Major Changes Ahead for NCSL

By Michael Behm, Senior Vice President

Since late 2010, a working group – most of you have probably never heard of it – composed of legislators and staff within the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) has been considering dramatic changes to the nearly 36-year old organization of state legislatures.

Among the initial – but still unofficial – recommendations of NCSL’s Working Group on Committee Structure and Policy Development Process: Cancel the 2012 Spring Forum due to declining attendance numbers and realign NCSL’s policy positions with its core principles in order to advocate on a much smaller, more focused, policy agenda. While the Working Group plans to release and discuss its official recommendations later this summer at the Legislative Summit, August 8-11 in San Antonio, Texas, senior NCSL staff have recently been providing a preview of its considerations to a small number of legislative and government affairs audiences.

The Working Group’s efforts are a response to a series of legislative focus groups commissioned by NCSL’s Executive Committee and held over the last two years to scrutinize and improve NCSL’s policymaking process, to become more responsive to its state legislative constituents and increase legislator participation in NCSL.

The most immediate, visible change is the cancellation of the 2012 Spring Forum. According to staff, this decision was academic. The April timeframe in which it has been held during the last two years is horrible. Forty-one states were in session during the meeting this year; 38 states were in session during the 2010 meeting – resulting in poor attendance numbers and Standing Policy Committees failing to meet quorum requirements. Lengthy sessions lasting late into spring were once the exception, but they are now becoming the rule.

The Working Group did decide to return to a three meeting schedule in 2013, along with a Spring-like Forum, but the meeting will be rescheduled for a later date and will likely be re-oriented. All of that said, the decision has its risks. This is the first large seasonal forum that NCSL has ever cancelled and scratching any large event can send mixed signals about an officials Group’s health. NCSL and the other Groups all compete for private sector sponsorships and busy state policymakers. The face time with policymakers is a value proposition to the private sector and now there is one less meeting, which will create some grumbling. And one legislator mentioned to me that by taking an NCSL meeting out of the “seasonal rotation,” you risk losing those legislators and staff who have routinely attended the meeting in the past…possibly for good.

Aligning NCSL’s policymaking process with its core federalism principles regarding state flexibility, unfunded mandates and state sovereignty is the first serious effort in NCSL’s history to redesign the policymaking process and reduce NCSL’s overwhelming number of policy positions. The consequences of these changes will be much longer in term than the Spring Forum cancellation. By my count, the Group currently has over 190 policy positions. The Working Group concluded – but anyone could have – that the number of NCSL policies is now unwieldy as guidance for its federal lobbying efforts. Many policies conflict or are duplicative, some are now antiquated or otherwise irrelevant to NCSL’s mission and the sheer volume dilutes NCSL’s lobbying influence on the Hill, according to staff.

Add to that private sector and legislator concerns that some policymaking reflects individual ideological or political agendas, rather than serving a broad states’ agenda. Additionally, all of this policymaking demands a huge time commitment of the legislators during any one of the three NCSL meetings in which the Standing Policy Committees convene – time that many legislators believe could be better focused on developing a smaller, stronger group of advocacy positions, attending other, perhaps more valuable, issue sessions and networking with the attendees.

The question of how to achieve this realignment with the core principles is still a work in progress, according to staff. Empowering the Executive Committee with setting NCSL’s priorities at the beginning of each biennium, and directing the committees accordingly, is one preference of the Working Group, according to sources. More changes will necessarily affect the decision and policymaking process, the role of the Executive Committee and those rules associated with the General Business Meeting and perhaps another change to the Standing Policy Committee structure.

The Working Group has of yet been less than conclusive about changes or restructuring to the 12 Standing Policy Committees, according to staff. The current committee structure resulted from a 2002 consolidation of the Assembly on State Issues (ASI) and Assembly on Federal Issues (AFI) committees. Since that time, there are fewer policy committees and meetings, but many more policies. Legislators participating in the focus groups voiced concerns about less time to address emerging state and federal issues and “best practices,” along with an inability to more closely focus on obtaining grant deliverables for NCSL. The focus groups, I am told, voiced support for two-year Committee appointments to ensure that legislators are more knowledgeable about subject matter and committee process and to encourage member continuity. More will follow on the committee structure as the Working Group evaluates the number of Standing Policy Committees, their issue jurisdictions and respective policymaking role.

In the interests of disclosure, I am the Vice President of the Board of Directors of NCSL’s Foundation for State Legislatures. I can tell you that the Working Group is serious about its effort to improve NCSL for both its legislative members and private sector participants. I can also tell you that change of this sort likely has few fans or supporters – even among Working Group members – but it reflects the “new normal” in this climate of cash-strapped states and travel-restricted policymakers. And I also know that the Working Group is interested in your ideas about implementing this change – ideas that I can help you direct to the right NCSL staff or feed directly to the Working Group members. If you are interested in the list of Working Group members, please email or call me.

In the meantime, if NCSL is important to your government affairs program, these proposed changes should trigger several questions:

  • What can I do to adapt to this change and the loss of a significant meeting from the 2012 Groups schedule and where does my organization fit into these changes?
  • Will fewer meetings – even one – translate into a lesser ability to influence the process and build/nurture valuable legislative relationships?
  • Will I have new rules to learn when the policymaking processes change?
  • And where will I find more time to participate with NCSL “in-between” the meetings in order to ensure that the staff and legislators know me and respect the resources and expertise of my organization?

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