Stateline Story

State Lawmakers Hold Largest Meeting Ever

  • August 14, 2001
  • By Greg McDonald

Dear World, lets have peace, kindness and freedom forever and ever. Well, delivering on that prayer might be a lot to hope for, but state lawmakers are here at the annual meeting of the National Conference of State Legislatures exchanging ideas on how to do a better job of governing.

The prayer, scribbled on a poster and put on display to greet lawmakers as they entered the city's convention center, drew more than a few notices as one senator or House member after another paused to muse on its significance.

"Now that's what it's about," said Alabama Rep. Bill Clark, a Democrat from the Mobile suburb of Prichard. "Most of us are trying to make things just a little bit better."For Clark, making things better for his constituents will require more money for education, which he describes as one of the most pressing issues facing his state.

Alabama, like many other states was hit hard this year by revenue shortfalls that have forced deep cuts in important programs like education. Clark would like to raise property taxes in his state, which historically have been among the lowest in the country, or initiate a lottery to help boost education programs for his constituents in the predominantly black Prichard area. He hopes to gain some insight from his colleagues and various NCSL workshops that might be useful in his efforts to generate more support back home.

Clark is not alone. Thousands of legislators from all 50 states are gathered here for exactly the same thing, hoping to exchange ideas and pick up some useful information at the largest meeting ever of legislators and legislative staff. Over the course of three days, many of them expect to make invaluable contacts, forge relationships and learn about important resources that could make the difference whether their issues are addressed through legislation.

The NCSL meeting agenda covers just about everything imaginable. From healthcare to agriculture, welfare to election reform, nearly every issue will get an hour or more of discussion in hundreds of working sessions that have been set up for lawmakers.

One of the best-attended sessions was on electric utility restructuring Monday afternoon (8/13). Dozens of lawmakers jammed into a tiny convention room to hear a panel of consultants hold forth on "lessons learned from California." Not all the panel members agreed that the rolling blackouts and the increased consumer costs brought on by the state's deregulation efforts had been a debacle. But most tended to agree that it was not the kind of model states should adopt if they continue down the road of deregulation.

"You really have a tough road right now (in the aftermath of California) in balancing customer (utility) rates and encouraging other competitors to come into the electric market," Mike Oldak, of the Edison Electric Institute, told lawmakers.

Oldak and other panelists appeared to agree as well on the need for improved transmission of power, not only within the states but from one area of the country to another.

Electric transmission problems were also high on the list of priorities at the National Governors' Association meeting in Rhode Island last week. The NGA agreed to create a task force with the federal government to study the problem and recommend ways of improving a transmission grid system that many experts believe is too outdated to handle the load demands placed on them today.