Stateline Story

Legislative Conferences Attendance Sags

  • July 22, 2003
  • By Kathleen Murphy

Attendance at legislative conferences tackling state finance and health care issues will be lower than usual this year partly because some states' tight budgets are forcing lawmakers to pay their own way, organizers said.

The National Conference of State Legislatures is meeting in San Francisco this week. The American Legislative Exchange Council meets in Washington July 30 to Aug. 2.

"Given the state of the budget in most states and with travel bans, that means many members have to pay their own way. Anticipating the worst case scenario, I was a little nervous about attendance but we've been pleasantly surprised," NCSL President Sen. Angela Monson, D-Oklahoma City, said in an interview.

NCSL, a nonpartisan organization that monitors state government and gathers information about state policies, expects 6,000 members to attend its workshops and policymaking sessions, said NCSL spokeswoman Nicole Casal. Two years ago, the meeting drew about 6,800 participants, and last year more than 6,000 came, Casal said.

Special sessions in Texas and Florida threaten to conflict with NCSL's meeting unless quick deals are cut on redistricting and medical malpractice respectively. Taxpayers usually foot the bill for members' trips in both states and will have to eat the cost of unused airfare.

Thirty-three of the 96 Texas House members originally planning to attend NCSL had canceled their travel plans as of last week because of the special session, said Bob Richter, spokesman for House Speaker Tom Craddick.

Florida Gov. Jeb Bush had scheduled a special session for July 22-28, but Lt. Gov. Toni Jennings told The St. Petersburg Times the governor would likely postpone the session for several weeks if he doesn't accept lawmakers' latest proposal on medical malpractice.

Florida Rep. Bob Henriquez, D-Tampa, said, "Most of us have made the decision to go, but conceivably we could all be scrambling for flights back from San Francisco."

Speakers at NCSL will include Melinda Gates, co-founder of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, who will discuss education reform, and pollster Frank Luntz. NCSL's agenda will focus on Medicaid and a streamlined sales tax, but state budget shortfalls will drive the discussion, organizers said. NCSL this week will issue a report about why states are facing fiscal difficulties and whether they have acted responsibly.

ALEC, a group that promotes limited government and devises model legislation, will also see lower attendance this year, said spokesman Bob Adams. Adams said he couldn't pinpoint a principal reason for fewer registrations, but said conference fees aren't covered by many state budgets. ALEC's agenda will cover Medicaid, prescription drugs and global warming.

About 800 legislators will pay $375 to attend the meeting, Adams said. Roughly 1,900 ALEC members from the private sector will pay $775 to attend, Adams said.

Vice President Dick Cheney will address ALEC's meeting and receive the group's Thomas Jefferson Freedom Award honoring Jeffersonian ideals of free markets, individual liberty and federalism. Other speakers include Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, Colorado Gov. Bill Owens and Colorado Senate President John Andrews.

The National Governors' Association recently began registration for its summer meeting in Indianapolis Aug. 16-19 which will highlight education, endangered species and international trade issues. Historically, about 40 governors have participated with 1,500 other attendees. Invited speakers include Interior Secretary Gale Norton, former Secretary of Defense Bill Cohen and President George W. Bush.

Bush, a former governor, hasn't attended a summer meeting of NGA since becoming president, but has participated in the group's winter meetings in Washington, D.C., said NGA spokeswoman Christine LaPaille.

All the legislative conferences offer chances for lobbyists to buttonhole lawmakers, and corporations underwrite some events and meals.

NGA plans a trip to the Indianapolis Speedway and the local zoo, LaPaille said.

The Baltimore Sun reported this month that a Comcast Cablevision lobbyist would entertain lawmakers at NCSL's meeting with a trip aboard an 103-foot sailboat in San Francisco Bay. The ensuing controversy resulted in cancellation of the trip.

NCSL's Monson said the meeting means work for many legislators, and boat rides aren't on her agenda.

"I looked at the schedule, and thought, man, will I even have time to go to the ladies room?" Monson said.