Get to Know: The National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL)

Michelle Blackston, NCSL Director of Media Relations and Public Affairs

Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis is credited with saying states are the laboratories of democracy. And nowhere is that more evident than in the bipartisan association that represents the 50 state legislatures.

With its headquarters in Denver and an office in Washington, D.C., the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) supports the 7,382 legislators and their legislative staff. The organization also advocates for the states with Congress and the White House. Since 1975, NCSL has pushed for states’ rights and fostered the nation’s state-federal partnership in policymaking for all Americans.

Beginning in March, the NCSL’s Washington, D.C., office appointed two new directors to lead the state-federal division and guide the group’s lobbying priorities in Congress. Under the direction of Molly Ramsdell and Neal Osten, NCSL will continue to promote the best interests of states on Capitol Hill.

Ramsdell, who led both the transportation and budget committees, and Osten, who was federal affairs counsel for the organization, began their new roles this spring. After 35 years with NCSL, former D.C.-office Director and Deputy Executive Director Carl Tubbesing retired in January.

“Now more than ever, state legislatures look to NCSL to provide them with a voice in Washington that advocates against federal mandates and preemption, and fosters a strong state-federal partnership,” said William Pound, NCSL executive director. “I’m confident Molly and Neal will continue this tradition.”

To develop policies that preserve states’ rights, NCSL has 12 Standing Committees composed of legislators and legislative staff who are appointed by the leaders of the various state legislatures. The committees are the main organizational mechanism for serving NCSL members and deal with both state and state-federal issues. They range from energy and environment to financial services and education. The jurisdictions of the standing committees are similar to those of committees in the state legislatures.

The NCSL Standing Committees meet three times each year, which enables legislators and staff to learn from the experiences of other states in shaping public policy, experimenting with new laws, and managing the legislative institutions. Committee members explore issues that face states, but committees do not recommend specific policy to individual legislatures. Committees do develop, however, policy on state-federal issues to guide NCSL's lobbying efforts in Washington, D.C. Consequently, as a result of those policy decisions voted on by the committees, NCSL is nationally recognized as a formidable lobbying force in state-federal relations.

States are facing some of the toughest budget conditions in a generation, and many legislators are having to make cuts to essential services and much-valued programs. NCSL brings national policy experts to the three meetings to share solutions to some of these pressing issues. Just recently at NCSL’s Spring Forum in Washington, D.C., legislators and legislative staff heard about high-speed rail projects being considered and how they can implement similar programs in their states. They also heard from representatives from the federal agency overseeing health care reform implementation and discussed the states’ role in insurance exchanges for its residents.

To govern the conference, NCSL has an Executive Committee that supervises and directs the affairs of the organization, its committees and publications. It also implements the policies and supervises the disbursement of its funds. The executive committee, an elected body, is composed of 60 members and includes legislators and legislative staff. Each member is entitled to vote on any matter coming before the committee. Legislative staffs are entitled to vote only on organizational matters—not on matters of public policy.

At its headquarters in Denver, NCSL provides policy research and technical assistance to state legislators and legislative staff to improve the overall legislature’s effectiveness. NCSL’s fiscal program division, for example, surveys legislative fiscal directors to get a glimpse at state budget conditions and revenue outlooks. The Legislative Management Program tracks redistricting, elections and campaigns and provides invaluable information on the organization of state legislatures.

Additionally, NCSL has a nonprofit Foundation for State Legislatures that raises money to support some of the organization’s projects. The foundation also provides an opportunity for businesses, national associations and unions to attend NCSL’s meetings and events. The Foundation has a volunteer board of directors composed of corporate and union executives as well as state legislative leaders and senior legislative staff.

States are moving forward on a host of reform efforts from education and transportation to unemployment programs and promoting green jobs. And NCSL is there to support these initiatives and track the legislation as it moves through the committee process. In the end, NCSL can then share some of these innovations that are developed and tested with other state legislatures that truly are laboratories of democracy. For more information about NCSL, go to http://www.ncsl.org.

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Molly Ramsdell
Molly Ramsdell
Neal Osten
Neal Osten