Stateline Story

Olympic Spirit Alive in Statehouses

As the world turns its attention to the 28th Olympiad in Athens this month, state legislatures across the country continue to compete in a public policy Olympics of their own. While the venues may not be as spectacular as the Parthenon or the Acropolis, the public policy challenges going on in the nation's statehouses can be likened to many of the events to be held in Greece.

Marathon. This year's Olympic marathon will be run on the same historic route between Marathonas and Athens as it was in 1896. State lawmakers are facing similar challenges as they run their "budget crisis marathons."

Since March 2001, state lawmakers have had to close more than $235 billion in state budget gaps to balance their budgets. While recent research shows states might be on the home stretch of the budget crisis marathon, there is still a daunting uphill climb to the finish.

State legislative budget officers report a growth in year-end balances for fiscal year 2004 mainly due to $20 billion in fiscal assistance from the federal government. However, without the fiscal assistance in fiscal 2005, budget crunchers are expecting an overall 3.7 percent decline in state general fund balances while appropriations are expected to increase by 6.4 percent.

Boxing. Ancient pugilist Melagomas was said to avoid the punches of his opponents for up to two days, eventually exhausting his opponent into submission. Though the battle for state legislative chambers may seem exhausting, it does not appear that either major political party is going to be able to avoid the sting of their opponent during this round of legislative elections.

More than 78 percent of the nation's 7,382 state lawmakers are up for re-election this year. In no less than 25 of the 99 legislative chambers, a shift of just three seats could alter the party control of the chambers. Additionally, chambers that are tied could shift to one side or the other.

The main attractions on the legislative election card this fall are battles in 10 chambers including the House of Representatives in Georgia, Montana, Indiana, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Vermont and Washington. Senate battles are expected to be exciting in Maine, Oregon and Washington.

Weightlifting. Many believe that weightlifting is just a matter of brute strength. However, one's success in the sport lies in a combination of strength and technique. These are also the underlying principles state lawmakers are using to lift their 800-pound barbell otherwise known as Medicaid.

Medicaid continues to be the single largest challenge to the fiscal soundness of state budgets. General fund support for Medicaid is expected to grow more than 13 percent in fiscal 2005, due in part to states having to backfill the program as a result of the temporary federal aid that supported last year's budgets. Were it not for the support from the federal government in fiscal 2004, state budgets more than likely would be crushed under the weight of the barbell without a spotter.

Sailing. In ancient Greece, sailing was a way of life. Sailing was an integral part of the country's growth and expansion. As elected officials, state lawmakers too must constantly be aware of the "prevailing winds" of change in order to effectively meet the needs of their constituents.

Legislators spend a great deal of time listening to and communicating with those with whom they are charged with representing. State lawmakers during any given legislative session are faced with making decisions on thousands of public policy issues. Successful legislators are able to determine which way the winds are blowing so that their position accurately reflects the opinions of their constituents.

The Olympics is an enchanted time when citizens of different nations can come together to seemingly solve the world's problems without weapons or harsh words. State legislatures seem to have taken a page from the Olympic playbook and continue to engage in the difficult public policy debates in an effective, innovative manner.

Let the games begin!

William Pound can be contacted at the National Conference of State Legislatures.