Our American States | An NCSL Podcast

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The “Our American States” podcast—produced by the National Conference of State Legislatures—is where you can hear compelling conversations that tell the story of America’s state legislatures, the people in them, the politics that compel them, and the important work of democracy.

You can listen to the podcast on this page, you can subscribe through iTunes, Google Play, Spotify or Stitcher, or you can use the RSS icon at the right to copy a feed URL for your podcatcher. 


Sending kids back to the classroom is a goal across the country for many reasons. Along with concerns about falling behind academically and parents’ need to have children in school, experts also are concerned about mental and behavioral health needs. Studies indicate children in need of such services are much more likely to receive them at school.

Our guests include Craig Wethington with the Minnesota Department of Education. He discusses how his state has used collaborative improvement and innovation networks, or CoIINs, to improve the quality of school mental health services. He also talks about a community survey of students that indicates many kids were struggling with mental health issues even before the pandemic and how the legislature in his state worked to improve mental health programs.

Another guest on the show is Rebecca Astorga with the Arizona Department of Education. She discusses programs and resources states can employ to bolster their mental health services and the role that Project AWARE, a federal grant program, has played in expanding the capacity of the state to address mental health issues among young people.

We also talk with Noah Cruz, an NCSL policy researcher, who offers some background on the topic.

Noah Cruz, NCSLCraig Wethington, Minnesota Department of EducationRebecca Astorga, Arizona Department of Education






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Category: Education
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Emily BenferMillions of people are evicted from their homes every year in America and the COVID-19 pandemic has only made the situation worse. While poverty in America has been studied extensively, much less is known about evictions. In the last 20 years, the Eviction Lab at Princeton University has gathered records on more than 80 million evictions. Matt Desmond, who created the Eviction Lab and authored the Pulitzer Prize winning book “Evicted,” was interviewed on an earlier episode of “Our American States.”

To discuss how the eviction crisis has grown during the pandemic, we invited Emily Benfer on the podcast. Benfer, a visiting professor of law at Wake Forest University and an expert on housing and health law, is the co-creator of the COVID-19 Housing Policy Scorecard with the Eviction Lab and principal investigator in a study of nationwide COVID-19 eviction moratoriums and housing policies. She also chairs the American Bar Association's COVID-19 Task Force Committee on Eviction.

Benfer explains how the pandemic has exacerbated the eviction problem, who is being evicted and how the recently extended federal eviction moratorium factors into the situation. She also explains the role state policymakers can play in implementing state eviction moratoriums and how some legal procedures can help people facing eviction.


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The Quad Caucus is a coalition of the four national caucuses of color representing Asian-Pacific American, Black, Native American and Hispanic  legislators. Combined, the four groups represent more than 1,400 state lawmakers. The group came together in 2012 with the support of NCSL and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and is focused on promoting equitable outcomes in all communities focusing on people of color in the areas of health, education, economic security and justice.

On this podcast we talk with Washington Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos (D) and Kansas Rep. Barbara Ballard (D). Both are veteran legislators and longtime members of the Quad Caucus. Santos and Ballard discussed the work of the caucus and the effort to create more diverse legislatures.

Kansas Rep. Barbara BallardWashington Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos





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Category: Legislators
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Podcast logoNCSL’s Our American States podcast presents a special six-part series, “Building Democracy: The Story of Legislatures.” This new mini-series covers the history, characters and stories of state legislatures in America, from the beginnings in Jamestown, to the present day and into the future.

Each episode in the series will contain interviews with experts from inside and outside the legislative world to provide a comprehensive view of historical events and their legacy in today’s legislatures. Extras will include extended guest interview clips, articles in NCSL’s State Legislatures magazine, blogs and resources for those who want to dive deeper into topics covered in the podcast.

Episode 5

The fifth installment of NCSL’s six-episode podcast series takes place in the not-too-distant past. The work of legislating changed dramatically between the 1960s and the 1990s, resulting in more responsive and representative legislatures.

By the early 1900s, legislatures had become increasingly dependent upon the executive branch, decreasing their coequal status in state government. Beginning in the late ’50s and early ’60s, demands on legislatures grew and lawmakers and their constituencies became more diverse.

In response to 20th-century challenges, lawmakers began to spend more time on the job, with sessions getting longer and more frequent, often including interim work. These changes, along with exponential increases in the number of legislative staff, brought the work of legislators and the mission of legislative institutions into a new age.

Delve into the characters, stories and organizations that believed in representative democracy and the legislative institution enough to come together and study, innovate and create stronger legislatures.


  • Representative Senfronia Thompson, Texas | Bio
  • Former Senator Fred Risser, Wisconsin | Bio
  • E. Dotson Wilson, former chief clerk, California State Assembly | Bio
  • Speaker Bryan Cutler, Pennsylvania | Bio
  • Bill Pound, former executive director, NCSL | Bio

Additional Resources

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Ann Morse, NCSLA new report from NCSL, “Immigrant Policy Project: Report on State Immigration Laws, 2020,” summarizes state laws and resolutions enacted between January and December 2020 and trends in immigration legislation throughout the year.

The report’s author, Ann Morse, is federal affairs counsel for NCSL’s Immigrant Policy Project and a longtime observer of state legislation related to immigrants. Morse is the guest on this podcast.

Morse discusses the findings in the report, including a trend to address occupational licensing laws to reduce barriers to employment for foreign trained professionals who are in the country legally. She also talks about legislation related to education, law enforcement, driver’s licenses and more.

It’s been 35 years since the federal government has enacted comprehensive immigration legislation and Morse explains how that has motivated states to take action on their own and the possibility of action at the federal level under the new administration.


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Category: Immigration
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The U.S. census is an enormous once-a-decade undertaking aimed at counting everyone in the country. Despite its scope and importance, the census rarely makes headlines. This past year, however, upset virtually everything in society and the census was no exception. The data state legislatures rely on for redistricting congressional and state legislative seats will not be available until Sept. 30, six months later than usual.

James Whitehorne, chief of the Redistricting and Voting Rights Data Office at U.S. Census Bureau, is the first guest on the podcast. Whitehorne discusses how the pandemic affected the bureau’s ability to collect data, other challenges the bureau faced, the success of using online forms and offers some historical perspective on the 2020 count.

The second guest is Wendy Underhill, who oversees the Elections and Redistricting Program at NCSL.  Underhill discusses steps states are taking to deal with the delayed data delivery and how it might affect election filing dates, and also reminds listeners that he census forms the basis of how the federal government distributes about $1.5 trillion annually to states.

James Whitehorne, U.S. Census BureauWendy Underhill, NCSL





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Like many areas of society, the criminal justice system has struggled over the last year dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. The Council on Criminal Justice, a nonpartisan think tank that works to advance understanding of the criminal justice system and help inform the development of public policy, decided to take a deep dive into the system to see how it was coping. The council formed a task force in mid-2020 to examine how the criminal justice system has responded to the pandemic, offer guidance in the short term on how to deal with those challenges and a longer term assessment to help criminal justice leaders develop policies for the future.

The guests on this podcast discuss what they discovered, the type of guidance the council offered leaders in the criminal justice system and what needs to change to prepare for the next catastrophe.

Our guests are  Abby Walsh, the council’s vice president for strategy and operations,  and Thomas Abt, director of the task force and an expert on criminal justice policy. He is also the author of “Bleeding Out: The Devastating Consequences of Urban Violence—and a Bold New Plan for Peace in the Streets.”

Abby Walsh, CCJThomas Abt, CCJ





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Social isolation and loneliness are topics most of us have first-hand experience with after a year of a pandemic has left us unable to spend time with family and friends. The ill effects of such  isolation are not just on our mental health but also can affect our physical health just as much as cigarette smoking or obesity.

Our guests are Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a professor of psychology at Brigham Young University in Utah,  and Lori Gerhard, director of the Office of Interagency Innovation at the U.S. Administration for Community Living.

Holt-Lunstad, who has studied the topic for decades, discusses groups in society most at risk for social isolation and how public policy can help address the problem. Gerhard addresses particularly how social isolation affects older Americans and how policies at the federal and state level can help them with these challenges.

Dr. Julianne Holt-LunstadLori Gerhard





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Category: COVID-19
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HIV/AIDS has killed about 700,000 people in the U.S. since it first emerged more than 40 years ago. But deaths have dropped dramatically since the mid-‘90s as new treatments have beome available. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in 2019 launched the Ending the HIV Epidemic Initiative that aims to eliminate the disease in this country.

On this podcast, we talk with Dr. Jonathan Mermin, director of the National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD and TB Prevention at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He discusses the range of treatments available to fight HIV/AIDS, strategies to prevent spread of the disease and the role state policymakers can play in helping eradicate the disease.

Our other guest if Charlie Severance-Medaris, a policy expert at NCSL. Charlie explains the steps states are taking to help people to get access to critical medications, changes in laws that have criminalized some behaviors for people with HIV/AIDS, and other efforts at the state level to end the epidemic.

Dr Jonathan Mermin, CDCCharlie Severance-Medaris, NCSL





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Category: Health
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The ability to negotiate skillfully is critical to a well-functioning legislature. On this episode, our guest makes the point that negotiation skills are not only crucial to the legislature, they are similarly important in just about everything you do in life.

Our guest, Monica Giannone, is a consultant and trainer specializing in negotiation and conflict resolution. She also runs the Harvard Kennedy School Negotiation Project and is an adjunct lecturer in negotiation at Babson College.


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Category: Leadership
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