as much focus upon the states’ perspective when dealing with members of Congress or the executive branch.

Michael Adams: NCSL is the only organization that includes legislative staff in its mission. It is vitally important that legislative staff have a place to connect to each other and to understand that their statehouse isn’t the only one tackling a certain set of circumstances, a certain set of issues, a certain environment that can exist and catch you by surprise. So staff’s investment in the success of this organization should not be underestimated.

Pound:What are some of our most successful programs or greatest successes in the last year or two?

Adams: The staff at NCSL play such a critically important role supporting legislators across the country. As the states have faced budget constraints, NCSL staff fill a void in our ability in our own capitols to have all the research that is necessary in grappling with the challenges we are facing as states. They are a resource that just doesn’t exist anywhere else and that piece is incredibly valuable, particularly when you look at the fiscal condition of the states in the past few years.

Norelli: And NCSL has done that without raising state dues in four years. So at a time when state legislatures are cutting back funds, we have continued to provide a high level of resources to state legislators, to legislative staff. In essence, this organization is an extension of state legislative staff so that if I go to my state legislative researchers to ask them what’s happening in other states, they have a place to turn to where that information exists.

Adams: I think what is maybe less known outside the organization is all of the professional opportunities that NCSL creates for legislative staff to become better at what they do. The Legislative Staff Management Institute, for example, is a week-long program that’s totally devoted to creating staff leaders who can usher state legislatures into the future.

Norelli: As conferences change and travel restrictions become more common, NCSL has adapted to that. We are doing a lot more webinars both for legislative staff and for legislators, and a lot more focused meetings like the fiscal leaders meetings or the education leaders meetings and the Staff Management Institute, in addition to our regular big conferences like the annual Summit.

Pound:You are right. We have made quite a bit of change. That doesn’t mean we don’t need more. What do you think the greatest challenges will be over the next couple of years to legislatures and NCSL?

Starr: Fiscal issues will continue to be an issue states have to grapple with. In Oregon, we have a public employee retirement system that is not completely funded. When you make promises to public employees and you are trying to make promises to school kids and to seniors and to your constituents about public safety, at some point you have to balance all those promises, and it requires very difficult choices for policymakers. The Conference, through its research, can help legislators work together from various states, communicate what’s working and what’s not. Those are ways NCSL can play a very important role for policymakers across the country.

Norelli: NCSL is still a place where legislators from different states, different parties and different perspectives can come together and share ideas. Talk about what has worked. Talk about what hasn’t worked. Share some best practices. I would add that tension between the federal government and the states continues to be an issue. NCSL is the place that gives voice to state legislatures when it comes to state and federal issues. That is really an important voice these days. Then there are particular issues, like health care reform, where NCSL is a great resource in making sure that states know what their obligations are and what is going on—making sure that states have the information they need to make their own decisions about how to move forward. NCSL gives them the information, gives them the background. It is another resource for them.

Adams: For whatever reason, there seems to be an appetite for division in America. And I think in terms of challenges that the organization faces, it’s being aware of that and making sure that we stay true to our roots and find that cooperative middle ground that is required to solve problems and not let that appetite for division grow.

Pound: How and why did you first get involved in NCSL?

Norelli: I got involved with NCSL because for the first time in nearly a century, the majority changed in our legislative body. We didn’t have mentors from leadership, and I turned to NCSL as a new speaker for training for our committee chairs and vice chairs, for help with staffing issues within the legislature, and was very happy with the services provided. That made me look further and end up going to an annual Legislative Summit. And once you are there and find out how much information there is, how much networking is available, what kind of resources NCSL can provide, it is pretty easy to stay involved.

Starr: I got involved in NCSL because Ramona Kennedy, the chief clerk of the House, told me to, and you didn’t tell Ramona “no.” She got me appointed to the election reform task force that was formed after the 2000 elections and that’s what got me first engaged in NCSL. I haven’t looked back since. I’ve been an officer in committees and special projects and on the executive committee. The organization has provided me with great leadership training opportunities that otherwise wouldn’t have been available to me.

Pound: What advice would you give to new legislators or new staff about NCSL and being involved?

Starr: My advice is to dig into a particular committee and get engaged and involved and show up and participate. And whenever there is an NCSL opportunity, pursue it. Whenever anybody from NCSL called and asked me to do anything, if I was at all able to do it, I would say “yes.” Dive straight in and take full advantage of all of the opportunities you can.

Norelli: My word to new legislators and legislative staff is NCSL is your organization. We are here to serve you and be your resource, so take advantage of it. Take advantage of coming to meetings, doing webinars, asking for information. NCSL is made up of every legislator in the country. Of every legislative staff member in the country. You are NCSL, so get involved.

Adams: Exactly. You are already a member of NCSL. There is no form you have to fill out. There is no process of initiation. You belong. And in an organization that you already belong to, I think it is important to ask what your contribution might be and how you might offer some unique expertise that others could consume. That’s the strength of the organization, people coming together contributing, and through contributing learning from each other.

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