The History of Us


NCSL Was Founded in the Conviction That Legislative Service Is One of Democracy's Worthiest Pursuits.

By Karl T. Kurtz

If NCSL didn't exist, we would have to invent it" is a phrase we hear often. So who did "invent" NCSL? How has it changed? What are the milestones in its 25-year history? How has NCSL become "the forum for America's ideas"?

In the early 1970s, there were three competing national organizations for state legislators. The National Legislative Conference was founded by a group of legislative service agency directors in 1948 to promote the coordination of research and exchange of ideas about legislative procedures, organization and services. Working as a wing of the Council of State Governments, NLC remained largely a staff organization until the mid-1950s, when legislators began to participate and assume leadership roles.

Legislative leaders from some of the larger states formed the National Conference of State Legislative Leaders in 1959. They felt that the Council of State Governments was dominated by governors and the National Legislative Conference by staff. They wanted to focus on the role of legislative leaders and to create an organization to rival the National Governors' Association.

Rank and file legislators reacted to the formation of the leaders' conference by establishing the National Society of State Legislators in the early 1960s. The society was a relatively small organization, but had particularly effective relations with an association of private sector leaders who were committed to the improvement of state legislatures.

In 1970-71 the three organizations, with the help of the Citizens Conference on State Legislatures (a private, nonprofit organization committed to legislative improvement), discussed a possible merger. These negotiations eventually bogged down, but did result in greater cooperation among the three organizations, especially in the area of federal representation in Washington, D.C. Merger talks revived in 1973-74 under the leadership of Connecticut Speaker William Ratchford, Ohio Speaker Charles Kurfess, Pennsylvania Speaker Herbert Fineman, Florida Representative George Firestone, Tennessee Representative Tom Jensen and staffers William Snodgrass of Tennessee and George McManus of Pennsylvania.

These leaders commissioned the Eagleton Institute of Politics under the direction of Alan Rosenthal to survey legislators and staff about the need for a single national organization and to make recommendations about the structure of a merged organization.

In August 1974 the National Legislative Conference and the National Society of State Legislators met in Albuquerque, along with the executive committee of the National Conference of State Legislative Leaders. The three entities voted to dissolve their organizations and form the National Conference of State Legislatures effective Jan. 1, 1975. Speaker Kurfess characterized the merger as "the most important step we can take to convince the nation of the strength and the quality of state legislatures."

Crucial to the success of the merger was the support of the Council of State Governments, which granted $500,000 to the new organization to support its first six months of operations until it could obtain its own funds from state appropriations. The Council of State Governments was the home of four regional organizations of state legislators, and this arrangement continued after the merger of the national organizations.

The structure of NCSL today is a direct result of the key issues and compromises in the merger negotiations of 1975. During the final stages, Maryland Senate President Pro Tem Steny Hoyer (now a member of Congress) argued effectively that the most fundamental powers of the organization should reside in the annual meeting-the largest and most democratic forum of the organization. As a result, annual meeting participants must approve the NCSL budget, review its annual audit, elect its officers and executive committee, and adopt all policy positions. Initial NCSL annual meetings drew 2,000 to 2,500 participants. Attendance at the 1979 event in San Francisco jumped to over 4,000, and participation of 6,000 legislators, legislative staff, private sector and families has become routine in the 1990s.

Each of the original groups left legacies still present in the structure of NCSL today. Legislative leaders were concerned that leaders play a key role in the new organization, so the bylaws specified that the president and at least 10 members of the executive committee be legislative leaders. NCSL regularly conducts seminars and produces publications specifically for leaders and maintains a Leaders' Center to respond to their needs.

The National Legislative Conference played a critical role in supporting the communication and professional development needs of legislative staff, and these services were continued and expanded under NCSL. Three of the seven NCSL officers are staff, and legislative staff are represented on the executive committee in a ratio of two legislators to one staff person. The original NCSL executive committee of 34 members has grown to 60, but the 2:1 legislator-staff ratio has remained constant. NCSL has 10 very active professional societies of legislative staff operating under its auspices.

As a carryover from the National Society of State Legislators, NCSL established a close working relationship with the State Government Affairs Council (SGAC), a national organization of private sector leaders who share NCSL's commitment to strengthening the legislative institution and the states' role in the federal system.

Today's Assembly on Federal Issues was an outgrowth of an intergovernmental relations committee of the National Legislative Conference and has been in place virtually in its present form since the first days of NCSL. AFI develops NCSL's policy positions on federal issues and lobbies Congress and the administration on behalf of the legislatures. The Assembly on State Issues was founded in 1978 as a state issues counterpart to AFI. ASI serves as a forum for the exchange of ideas on state issues and generally does not adopt policy positions.

NCSL established the Foundation for State Legislatures in 1982 as a nonprofit, tax-exempt corporation that raises money to support the objectives and special projects of the conference. Its volunteer board of directors is composed of corporate and union executives, as well as state legislative leaders and senior legislative staff.

Offices and Staff

The first decision that confronted the executive committee of the new National Conference of State Legislatures was the selection of an executive director. Earl S. Mackey, one of two candidates from among the directors of the predecessor organizations, was chosen to run NCSL. Mackey had previously served in the Missouri House of Representatives, on the staff of the United States Senate and as an association executive.

After hiring an executive director, the executive committee conducted a national search to select a headquarters city. After considering Washington, D.C., the committee decided that a national organization of states should be located in a state rather than the federal capital. Denver was selected in a competition with nine other cities because of its good air transportation, attractiveness for recruiting staff and the presence of a number of other national and regional organizations of state officials. The Denver office has occupied space in four different downtown locations since 1975.

The NCSL leadership was committed to a strong office in Washington, D.C., to represent the interests of legislatures. NCSL's Washington offices were located with the National Governors' Association and the Council of State Governments, and NCSL was immediately recognized as part of the Big Seven organizations of state and local government officials. In 1976 NCSL, CSG and NGA established the Hall of the States in Washington as a home for most of the major state government associations and individual state offices.

The new executive director was charged with hiring the rest of the staff. Several people who had worked for the National Legislative Conference came to work for NCSL. The staff numbered approximately 25 at the outset in 1975. A year later it had grown to 54. Today the staff includes 146 in Denver and 51 in Washington, D.C.

Mackey served for 12 years as NCSL's executive director. William T. Pound succeeded him in 1987 and continues in that role today. Pound had worked for NCSL since early in 1975 and had previously taught political science at the University of Denver.

Expansion of Services

NCSL's flagship publication has always been State Legislatures magazine. However, the one-color newsletter style of the January 1975 issue bears little resemblance to NCSL's modern magazine. State Legislatures began accepting advertising in 1983 and moved to four-color printing in 1986.

From the outset, NCSL staff placed high priority on prompt, accurate, bipartisan responses to information requests. In the earliest days of the organization, a small group of NCSL generalists would meet every Monday morning to review all pending information requests and discuss how to answer them. Those days are long gone. Information requests now number several thousand per month, and the staff are issue specialists.

In order to facilitate the exchange of information among state legislatures and to reduce the number of questions asked of NCSL, a small group of legislative staff directors worked with NCSL in the late 1970s to develop an electronic information exchange of legislative research reports called LEGISNET. This was an important milestone in NCSL's growth and was a very early use of on-line information systems for exchange of policy information among the states. In 1994 NCSL began making LEGISNET available through an electronic bulletin board system that soon evolved into a presence on the World Wide Web. Today, over half a million legislative policy documents are accessible to legislators and legislative staff via NCSLnet, NCSL's Web site (

NCSL made some fundamental budget decisions in 1975 to emphasize services in two areas: the management and organization of the legislative institution and state fiscal policy. These early decisions about the allocation of resources are still present in the NCSL budget today. NCSL emphasizes the legislative institution because it is unique in this field, and improving the quality and effectiveness of legislatures is one of its fundamental goals. State fiscal policy has been a focus because the power of the purse is the most fundamental legislative power, and NCSL believes it should be expert in this field.

NCSL was actively involved in providing training and professional development for legislative staff from the outset. The development of training and technical assistance programs for legislators was facilitated by a grant from the federal government under the Intergovernmental Personnel Act beginning in 1976.

This grant, called Project TRAIN, provided resources to allow NCSL to tailor training programs to the needs of individual states and deliver services directly in state capitals. After Project TRAIN funding ran out, NCSL continued to provide specially tailored individual state assistance programs.

Today, NCSL delivers more than 100 programs in three-quarters of the states every year. In the 1990s it has moved into the international arena to assist emerging democracies in strengthening their legislatures and federal systems.

The National Legislative Conference brought a few federal and foundation grants to NCSL in education finance and science and technology. The energy crisis of the late 1970s caused the federal government to urge states to invest more in alternative energy sources and led to a great expansion of NCSL grant activity in the areas of energy, natural resources and the environment. NCSL's growing reputation in these policy areas helped to obtain grants in human services, health care and criminal justice.

In the early 1980s the first Reagan administration substantially reduced federal grants to state and local government, and this led to the first significant cutbacks in NCSL funds and staffing. It also caused NCSL to expand marketing of its products and services, including advertising in the magazine and sale of publications and exhibits at the annual meeting in order to diversify funding sources.

After the first Reagan administration, grants and contracts gradually expanded again. In the early 1990s grants made up 42 percent of NCSL's funding and allowed staff to specialize in specific policy areas in ways that would not be possible without them. Almost all of these grants were in the Denver office.

In 1996 the Intergovernmental Health Policy Project and the Health Policy Tracking Service, formerly housed at George Washington University, agreed to transfer operations to NCSL in its Washington office. This greatly expanded both NCSL services in health care policy and the size and mission of the Washington office.

NCSL's core funding comes from the appropriations that state legislatures make to support the organization. This means that there is an annual test of the value of this invention: whether or not the 50 states provide the necessary operating funds. In NCSL's first fiscal year, 1975-76, 46 states appropriated funds to support the new organization. Within one year, 49 states were participating, and by 1977-78 all 50 states were members. Since that time, state, territorial and commonwealth legislatures have confirmed the value of NCSL every year by appropriating more than 95 percent of the funds requested of them.

Working in partnership with the state legislatures, NCSL has matured into a vital organization. As legislatures have taken on more and more responsibilities, NCSL has grown in its ability to support their work. Together NCSL and the state legislatures have become the forum for America's ideas.

Karl T. Kurtz, NCSL's director of state services, worked for the National Legislative Conference before joining the NCSL staff in 1975.


So You Think You Know NCSL

1. Who was the first woman officer of NCSL?

2. Which annual meeting had the largest attendance (and the most media coverage)?

3. What city has hosted the annual meeting most frequently?

4. Who was the first African American officer of NCSL?

5. Presidents Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush and Clinton have all spoken numerous times at NCSL functions. However, only one has spoken in person at the annual meeting during his term in office. Who, where and when?

6. What state has had the most officers of NCSL?

7. What three state capitals were the finalists for selection as the NCSL headquarters?

8. What were the original names of the Assembly on Federal Issues and the Assembly on State Issues?

9. What are the voting rules for NCSL to take a policy position?

10. What major event in U.S. political history occurred one week before the 1974 annual meeting in Albuquerque at which the formation of NCSL was approved?

11. What former presidents of NCSL currently serve in Congress?

12. What are the names of the four people who have served as directors of NCSL's Washington office?

Answers to NCSL Trivia

(1) Bonnie Reese, Wisconsin, staff chair, 1975-76. Missouri Representative Karen McCarthy, 1994, was the first woman legislator officer. (2) Orlando in 1991-8,200. (3) New Orleans, Philadelphia and Indianapolis, twice each. (4) Robert Smartt, New Jersey, staff chair, 1981-82. Arizona Representative Art Hamilton, 1992-93, was the first African American legislator officer. (5) Reagan in Atlanta in 1981. (6) Florida-four. Kansas, New York, Ohio and Wisconsin have had three each. (7) Denver, Indianapolis, Columbus. (8) Intergovernmental Relations Committee (later State Federal Assembly) and Assembly on the Legislature. (9) One vote per state, three-fourths majority required for passage. (10) Resignation of President Nixon. (11) Martin O. Sabo, Minnesota, and Karen McCarthy, Missouri. (12) Jerome Sohns, John Callahan, Robert Goss, Carl Tubbesing.


Who Was Who

By the middle of 1975, a number of staff who continue to serve as leaders of NCSL today were working for the new organization. Karl Kurtz, current director of state services, and Dick Merritt, director of the Intergovernmental Health Policy Project, had worked for the National Legislative Conference and joined the staff of the new organization. Executive Director Bill Pound and Deputy Executive Director Carl Tubbesing came to work soon after the headquarters opened in Denver in 1975. Jerry Sohns, director of the NCSL Foundation for State Legislatures, was the first director of NCSL's Washington office. Other staff with more than 20 years of service with NCSL include Doug Sacarto, Diane Chaffin, Doug Webb and Larry Morandi in the Denver office and Joy Johnson Wilson and Kathy Brennan-Wiggins in the Washington office.

Many NCSL staff have gone on to other distinguished positions in and out of government. Among the more noteworthy are:

Jim Edgar, NCSL's first director of state services, served as governor of Illinois from 1990-98. Before that he was an Illinois representative, on Governor Jim Thompson's staff and secretary of state.
Two former NCSL staff members became directors of congressional budget committees. John Callahan was director of the Senate Budget Committee under Tennessee Senator James Sasser and now serves as assistant secretary for management at the Department of Health and Human Services. Rick May served as director of the House Budget Committee chaired by Ohio Representative John Kasich. May now lobbies in Washington, D.C., for Davidson and Associates.
Former NCSL executive director Earl Mackey is vice chancellor of the Ohio Board of Regents.


25 Years of Service to You

For the past 25 years, we have been at your service: answering your questions, giving you the kind of research you need to do your job better, providing you with ideas for solving America's problems. You've turned to us and in all our work, you come first. Here's a snapshot of that work over the past quarter century.

  • Number of state legislators we have served: 112,500
  • Members of Congress we have lobbied: 7,400
  • Presidential administrations we have lobbied: 7
  • The number of times you've asked us for information, and we've answered: 304,124, plus hundreds of thousands more that you get answered from that we can't count
  • The number of books, magazines and periodicals we've written and published: 1,708
  • The number of meetings we've put on: 500
  • The attendance at those meetings: 175,000
  • The number of issues we've lobbied: 1,250
  • The number of topics covered in the magazine: 5,000
  • The number of issues researched by NCSL: 21,000
  • The total of research grants won on behalf of the states: $88 million
  • The number of times we visited states to testify or support your work on issues: 900
  • Number of NCSL staff who have provided these services: 868

As we enter a new century, just as we have for the past 25 years, we will be here to help you advance your ideas, bring you the latest ideas, promote the exchange of ideas and take America's ideas to Capitol Hill.