Five Questions with David Adkins,
CSG executive director/CEO
By Lisa McKinney, CSG communications associate
Interview was edited for length and clarity
CSG Executive Director/CEO David Adkins discusses CSG’s strategies for supporting state leaders in 2017, how state officials can get involved with the organization, and some of the biggest challenges state leaders will face this year.
2017 will likely continue to be a year marked by change and uncertainty at all levels of government. What is CSG’s plan to help state officials navigate the rapidly changing fiscal and policy landscape?
With the new administration in Washington, D.C., the states have an aggressive agenda to pursue and we plan to be part of representing that agenda. As the voice of the states, The Council of State Governments is uniquely positioned to make sure that state leaders understand the priorities of the new administration, how Congress is going to be reacting to them, and what the implications are for the initiatives that Congress may pass. The new administration has spelled out a very aggressive agenda, one that would impact the states in very important ways. CSG is not only monitoring those activities, but is seeking to be the voice of the states in Washington, D.C., to make sure that the outcomes are first understood by the states, and secondly that unintended consequences that would adversely impact the states can be avoided whenever possible.
On infrastructure, for example, the federal government doesn’t really build things, they pay the states and counties and cities to build things. If the $1 trillion of infrastructure improvements that the president talked about in his campaign were to come to fruition, it means the states will have a lot of stake in how their roads, bridges, airports, water systems and internet would be affected. Tax reform is another big issue that would impact the states. The tax deductibility of municipal bonds, for example, would have a big impact on the way in which we finance infrastructure at the state and local level. Those are some of the things we will be monitoring.
We believe the states have a prerogative to assert their interests. We aren’t a special interest in the federal government—we are a partner in governing. CSG is going to work with all state leaders to make sure their interests are represented in D.C.
CSG is committed to nonpartisanship, serving all state government officials regardless of their party affiliation. As partisan divides seem to increase in the U.S., how does CSG ensure it remains an unbiased, trusted resource?
First and foremost, we listen to our leaders. They value a place where they can come together to discuss the issues that are their priorities and focus on what works. What are the solutions that will make a difference? How can they impact the citizens they serve in positive ways? Frankly, that is about enhancing prosperity, growing the economy, creating good jobs, making sure their state has the workforce they need to fill those jobs, with good schools turning out students capable of taking on the careers of the 21st century. Those are the kinds of issues that tend to bridge those partisan divides.
Well the inertia and some of the chaos in Washington, D.C., is a direct result of that hyper-partisanship and polarization. The fact of the matter is that state government continues to be driven largely by citizen legislators who have to go back and work and live with the people they serve. Their time in the state capitol is focused on working across the aisle, frequently to try to find solutions to budget issues, and they don’t want to dwell on those differences. So, while polarization is something I think all of us need to watch, with civility, with grace and with a commitment to being focused on a solution, I think our members see CSG as a valuable tool to help them overcome those partisan divides and actually work on making a difference.
What are some of the best ways for new state government officials to get involved with CSG?
Well, it’s like anything—I would recommend you jump right in. First, poke around our website and find out what resources are there. Find out what The Book of the States is. Look into what Shared State Legislation is all about. These are resources that are renewed each year and they provide real-time access to information that may be very beneficial to state leaders, particularly new state leaders. The other thing is to just pick up the phone. If there is ever a question you have about a particular issue, or something you want to get involved in, we are always an e-mail or phone call away. That is true of our regional offices, our national office and our Justice Center office. Reach out and engage with us whenever there is a question or a challenge you need some help with. Let us be your staff, let us expand your reach, let us deepen your understanding.
And of course, attend one of our meetings. Go to a regional meeting—when I was a legislator that was my entry point. I happened to represent a state in the Midwest. The Midwestern Legislative Conference provided me with a sense of family, provided me with a great reservoir of friends over several years. If I could recommend anything, it would be for young legislators to find a way to get to one of those meetings. Our leadership development programs are also a great way to connect. Each of our regions has a leadership development program; applications are available online. Our national program, the Henry Toll Fellowship, brings together 48 state leaders from all three branches of government, 12 from each region, for an intensive, boot-camp leadership development experience. I went through that program and, from what others have told me, it is life changing. It certainly was for me. Seek out those opportunities to deepen your leadership skills because ultimately it is about empowering our members to make a big difference. I would enthusiastically invite new legislators to check us out and just get involved.
How do you keep your finger on the pulse of what is happening in state capitols? How do you ensure that CSG is adapting to meet state governments’ evolving needs?
The Council of State Governments is an organization of all of the states. We find it is great to be out listening to state leaders in their state capitols. Our regional directors, each year, tour almost every state capitol. They are hearing from majority leaders, minority leaders, judges and executive branch officials. We think that by convening active conversations, in all of the ways we seek to do that, is the best way we can keep our finger on the pulse of what is going on. Obviously, we have partnerships and resources that keep us informed on data and the news, but ultimately it is about close personal working relationships with the leaders in the states that allow us to understand when we need to adapt or focus on an issue of great importance.
Most recently, if you look at the epidemic of opioid overdoses, that certainly was a trend that emerged in a few states and now is a significant problem in many states. It cuts across all kinds of demographics, and is a huge challenge both as a public health and public safety issue. As we see those trends emerging from our members’ own experiences in their states, we seek to provide them with the kind of resources they need to better understand the issue, understand what other states are doing, understand what research is telling us the best practices are to really make an impact, and providing them with legislation from other states and information from national resources to help them to ultimately decide how to best craft solutions for their state.
How has your experience as a state legislator informed how you direct CSG’s mission and activities?
Having served 12 years in a legislative body, both in the (Kansas) House and the Senate, I knew that I couldn’t just do things by myself. My colleagues were a great source of insight and inspiration, and some frustration, but I also knew that by connecting to an outside resource like CSG that ultimately I could be a better legislator. Now as the executive director of CSG, I take it as a sacred trust that the states entrust us with their dues to make sure that every day we wake up and we’re driven by the goal of creating excellence in state government. The citizen legislators who make great sacrifices to step forward to campaign for office—to serve in office with, frankly, in most places very little pay—know somebody has their back. The kinds of resources, support and training I got from CSG made a difference for me and made me a better lawmaker; it made my state a better place and it made my citizens safer, healthier and more prosperous. Now that I am working at CSG, and I think I share this inclination with all of my colleagues across all of our offices, we’re driven by one mission and that’s to say to state officials, ‘We got your back. We’re your partner.’