Stateline Story

Budget Clouds Loom At State Lawmakers' Meeting

Nearly 5,000 state policymakers gather this week (7/23 - 7/27) in Denver, Colorado for the National Conference of State Legislatures' (NCSL) annual meeting.

Lawmakers and other officials will discuss and debate anti-terrorism, welfare reform, prescription drug programs, federal education mandates and political ethics. But the over-arching issue is the states' budget crisis.

"When you look at how fiscal issues have consumed legislative sessions and special sessions, it's the major problem facing the states," said NCSL executive director Bill Pound.

Budget woes will prevent many state legislators and staff from even attending the meeting. "It's clear our attendance will be off some this year because of the budget situation, it's an election year and also because of redistricting," Pound said.

One state lawmaker who will make the trip is incoming NCSL president and Oklahoma Senator Angela Monson . A Democrat and chairwoman of her state's Senate Finance Committee, Monson will be the first African-American woman to lead the trade group.

Monson said she wants to learn the latest on pharmaceutical costs, Medicaid and lending policies and practices.

"I'm interested in Medicaid not only from the health angle but also in terms of the budget, which is being consumed by this program. Lots of legislatorseven those not historically interested in healthcareare taking an interest in the issue," she said.

As part of the meeting, NCSL officials plan to unveil recommendations from an initiative and referendum task force as well as a homeland security panel. The group will also release an overview of state ethics laws as they relate to legislatures.

The ethics report will be released in part as a response to recent attacks on legislatures by groups such as the Center for Public Integrity , NCSL's Pound said.

"We are showing there are good systems in place (to monitor ethics). A lot of the smoke (watchdog groups) blow is just that," said Pound.

The Center for Public Integrity's Chuck Lewis said he's pleased the NCSL has read his organization's reports.

"(Bill Pound) can call what we did 'smoke', but there was a lot of diligent work (involved), dozens of people logged thousands of hours over the course of five years looking at state legislatures. We stand by our work and sometimes the truth hurts," Lewis said.

Pound said the report is not a response to a recent high-profile legislative scandal in Wisconsin , where a state senator now faces 18 felony counts of misconduct.