By Michael Behm, Senior Vice President
The National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) Annual Legislative Summit in San Antonio, Texas ended last Thursday on a high note for the organization. The Summit was NCSL’s largest meeting since 2007, in terms of attendance and featured over 150 policy and working sessions. And the organization announced at its Executive Committee Meeting that it ended the 2011 fiscal year with a positive balance, despite earlier gloomy forecasts and a volatile national economy. NCSL’s Foundation for State Legislatures announced similar good news – it had exceeded its annual fundraising goals by nearly $200,000 this year and was aiming for an even higher, record fundraising goal for FY 2012.
Attendance at the meeting far exceeded those projections made earlier in the year, with well over 5,000 people registering. Among those registering – and perhaps a more important to the private sector – were a larger number of legislators and staff than had participated in the 2010 Legislative Summit. November’s elections brought a trove of new faces to the annual event, including many of the newly-elected Republican leaders – a number of whom had never attended an NCSL meeting.
The new attendees brought a level of energy that I haven’t sensed at an NCSL meeting in several years, the dialogue was spirited and I have to tell you that the meeting and sessions rooms were packed. Convention staff wheeled extra chairs into dozens of conference rooms throughout the week. One education session I attended, scheduled on the last day of the Summit, at the early hour of 8:00 AM – and after the famous, and sometimes raucous, late-night party that accompanies the Summit – was nearly full.
The new faces also brought a different political tone to the meeting. You could not avoid a distinctly conservative and business-focused vibe in the policy discussions and reception and hallway conversation. Chalk that up to the Summit being hosted in the big red (and unseasonably hot) state of Texas, or perhaps to the majority of state legislatures now controlled by Republicans, but a conservative-leaning theme defined much of the meeting dialogue.
Texas Governor and newly-announced Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry (R) helped to frame that tone on the second day of the Summit with a red meat speech to the nearly 1,500 attendees who crammed the convention center theater see him. The governor demanded more power for the states, less interference from the federal government and more focus on job creation, announcing that Texas’ low-tax, low-regulation and cost-cutting approach to governing created “40 percent of the net new jobs in this country” over the last two years. By contrast, Governor Perry argued, “government doesn’t create jobs, otherwise the last two years of stimulus spending would have worked.” Hinting at his weekend announcement speech, Governor Perry told the NCSL crowd that he stood ready to “work with [my] fellow governors to return power to the states – where it belongs.”
Many of the more popular sessions at the Summit continued with similar business-focused, conservative themes. Session titles such as the “Long Term Impact of Environmental Regulation on Industry and Consumers” and another called “Creating Jobs by Reducing Regulation” were standing room only. Conservative themes, but also very reflective of the policy debates occurring in the states during the latest legislative session.
Another policy session, “Renewable Energy Facility Siting: Examining the Roadblocks and Opportunities”, explored the many, mostly state and federal regulatory, challenges the states and their industry stakeholders face while exploring renewable energy generation opportunities. The serious budget challenges states are now facing from government employee pension liabilities were featured in another, animated session during the Summit, following on the debates in the states this spring. And yet another session, “Bringing Legislators to the Table: Examining Hunger in America”, perhaps more accurately examined private-public partnerships and the wide variety of corporate directed efforts – which more and more states now rely on – to address food insecure communities around the country.
If you attended the Legislative Summit, did you notice a more conservative political tone? What were your observations about the policy sessions and discussions? What would you like to see featured at next year’s NCSL Legislative Summit?