Although the National Conference of State Legislatures assures all members that “your ideas are advanced, promoted, shared with your colleagues and taken to our nation’s capital,” NCSL has historically advocated primarily liberal ideas. This is likely because when NCSL was founded in 1975, the vast majority of state legislators were Democrats. When I accepted a scholarship from Americans for Tax Reform to attend this year’s NCSL annual meeting, held last week in San Francisco, I figured I was invading “enemy” territory. I was not disappointed.
Consider the sessions that focused on the state budget crisis. The underlying assumption of most participants seemed to be that states are currently facing a “revenue crisis” rather than a “spending crisis.” A presentation on recent state budget and tax actions by Corina Eckl of NCSL encapsulated much of this thinking. Her presentation was informative, but it focused largely on the revenue side of the equation. A sluggish economy was to blame, she said, for need of up to 45 states to revise downward their initial Fiscal Year (FY) 2003 revenue forecasts. No one discussed how much state expenditures, and hence funding obligations, rose in the 1990s. A few hints of the spending problem did trickle through. From FY 2002-2003 state revenues increased 0.7%, while expenditures increased 1.7%. Nevertheless, there were no sessions devoted solely to how states could reduce spending.
In such an environment, a liberal Democrat would naturally feel quite comfortable. One such Democrat was Elliot Naishtat, a state legislator from Texas. In a roundtable discussion about human services policy in tough budget times, he bemoaned the fact that recent Republican-imposed budget cuts in Texas had undone 10 years of his good work. Naishtat went on to praise the Texas Democrats’ “creative use of the rules” to thwart the redistricting plan. He also made a not so veiled threat: He “wouldn’t say that [the Democrats] would use similar strategies for dealing with future budget cuts,” but his party was “looking at interesting sites” to visit.
Another comfortable Democrat in attendance was William M. Bulger, currently president of UMass and formerly the Massachusetts State Senate President. If his name evokes a faint memory, it’s probably because he was profiled on “The O’Reilly Factor” not long ago. Bulger has a mob boss brother, James “Whitey,” who is a suspect in 18 murders and has been on the lam since 1995. In June 2002 Bulger was called to testify before the House Committee on Government Reform. When asked the whereabouts of his sibling, he pled the fifth.
What was Bugler doing in San Francisco? Why, presenting the NCSL award that is his namesake, of course! According to the NCSL website, the William M. Bulger Excellence in State Legislative Leadership Award “is given annually to a current or recently retired state legislative leader who has worked to preserve and build public trust in the institution of the legislature and whose career embodies the qualities of integrity, leadership, courage and high ethical standards.” The NCSL is not the only one without a sense of irony, apparently. When Bugler presented the award at the Wednesday luncheon, he emphasized repeatedly that it was an award for a legislator with “conviction.”
What was easily the best session of the event featured Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, and State Senator Steven Rauschenberger (R-Illinois) in a debate over the streamlined (read Internet) sales tax. Although quite a few Norquist supporters were in attendance, we were dwarfed by union members, liberal activists, and Democratic State Legislators. Rauschenberger knew his audience well and utilized a much practiced look of astonishment every other time Norquist spoke. Indeed, by focusing solely on Rauschenberger’s expressions, one could be forgiven for thinking that Norquist was the most unreasonable man on the planet. Norquist, to his credit, never backed down, even in the face of an increasingly hostile crowd. Each time he criticized state governments for taxing more and achieving less (especially in education) the chorus of boos and hisses intensified. To cap it off, Norquist defended a slippery-slope argument he made on taxation — i.e., that one tax leads to another — by noting that liberals use a similar argument on abortion — i.e., a ban on partial birth abortion will lead to further abortion restrictions. The roof didn’t fly off, but the shingles loosened.
In a later interview, Norquist acknowledged that the NCSL had historically been too liberal, but that Americans for Tax Reform had invited many conservative think tanks to attend this year because there is opportunity for change. “With the incoming president of NCSL being a Republican [Utah House Speaker Martin Stephens] there is a sense that we can reform NCSL,” Norquist said. “There is the potential for new leadership and an improved staff.” Now that a majority of state legislators are Republicans, it may be possible to achieve a greater balance of ideas discussed within NCSL.
Perhaps such change is coming. A Thursday afternoon roundtable on health-care costs was heartening in that it raised many free market concerns. Facilitator Charles Scott, a Republican State Senator from Wyoming, included “Government Regulations” and “Medical Malpractice” in his list of usual suspects of medical inflation. Audience members raised concerns such as whether health care was actually a “right,” and to what extent the government could tell us how to spend our own money. Another audience member suggested medical savings accounts as one solution, which led to an extended discussion of that topic.
But conservatives shouldn’t be overly optimistic. NCSL still has a long way to go before it is a truly diverse environment in which a wide array of policy ideas is considered. If change comes, it’ll come slowly.