Walking the halls of the U.S. Capitol. Climbing the marble steps between floors. Waiting in line for a hearing. Grabbing a cup of coffee in the Senate cafeteria. It feels like an eternity since those simple acts were part of working in government relations.
Coping with the new normal during the pandemic—whether in Washington or state capitols—has been challenging. But it has also provided new and exciting opportunities.
Being Part of the Conversation
NCSL has engaged its members in conversation with the new administration through virtual meet-and-greets with staff from the Environmental Protection Agency and the Departments of Energy, Transportation and the Interior. “Each of the committee’s legislators was able to ask about specific projects and concerns to learn the plans and policies of the new administration,” says Hawaii Representative David Tarnas (D), who co-chairs NCSL’s Natural Resources and Infrastructure Committee with Utah Representative Stephen Handy (R).
About 30 legislators and staff participated in each event. “These were outstanding conversations,” Handy says, “and I appreciated this opportunity to make contacts with federal officials who will be able to assist me and my colleagues in Utah with our policy priorities. The time was well spent!”
Showcasing States Leading the Way
Even before the pandemic, legislative session schedules made it hard for legislators to make the trip to Washington, D.C., between January and June. Virtual congressional briefings have allowed NCSL to feature more lawmakers than usual and showcase states leading the way on issues of national importance.
This briefing focused on the federal actions that would be most beneficial to states for pandemic recovery and made the case for long-standing education priorities to maintain a strong state-federal relationship. NCSL Education Committee Director Austin Reid was joined by Delaware Senate President Pro Tempore David Sokola (D) and Utah Senate Majority Whip Ann Millner (R), who briefed congressional staff on key pandemic response strategies for education as well as federal policies to make college more affordable.
During the briefing, Millner cited concern over a significant drop in community college enrollment, noting the importance of getting college-aged students back into school to provide access to jobs that will help support their families. “As a result of this briefing, I was able to have beneficial and informed discussions with other state and local government leaders in Utah,” Millner says. “Thanks (to NCSL) for facilitating the sharing of information that advances our state knowledge and efforts.” Millner was in session the day of the briefing but joined the discussion virtually from her Capitol office in Salt Lake City.
NCSL was joined by the National Association of Counties, the National League of Cities and the United States Conference of Mayors to brief hill staffers on state and local priorities in immigration reform. Washington Representative Sharon Tomiko Santos (D) represented NCSL and was joined by Commissioner Bill Truex of Charlotte County, Fla.; Mayor John Giles of Mesa, Ariz.; and Trustee Sharmin Shahjahan of Hanover Park, Ill. The event was moderated by Mayor Jorge Elorza of Providence, R.I.
The bipartisan panel of state and local elected officials shared insights from their communities and their perspectives on a pathway to citizenship, border management and immigrants in the workforce, among other issues.
“I appreciated having the ability to share how the failure to enact a federal immigration policy directly impacts my state and our diverse communities,” says Santos, who joined the discussion virtually from her kitchen table. “By necessity, the states have a vested and abiding interest in ensuring that our federal government works together with the states to balance the important national policy concerns about immigration.” Santos serves as chair of the Washington House Education Committee, which the same day was holding public meetings. Pandemic-era technology allowed her to participate in both.
NCSL, the National Governors Association and the National Criminal Justice Association hosted a briefing to highlight policing reform efforts in the states and territories. Colorado Representative Leslie Herod (D), one of the authors of her state’s 2020 police reform bill, was joined by staff from the office of Ohio Governor Mike DeWine (R) and the Ohio Office of Criminal Justice Services.
Reauthorization of Temporary Assistance to Needy Families
In this briefing for congressional staff, Kentucky Senator and NCSL Executive Committee member Ralph Alvarado (R) and Vermont Representative Ann Pugh (D) shared their priorities for TANF and the appropriate federal role.
In addition to hosting briefings, NCSL is also invited to testify before congressional committees. A recent example: Doug Shinkle, associate director of NCSL’s transportation program, testified before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on what states across the nation have done to develop and deploy new funding and financing mechanisms to meet the rising costs of construction, operation and maintenance of transportation infrastructure. During questioning from committee members, Shinkle responded to inquiries ranging from how states are handling privacy concerns surrounding road use charges, where electric vehicle fee revenue is being used, and other ways to bring private sector dollars into transportation funding and financing to supplement public investments.
Working With the Big Seven
As one of the Big Seven nonpartisan policy organizations made up of state and local government officials, NCSL regularly works with its sister organizations: the National Governors Association, the Council of State Governments, the National Association of Counties, the National League of Cities, the United States Conference of Mayors, and the International City/County Management Association. Leadership and staff of the organizations meet regularly to identify issues on which they can work together in Washington, D.C. Before joining the U.S. Senate, the late George Voinovich of Ohio served as chairman of the National Governors Association and president of the National League of Cities. He once said that when the Big Seven work together, they can move mountains.
“One of the great benefits of working together in a coalition to achieve our goals at the federal level is that we are able to share expertise, pool resources and expand our reach with Congress and the administration,” says Susan Parnas Frederick, NCSL’s senior federal affairs counsel.
The groups worked together on federal COVID relief for state and local governments. “We were able to form a cohesive plan to get our message out to the right federal policymakers,” Parnas Frederick says.
The groups don’t always agree, of course. There is a natural tension between the executive and legislative branches of government and between state and local governments, but the staff from the Big Seven can agree to disagree. Moving forward, the groups are looking for ways to work together on immigration, policing reform, infrastructure and tax-exempt financing. The Big Seven also work closely with other organizations for state officials, including the National Association of State Auditors, Comptrollers and Treasurers and the Government Finance Officers Association.