SAN DIEGO—Workforce. Workforce. Workforce. If there’s one issue sure to be repeated during the upcoming legislative sessions, it’s how to solve the nation’s labor and employment problems.
That’s the message NCSL CEO Tim Storey shared at a session titled “The Legislative Forecast: Hot! Hot! Hot!” during the first NCSL Forecast ’23 meeting on Dec. 6. He says the struggle to employ workers resonates with legislators he’s talked to from coast to coast, and that in more than 30 years of legislative work, he has never seen such unanimity across states and among leaders in identifying a big issue.
You are probably, as a legislator or legislative staff person, trying to figure out how to keep employees in schools and are using every tool in the toolbox to do that.
—NCSL CEO Tim Storey
From recruitment and retention to labor shortages and remote work to modernizing unemployment systems and affordable benefits for gig workers and more, the workforce theme resonated with panelist and Massachusetts Senate President Karen E. Spilka (D). She pointed to the dire need for workers in all sectors—child care, teaching, hospitality, restaurants, health care—that, she says, will continue to be the center of focus in 2023. “So many people, particularly women, were sandwiched in between the care for their children and their parents and dropped out of the workforce,” she says, citing the issue’s tie to the pandemic.
North Carolina Rep. Jason Saine (R), senior chair of the House Appropriations Committee, says his colleagues have been very cognizant that workers might need retraining to provide different skills for new employment opportunities. “We’re very nimble in that we can design programs so if a new company comes in and they’re bringing in 2,000, 4,000 jobs, we can retrain those workers quickly and have them readily available to go to work.”
Washington House Speaker Laurie Jinkins (D), says states must be more creative and innovative than ever before when it comes to thinking about the workforce. “We have to create more educational slots and apprenticeship slots, but we will not be able to educate our way out of this,” she says.
Other predictions shared by the panel for top issues during the 2023 legislative sessions:
Storey says, collectively, states are perhaps as stable as they have ever been in terms of budgets and revenue, with rainy day funds at the highest levels NCSL has ever seen. “The revenues have continued to exceed forecast in almost all states,” he says. And while consumer spending is strong, inflation and soaring prices will be front and center. “I think the end of the pandemic has created this unique set of circumstances that are unprecedented.”
Storey says NCSL’s Health Program reports mental and behavioral health, especially among teens, as a top issue, with discussions reaching a high level of concern. “It’s clear this is a major problem across the country,” he says.
Other top concerns? Telehealth, Storey adds, will continue to evolve, while Saine cites Medicaid expansion and Spilka points to lowering the cost of pharmaceuticals and expanding scope of practice licensing. Jinkins says that Washington passed a two-year plan to invest in more substance use disorder treatment, while lessening criminal penalties—something that needs continued work. She also highlights reproductive issues in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision.
A major part of state budgets, education will remain a hot issue in 2023, Storey says. In the post-COVID climate, he says, policymakers will be exploring ways to close the pandemic-driven learning gap, along with—you guessed it—workforce issues. “Whether it’s administrators, teachers, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, you are probably, as a legislator or legislative staff person, trying to figure out how to keep employees in schools and are using every tool in the toolbox to do that,” he says.
College debt and affordability and school choice are other top education issues. Spilka says her state will look for ways to offer low-cost or no-cost public higher education, particularly at the community college level. She says enhancing early college and apprenticeship programs, along with ways to help students pay for non-tuition expenses, such as child care and transportation, are top of mind, as well.
Saine says North Carolina is pursuing similar efforts, including innovative programs in the state’s community college systems and scholarships that have led to increased enrollment on university campuses.
Once again, workforce issues are central to public safety, Storey says, adding that states are also looking at alternatives to incarceration and reviewing penalties for nonviolent criminals.
Spending infrastructure money wisely and overseeing the executive branch will be major tasks for legislatures in 2023, Storey says. Other hot topics: augmenting the gas tax in light of electric vehicles, boosting traffic safety, modernizing the electrical grid, and planning the future of nuclear energy and broadband.
“Like most states, we’ve invested a lot into broadband,” Saine says, noting that the pandemic exposed the need for high-speed broadband in rural areas. “It really is a game changer for us in North Carolina.”
With the focus on voting issues in legislatures in recent years, Storey predicts both a bit of election administration fatigue for 2023 and a continuing partisan divide. “The Democratic states are going to continue to look at expanding online and in-person voter registration, and the Republican states are going to continue to look at verifiable absentee ballot issues and voter ID laws.”
Preparing for natural disasters, such as hurricanes, wildfires, floods and drought, will be top of mind in many states, especially those in the West, Storey says, while PFAS—the so-called forever chemicals used in clothing, non-stick cookware and many other products—are also getting a lot of discussion. Jinkins adds climate change policy implementation to the list.
… And More
Affordable housing, tax cuts and rebates, privacy concerns and cybersecurity remain high priorities, while cryptocurrency is likely to be less of a burning issue in 2023, Storey says.
For more on the hottest policy topics and trends for 2023, check out this State Legislatures News Special Report.
Lesley Kennedy is a director in NCSL’s Communications Division.