A 5,000-strong swarm of state lawmakers, policy wonks and special interest advocates will converge in downtown Atlanta beginning Monday for the National Conference of State Legislatures.
While their activities include a hit parade of the city’s tourist attractions — World of Coca-Cola, anyone? — they will spend most of their time talking and learning about significant issues and hot-button topics across the country. The agenda features issues that likely will be dealt with during upcoming legislative sessions, including voting rights, transportation and the implementation of Obamacare.
It’s the kind of four-day conference where seeds of strategy are sown quietly, as the groundwork is laid for policy changes that will trickle through state legislatures across the nation. And it is expected to be done in as bipartisan a manner as possible, as people of different parties sit down to actually listen to each other in panels and over drinks, unlike in the nation’s Capitol.
“You meet people who are working on some of the same things,” NCSL executive director William T. Pound said. “They get a lot of ideas and they get to know people in other states. It is information, training, broadening their horizons.”
Georgia’s much vaunted overhaul of its criminal justice system, for example, drew inspiration from a Texas state representative who spoke about criminal justice reforms at a conference three or four years ago, according to state House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge.
Military families moving to Georgia got help a few years ago when lawmakers at the NCSL conference realized a state mandate required high schoolers to pass a Georgia history class for graduation, a problem for newly transferred students who otherwise had the right credits.
More than that, however, the annual legislative conference is a chance for Georgia to show off its capital city and nearby attractions.
Georgia state Sen. Don Balfour, R-Snellville, who was NCSL president in 2009 when it choose Atlanta for this year’s conference, said it has been more than 20 years since the state hosted such a get-together.
“It’s a great coup for the city and for the state of Georgia,” Balfour said. “They’re seeing our hospitality.”
Tours of the state Capitol and the Jimmy Carter Library and Museum are crammed in among more than 200 events included on the conference agenda, which technically begins Sunday with several executive meetings and task force discussions.
Among the events are a social evening at the Georgia Aquarium and stops at places like CNN.
Field trips include notable places like the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which is offering a behind-the-scenes look of its environmental health laboratory to showcase how it responds to toxic chemical exposures, terrorist threats and public health emergencies involving chemicals and how state labs can help in those efforts.
Local restaurants will also get a boost from lobbyists and other special interest advocates who regularly attend these conferences, from national health-care groups and labor unions to huge companies like AT&T Inc. and Wal-mart.
Then there are the folks who, as members of different associations or causes, spend the day at booths distributing literature and speaking on behalf of various constituents. Among those expected are members of the American Association for Nude Recreation, who will be handing out commemorative lapel pins — to stick on clothing.
The group’s spokeswoman, Carolyn Hawkins, said they would be doing so fully clothed in business attire as they talked about boosting local economies and tourism. The group’s been handing out the pins at annual NCSL legislative conferences for the past 17 years.
The Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau estimated the conference as a whole will have a $8.3 million impact on the local economy.
But those helping to plan it said they also see a far-reaching impact on how they make important policy decisions.
Georgia is now overhauling its criminal justice system as Gov. Nathan Deal and state lawmakers have tried to push more nonviolent offenders toward alternative programs and away from prison and have given judges more discretion to depart from mandatory minimum sentences.
Next year, Deal is expected to propose changes designed to help smooth the transition of recently released inmates as they re-enter society. The plan could include funding for more job training for inmates and incentives for employers to hire them when they are released.
Ralston said the conference gives lawmakers a forum to learn about such issues from their peers, including what worked and what didn’t. Several of this year’s sessions touch on issues that are boiling in Georgia, including state transportation efforts, federal immigration reform and “Common Core” state education standards.
With many of the issues, “there may not be that light bulb moment, but it is the gradual kind of moment of teaching and ideas taking root,” Ralston said. “You may not see them turn into policy overnight. ” But over the course of a few years, as they are shaped and vetted by legislators and the community, it could happen, he said.
Overseeing that effort is the NCSL, a bipartisan organization of the nation’s 50 state legislatures as well as the nation’s commonwealths and territories. Founded in 1975, it works as a clearinghouse to share policy information and ideas among state legislators and their staff.
It also provides help on specific issues — a NCSL staffer testified last week in New Hampshire about Medicaid. And it lobbies Congress on behalf of the legislatures’ interests.
“We do a lot of training and education for both Legislatures and legislative staff, and the (conference) is part of that,” Pound said.
The National Conference of State Legislatures’ annual legislative conference plays a key role in what legislators do at home on issues ranging from immigration to education to Obamacare, although it is as much a draw for national policy makers as those from all 50 states.
Pre-conference meetings begin Sunday. The conference formally runs Monday through Thursday. Sessions start around 7:30 a.m. each day and run through about 6 p.m. each evening. You can find the conference agenda via the organization’s website, www.ncsl.org.
Georgia’s host committee will hold a welcome reception Monday evening. State officials will also play a key role in efforts such as the conference’s annual civic project, which this year involves packing 1,000 backpacks of food for Atlanta-area kids in an event coordinated with the Atlanta Community Food Bank.
Among the expected speakers:
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius
- Retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor
- Newly anointed U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx.
- Political maven David Gergen, a CNN senior political analyst and director of the Center for Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School