The National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) provides the best in-service training for legislators of which I am aware. I recently spent four days at the NCSL annual conference in Chicago.
In contrast to some other associations that are concerned with state legislative matters, NCSL takes a balanced approach in considering policy alternatives. NCSL does not make recommendations to the states on legislation but rather serves as a clearinghouse of information about how various states are dealing with legislative issues and the pros and cons of different actions the states might take. The organization is unanimous in its position that states must maintain their autonomy and prerogatives within our federal structure of government. In contrast, the American Legislative Council (ALEC) actually drafts bills taking the most conservative position on issues. NCSL is funded by the states; ALEC is funded by special interests and corporations.
It is always interesting in meeting legislators from other states who share the same responsibilities as I do to learn of the different ways that state legislatures are organized and do business: length of legislative sessions, number of legislators, terms and term limitations, salary, etc. Yet as different as the states may be, they are for the most part grappling with the same issues: scarce resources with which to balance budgets, crumbling infrastructure that needs investment, more diverse and older populations, responding to federal legislation like the Affordable Care Act, and others. All state legislatures are seeing a public push-back to the size of government and to the level of taxation.
I did not come back from NCSL with all the answers for Virginia's next legislative session. I did come back with some important perspectives and insights that help me prepare for the 2013 General Assembly session. Clearly it is to the advantage of Virginians that the Commonwealth establishes an insurance exchange system rather than abdicate that responsibility to the federal government. Likewise, expansion of Medicaid is a bargain for Virginians who would be served by the new health care program. We are going to fall further behind in our economic growth and development if we do not take seriously our investment in K-12 and higher education. Many states are taking a serious look at reforming their corrections programs as we should do as well.
NCSL conferences also offer sessions on working together, reaching compromise, and meeting legislative goals. I hope that my skills have been sharpened in these areas as well by participating in these sessions over the years. Learning is lifelong for everyone, including state legislators. It's the way we all become better at what we do.