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Hottest Topic for 2024? Workforce Still Top of Mind for States

NCSL experts share insights on the legislative outlook for the upcoming sessions at Forecast ’24.

By Lesley Kennedy  |  December 5, 2023

AUSTIN, Texas—Leading into the 2023 legislative sessions, the workforce led the pack when it came to the most pressing topics facing state lawmakers. A year later, the issue hasn’t gone anywhere, remaining top of mind and intersecting other hot policy areas from fiscal matters to health care, education and technology.

Kate Blackman, NCSL vice president of policy and research, and Molly Ramsdell, vice president of state-federal relations, kicked off NCSL Forecast ’24 with a discussion of the critical policy issues facing legislatures as they prepare for the 2024 sessions. 

Along with tracking state and federal actions and information requests from legislators and legislative staff, NCSL surveyed 30-plus leaders nationwide to determine the significant issues states are expected to tackle next year. State budgets took the top spot, while education, housing, energy and mental health ranked high as well. And the workforce? It factors in everywhere. 

State Legislatures News Special Report: A Look at 2024’s Trending Legislative Topics

NCSL has the facts, the figures and the forecast to help legislators and staff prepare for the new session. From education to the environment, from elections to energy, the stories in this special report offer insights from NCSL experts on what lies ahead for state lawmakers in 2024. What’s trending for the new year? Find out now

Budgets and Fiscal Health

A perennial top issue, budgets remain critical in 2024, Blackman says, driving much of the conversation in states and across other policy issues. 

Blackman says the end of pandemic-related federal aid to states and overall economic uncertainty has states preparing for revenue growth to slow—but that many states are still in relatively strong fiscal positions. 

“Many are still trying to determine how to use funds and surplus funds,” she says. “And they’ve also spent some time replenishing rainy day funds. So that contributes to that strong picture.”

In relation to the workforce, Blackman says states are expected to address the multitude of tax issues raised by remote work, including personal income taxes, employment taxes, business taxes and more.

The Workforce

Most states will look at workforce issues in the upcoming year, and, according to Ramsdell, both Moody’s Analytics and the Economic Policy Institute have projected that the federal infrastructure bill alone could add up to 800,000 jobs annually over the next decade.

She says while the feds are looking at ways to support job training, career pathways and retention and recruitment, there are many opportunities for states to leverage workforce development funding through three major new federal laws: the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the Inflation Reduction Act, and the Creating Helpful Incentives to Produce Semiconductors and Science Act of 2022.

“I recall one report that said of the $1.2 trillion in new spending across those three bills, there was $1 billion dedicated to workforce development alone,” Ramsdell says. “And that goes across climate manufacturing, transportation, broadband, energy, scientific research and the semiconductor industry as it relates to CHIP.” 

Meanwhile, states also are investing in and trying new approaches to workforce development, Blackman says. For example, some states are focusing more on skills over degrees. 

“States are reassessing roles to identify if there are any unnecessary degree requirements and to promote hiring that aligns with a skills-first approach,” she says. “At least 18 states have removed degree requirements associated with some government jobs as an approach to reduce barriers to employment and to help some folks who may have been overlooked through traditional recruitment processes be part of the job market.”

Tight labor markets have prompted states to focus on improving the accessibility of occupational licenses to bolster the workforce as states compete with each other to fill job openings. And another hot workforce topic: shortages among child care workers. 

“States are taking action around things like raising wages for early childhood educators,” Blackman says. “They’re also expanding eligibility for child care assistance, and they’re covering low-income families.” 

The impact of state investments is not yet clear, and competition among the workforce for higher-paying jobs means many child care centers may have to raise rates when federal funds end.

“There’s definitely interest and support for addressing the concerns of child care, but it’s in a long list of issues with budget priorities and budget pressures,” Ramsdell says. “So, time will tell what happens there.”


Use of artificial intelligence is growing rapidly, Blackman says, and at least 15 states and Puerto Rico adopted resolutions or enacted legislation related to AI in the 2023 legislative session.

AI also intersects several other hot topics, such as education, health and elections, Blackman says, noting that at least 13 states have introduced legislation related to AI in health care. Some states are trying to prohibit the use of AI to influence elections or demand disclosure of political communication that contains content generated by AI.

On the federal side, Ramsdell says, the Biden administration released an expansive executive order on AI in October, immediately followed by guidance from the Office of Personnel Management. 

Although there is pending legislation in these areas, Congress has yet to pass a bill. However, Ramsdell says, expect lawmakers to continue to push for passage of one or both of two pending online children’s privacy bills in the new year.

Health Policy

State legislators introduced more than 23,000 bills on health policy in 2023, and the topic will continue to be a focus in state legislatures in 2024. “For context, states considered somewhere upwards of 150,000 bills as a whole,” Blackman says. 

Medicaid, she says, takes up about 30% of state budgets and is another perennial issue that will continue to receive attention from policymakers across the country.

“We expect next year that legislatures will continue to look at improving both access and efficiencies in their Medicaid programs and continue to look at things like waivers as well as managed care and managed care organization oversight,” she says. 

Concerns around health workforce shortages continue as well, with states looking at areas including career pathways, apprenticeships, licensing, and recruitment and retention incentives.

Mental health also is expected to remain a priority in 2024, Blackman says, adding that concerns surrounding the topic are being heard across many sectors, including education, criminal justice, and crisis response and the workforce. 

More Hot Topics

Criminal Justice: States continue to address the opioid crisis by increasing criminal penalties for possessing, selling and trafficking fentanyl. Legislatures also continue to look at community-based approaches that both prioritize public safety and prevent people from becoming more deeply involved with the justice system. And states continue to expand their role in policing policy, with more than 6,700 introduced bills in the last four years. Lawmakers will continue to consider police accountability, such as state decertification processes that are now in nearly every state.

Cannabis: For states that have legalized cannabis for medical and non-medical adult use, related policies are cropping on topics including health and education, taxation, transportation and more, Blackman says. On the federal side, Ramsdell notes there is some talk by the administration of reclassifying cannabis as a Schedule 3 substance through rulemaking. “I’d give that about a 50-50 chance,” she says. And earlier this year, she adds, there was positive movement on federal legislation to allow banks to provide financial services to cannabis companies without fear of federal punishment—but that has stalled.

Education: Legislators are trying to create an education system that prepares all students for college or career and addresses the academic and mental health impacts of the pandemic, Blackman says. And states will continue their work to improve literacy and math instruction and curriculum, increase special education screening, and support tutoring. 

“And, again on the workforce theme, states still have shortages by subject grade area and geographic location,” she says. “So, states are looking at improving teacher compensation and those high-retention career pathways to get more educators into the profession.”

On the federal side, Ramsdell says, the winding down of education stimulus spending and rollout of the new application for federal student aid, or FAFSA, will be top of mind. 

Infrastructure: Touching on broadband, Ramsdell points to the federal infrastructure law of 2021, which created the $42 billion Broadband Equity and Access Deployment Program, providing funding to all 50 states, Washington, D.C., and the territories to expand high-speed internet access by funding and infrastructure deployment. Some of these funds, she says, can be used by states for workforce issues. 

Blackman says nearly every state introduced or enacted legislation addressing broadband issues during the 2023 legislative session. Issues she says states will likely consider in 2024 include funding, governance authorities, infrastructure, municipal-run broadband networks, reaching rural and underserved communities, and taxation. 

Transportation: Even with all the investments in infrastructure, Ramsdell says, the federal gas tax—last raised in 1993—isn’t keeping up with demand, and new funding sources for surface transportation are needed. She also notes that the federal infrastructure law included funding to establish a national vehicle miles traveled pilot program. An advisory committee established a year and a half ago to guide the development of the program has been significantly delayed, she says, but there is now hope it will launch in early 2024. 

At the state level, Blackman says that states are considering direct user fee options to replace or supplement the state gas tax, noting that at least 12 states considered a form of road usage charges requiring drivers to pay based on miles driven instead of gallons of fuel consumed, and that at least seven states enacted legislation to tax electricity consumed at public EV charging stations.

Energy: Meeting growing energy demands is another priority for state lawmakers, Blackman says. “We anticipate that lawmakers will continue their efforts to boost the reliability and the resilience of the grid,” she says. “We also expect lawmakers in some states to continue their efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.” 

Housing: Multiple factors have contributed to the growing challenges around housing and homelessness, and states have put a new focus on these issues, Blackman says. In 2023, legislators introduced more than 2,500 bills to address housing and homelessness—nearly double the number in 2022. 

“Some of the approaches that lawmakers are considering include expanding tenants’ rights to purchase properties, establishing eviction protections, incentivizing developers to build more affordable housing, and modifying zoning requirements to allow for greater density,” she says.

Blackman says that lawmakers also are exploring options to bolster workforce housing and home financing opportunities for first-time homebuyers and those in occupations—teachers, first responders and others—where housing can be both a barrier and an incentive for employment.

Ramsdell says that federal legislation has been introduced in both chambers of Congress to address housing supply, access, affordability and quality. “They have also been looking at affordable housing for specific populations or in specific areas, such as rural communities. And they’ve also had concerns, or concerns have been expressed about, housing in and around military bases.” 

Elections: With 2024 being a presidential election year, Blackman says it’s important to note that every year, states and territories enact about 300 laws relating to elections, and that number is expected to be similar in the upcoming sessions. One major trend: ensuring clean voter rolls.

“States are responsible for maintaining their voter lists,” she says. “And accuracy helps protect against fraud, helps with budgeting and decreases wait times at the polls.” 

Lesley Kennedy is NCSL’s director of publishing and digital content.

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