by Edward Smith
Daunting challenges are the order of the day, from the fiscal crisis in Washington D.C., and in capitols around the country. Two sessions at NCSL’s Legislative Summit in San Antonio Wednesday offered some lessons, both practical and inspirational, in how to meet them.
The inspirational came when the four astronauts of the space shuttle Atlantis appeared at the summit’s general session. At a time when big things sometimes seem beyond the nation’s grasp, the example of the so-called “Final Four” brought the crowd of about 1,300 to its feet for a prolonged standing ovation.
“Look what we can do when we put our minds together as human beings,” said Sandy Magnus, a mission specialist on the flight, referring to the construction of the space station by a consortium of nations. “You can’t help but think ‘wow.’ “
The practical came in the afternoon when a panel of five house leaders from around the country discussed how they’ve confronted challenges ranging from impeaching a governor to dealing with a state shutdown to bringing a new crop of lawmakers quickly up to speed.
Nevada Assembly Speaker Pro Tem Debbie Smith said when she started the 2011 session she thought the budget crisis facing the state would be the big crisis. After all, Nevada was facing the largest percentage budget gap in the nation, the highest foreclosure and unemployment rates, and a steep drop in tourism.
“But the biggest crisis was term limits,” she said, because leaders faced the task of breaking in a large number of new members and new committee chairs. “You can't describe the amount of effort that goes into that. We were training people who weren’t even elected yet.”
Her recommendation was plan, plan, plan, and ask for help from NCSL and others. “We did get out on time with a balanced budget but not without a lot of planning.”
Arizona House Speaker Andy Tobin’s advice was not to put off the tough decisions. “I wish we'd started two years earlier” in making the tough budget decisions, he said. “I would have been more aggressive if I had to do it all over again.”
But some of the most interesting comments came in response to a question about whether the leaders ever found themselves having to compromise on core principles to reach a compromise, especially in light of the recent battles in Washington, D.C.
Minnesota Speaker Kurt Zellers, reflecting on the showdown that closed state government for 20 days, said he had to push an agreement that he might have had a hard time voting for as a member.
“We had to get our members to accept that we had divided government and we had to have a solution,” he said. “We agreed to more spending that we were prepared for. The governor recognized that taxes were a bridge too far.”
You can watch the entire fascinating session at our web streaming partner Blue Sky.
Edward Smith is the managing editor of State Legislatures magazine.