Finding a Path to Consensus: The CSG Justice Center Celebrates 20 Years

By Amelia Vorpahl

The U.S. criminal justice system can evoke complicated emotions.

If you asked people what the ultimate goals of the system should be, most answers would likely include things like reducing crime and recidivism, using public resources effectively, keeping people safe and allowing for a humane system that upholds accountability. However, how we achieve these goals is where much of the difficulty arises. Political realities, competing priorities and incomplete or contradictory data can make it incredibly hard for policymakers to fully grasp what’s needed. For decades, state leaders on both sides of the aisle have called for a way to talk about what’s working and what’s not without politics getting in the way.

“In the mid-1990s, it became very clear that if you had a meeting of legislators from different states, or of prosecutors, public defenders, or victims — that people agreed on a vast majority of the things that needed to be done to make the criminal justice system work better. And that was the genesis of what has grown into the [CSG] Justice Center,” said Mike Lawlor, a founding member of the CSG Justice Center advisory board.


The origin of the CSG Justice Center focused on the fundamental idea that leaders needed a space to help find consensus on how states could tackle complex issues of safety, health and justice. Two decades later, the organization has grown into a group of 120 researchers, practitioners, policy experts and writers with an advisory board representing a cross-section of key leaders shaping criminal justice policy across the country.“To have what’s effectively a 120-person criminal justice think tank attached to a membership organization like CSG and part of that family is very unique,” said CSG Justice Center Director Megan Quattlebaum. “We have staff going out in the field all over the country, which gives them a clear vantage point of what the needs of our members are. That is something special and important.”

To understand how the CSG Justice Center evolved from its beginnings to its current stature, you can start with one person: Mike Thompson. When 25-year-old Thompson was hired as a criminal justice policy analyst at CSG East in 1997, he was the sole staff member of the only CSG criminal justice program. While working to get the new CSG East program off the ground, Thompson targeted a handful of key justice issues that could earn consensus, including juvenile justice, support for victims of crime, improved responses to mental health needs and racial disparities in the justice system.

Although these topics sound fairly mainstream today, the late 1990s and early 2000s were challenging times for organizations in the criminal justice space. CSG East had to navigate a political atmosphere that lacked the bipartisanship and consensus on basic criminal justice policies seen today, especially regarding what drives crime and recidivism. Back then, Thompson said there were prevailing thoughts that people could fake a mental illness to get out of responsibility for committing a crime, or that people could be ordered into treatment without consent.

“I don’t care if you were a Democrat or a Republican, you didn’t want to be seen as soft on crime,” said Thompson. “But I came from corrections, and those guys weren’t ideological. They just said, ‘This is what needs to happen to run a safe prison and to reduce recidivism.’ So, I saw the mission as framing issues in a way that gets Republicans and Democrats around a table with experts to agree that these were problems we all want to solve.

”For one of its first major projects in 2002, CSG East brought together experts from behavioral health, criminal justice, law enforcement and other key fields to publish the Criminal Justice/Mental Health Consensus Project, a first-of-its-kind report with policy recommendations to help stakeholders address the needs of people with mental illness who are involved with the justice system. This report launched the type of work that the CSG Justice Center is now known for: gathering expertise from key leaders across impacted systems to promote data-driven and evidence-based policy ideas. Four years after this seminal report, the CSG Governing Board voted to establish the national CSG Justice Center, diverging the work of CSG East’s criminal justice program into a separate organization, still under Thompson’s leadership.


The staff and board members from early years describe the formation of the CSG Justice Center as having energy like that of a startup company, with the freedom, flexibility and hustle of having to build a program from the ground up. Everyone did everything, from hiring to budgets, to writing and even leading high-level meetings with federal and state leaders. There was no infrastructure and no rulebook to work from. Thompson laughed as he compared the CSG Justice Center to a “lemonade stand” in those early years. As with most startups, everyone has stories of mishaps and adventures they still love to retell.

Michael Festa, AARP Massachusetts state director and the first chair of the CSG Justice Center Advisory Board, fondly recalled an early board meeting in his Massachusetts garden enjoying a New England clambake when a torrential downpour started. The board members then spent hours on a bus, soaking wet. During the final meeting for the Consensus Project report, Thompson remembered running out of a ballroom with hundreds of top justice and health leaders to crowd around a phone because he was chosen as a friend’s “lifeline” on the television show “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” which was taping the same day.

Renée Brackett, executive assistant to senior management and he Justice Center’s longest-serving employee, called the early days “a train going 400 miles an hour.” She spoke about being a “one-man shop” while planning a conference for 1,000 people during her first year on the job. “I can still remember the dates because I didn’t sleep the entire Christmas break,” she said.

While the founding CSG Justice Center team navigated the challenges of building a new organization, they also pioneered entirely new ways of approaching criminal justice policy. Marshall Clement, CSG Justice Center deputy director and one of the early staff members, remembers piloting the groundbreaking Justice Reinvestment Initiative. His small team traveled across the country multiple times a month to gather data, listen to stakeholders and convene working groups using the data to develop policy options that would reduce corrections costs and allow states to reinvest savings in making communities safer. In more than 30 participating states, their efforts through the years have led to a reduction — by thousands — of the number of people behind bars, as well as lower recidivism rates, prison closures and millions of dollars reinvested in community-based treatment and alternatives to incarceration.

Both Thompson and Clement are quick to commend the hard work of the early staff members and to uplift the critical role that the first advisory board members played in getting the organization started. The board’s early leadership and guidance set the stage for the incredible success of the CSG Justice Center over the next 20 years.Michael Festa says he feels blessed to have been one of the first board members and credits its focus on “bipartisanship, evidence-based policies, finding a path to consensus, and perhaps just as important, doing all of it with mutual respect and genuine affection.”


By all accounts, the tireless work ethic, grit and drive of the founding CSG Justice Center staff and board members has paid off. The criminal justice policy landscape of 2022 is very different than that of 2002, and Quattlebaum attributes this to the Justice Center’s work over the last two decades along with its partners and members. For example, she argues that there is an increasing recognition of how outcomes on community supervision drive prison admissions and populations, crediting the Justice Center’s research division and its Confined and Costly 50-state revocations report for helping make that case. She’s also seen states focus more on how they can better respond to people with mental illness and behavioral health conditions by reducing justice system contact and expanding access to treatment, including through innovative ideas like co-responder teams and community responder programs.

“Twenty years ago, co-response programs in law enforcement departments were not something you’d find in jurisdictions across the country. Twenty years ago, the national recognition of a bipartisan consensus around criminal justice policies just wasn’t there,” said Quattlebaum. “We know the criminal justice system needs collaboration with the housing system, with workforce development, with mental and behavioral health systems and with education. From our earliest days, we had staff whose expertise came from the health side and not the criminal justice side.”

Clement agrees and said he’s proud of the major evolutions that he has seen take place at the CSG Justice Center over his 17-year tenure, including the growth of the organization and staff itself, the impact of its work in transforming the criminal justice and behavioral health fields and the rise in public awareness of necessary reform to our systems of safety and justice.


Although the CSG Justice Center’s work touches on every facet of the justice system, a throughline is the focus on data and research. From the beginning, the Justice Center pioneered a bipartisan, data-driven approach to criminal justice reform in red and blue states alike that was unprecedented in the justice policy landscape. The key to this success, spanning the past 20 years, has been the Justice Center’s ability to uplift its members to speak firsthand about the needs in their communities.

“In order to build possibilities, you have to have a lot of perspectives at the table so that you’re really understanding the problem in its fullest dimension,” said Quattlebaum. “You have to have the courts and the executive and legislative branches at the table if you really want to see justice systems become more efficient and fairer. All those folks need to be in the conversation.”

While the CSG Justice Center has helped reform criminal justice policy in the United States, the organization is increasingly seeing the need to look further upstream to prevent justice system involvement altogether. This includes helping communities build more robust crisis response systems that prevent arrests and jail stays for people with behavioral health needs as well as a focus on front-end diversion in juvenile justice systems. Reentry and diversion systems also face challenges in growing to scale, and the Justice Center has prioritized ensuring that there is a baseline level of services across the country while helping states tailor supports to individual needs.

“The work of the CSG Justice Center over the last 20 years has been the work of a lot of people. You’d have to fill up the entire magazine with names if you really want to do it justice,” said Quattlebaum. “So many people’s ideas and effort have gone into making us what we are today. I can’t say enough how grateful we are to everybody who has been a part of this incredible project.”


So, where does the CSG Justice Center go from here? Quattlebaum says that the organization’s commitment to consensus-based work won’t change, but one example of its new direction is found in its prioritization of racial equity. Internally, staff are having candid conversations about policies and practices that will ensure that the Justice Center is a transparent, fair and welcoming workplace. In its external work, there is increased focus on helping states directly tackle racially disproportionate outcomes in their justice systems. This focus has come directly from member requests.

“I think a lot about how policy and practice changes can be sustained over time. We assist policymakers to build a wide and deep base of support so that the reforms states enact are deeply embedded and sustainable moving forward. It’s important to think about how it lasts.” Quattlebaum said. “At some basic level, you have to be playing the long game.”

Looking ahead, the CSG Justice Center is focused on three big areas in which it sees broad bipartisan support, including breaking cycles of incarceration; advancing health, opportunity and equity; and using data to improve safety and justice. State and local leaders are focused on the shortcomings of safety and justice systems and are interested in ways to transform these systems to increase public safety at less cost. By ensuring its work is grounded in the present-day challenges of leaders on the ground, the Justice Center is moving the field forward with ground-breaking research and building capacity to develop innovative and practical tools while scaling up how it helps state and local leaders across all 50 states.

This article appeared in the CSG Capitol Ideas magazine (2022, Issue 4). View current and past issues at

20 in 20: 20 Significant Moments in the 20-Year History of the CSG Justice Center

Over the past 20 years, the CSG Justice Center has grown from a staff of two in one city to more than 120 employees across 23 states and Washington, D.C. In that time, the Justice Center has partnered with national and state leaders throughout the country to impact the field — whether through legislation, direct assistance, convenings or groundbreaking reports. This timeline lays out some of the most significant moments in the organization’s history.

  • 2002 – The Consensus Project report is published.
  • There are two employees based in New York City (still within the Eastern Regional Conference) — Michael Thompson and Renée Brackett.
  • 2004 – Congress authorizes the Justice and Mental Health Collaboration Program — a federal program that the CSG Justice Center has supported since its inception.
  • 2006 – CSG makes the Justice Center a national program and appoints an advisory board to help guide the center’s work.
  • 2007 – With the CSG Justice Center’s assistance, Texas and Kansas pass Justice Reinvestment legislation to avert growth in their prison population; these two pieces of legislation help spur the creation of the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, which becomes one of the CSG Justice Center’s signature initiatives.
  • 2008 – The Second Chance Act, a first-of-its-kind piece of federal legislation, is signed into law with bipartisan support to improve reentry outcomes; the CSG Justice Center was among several national organizations to back this legislation.
  • 2010 – The CSG Justice Center hosts its first national summit on Justice Reinvestment and Public Safety at the U.S. Capitol.
  • 2011 – The CSG Justice Center hosts its first 50-state convening on reentry and recidivism.
  • 2012 – There are 73 employees across 11 states.
  • 2014 – By this year, 20 states have used a Justice Reinvestment approach with the CSG Justice Center’s assistance.
  • 2015 – Collaborating with two national partners, the CSG Justice Center launches the Stepping Up initiative, its first campaign, to reduce the number of people with mental illnesses in jails across the country.
  • By this year, the organization has provided technical assistance to 1,000 grantees through the federal Justice and Mental Health Collaboration Program and Second Chance Act programs.
  • 2016 – The CSG Justice Center launches the initiative now known as Improving Outcomes for Youth (IOYouth).
  • 2017 – The CSG Justice Center convenes a 50-State Summit on Public Safety in Washington, D.C., leading to its first web-based data analysis covering all 50 states.
  • The CSG Justice Center launches the Face to Face initiative, its first project designed to directly connect policymakers to the people impacted by the criminal justice system.
  • 2018 – CSG Executive Director David Adkins names Megan Quattlebaum the second director in the organization’s history.
  • 2021 – In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the CSG Justice Center hosts a virtual conference exploring innovative first response options, with the U.S. attorney general as a featured speaker.
  • 2022 – The CSG Justice Center and the Bureau of Justice Assistance launch Justice Counts, a first-of-its-kind national coalition to provide policymakers with accurate, accessible and actionable data.
  • The CSG Justice Center and several national partners launch Reentry 2030, a 50-state campaign to transform successful reentry across the country.
  • There are 120 employees across 23 states and Washington, D.C.

This article appeared in the CSG Capitol Ideas magazine (2022, Issue 4). View current and past issues at

Called to Serve

Tennessee Commissioner of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services Marie Williams chairs the CSG Justice Center Advisory Board.

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Year of tax cuts has included plans to move toward a flat income tax in two Midwest states, and targeted relief for working families in others

Most states in the Midwest, in some way, cut taxes as a part of this year’s legislative sessions. One that could not was North Dakota, where the state’s part-time legislature only convenes in odd-numbered years.

But several of the state’s top political leaders appear eager to join the tax-cutting trend in early 2023, unveiling a plan this summer that they say would be the largest income-tax reduction in North Dakota history. Their vision is for North Dakota to move away from its five-tiered, graduated income-tax system (the current top rate is 2.9 percent, lowest among the 50 states) and replace it with the lowest flat tax rate in the nation, 1.5 percent. The plan also would eliminate all income taxes for individuals with adjusted incomes of up to $54,725 a year or joint filers with earnings of up to $95,600.

North Dakota Sen. Scott Meyer says this change would mean no income tax at all for 60 percent of the state’s taxpayers, and an even higher percentage would be fully exempt in legislative districts like his that have higher numbers of low- and middle-income households.

The cost to the state: an estimated loss of $500 million during its two-year budget cycle. That equates to about 10 percent of North Dakota’s total general fund budget in 2021-2023 ($4.99 billion).

“Right now, our state is a little flush with funds due to the increase in oil prices; we’ve been very fortunate with our abundance of resources,” Meyer says. “But those resources obviously are finite and things can change. So maybe this [proposed tax change] forces the legislature to become more nimble and to check how we’re spending.”

Some legislators, including Meyer, have contemplated complete elimination of the income tax. But he says the volatility of oil and gas tax revenue (which North Dakota relies on for its general fund as well as to build up reserves), combined with concerns about local property tax burdens, makes it prudent to keep the income tax as a revenue source.

Historic year for flat-tax supporters

All but seven U.S. states levy some kind of income tax (South Dakota is one of the exceptions), and most have some kind of tiered, “graduated” system — rates of taxation go up at higher income levels. But the Tax Foundation says the year 2022 marked “something of a flat tax revolution.”

“In more than a century of state income taxes, only four states have ever transitioned from a graduated-rate income tax to a flat tax,” Jared Walczak wrote for the foundation in September. “Another four adopted legislation doing so this year, and a planned transition in a fifth state (Arizona) is now going forward.”

In the Midwest, Illinois, Indiana and Michigan have had flat-tax systems since the 1960s (graduated-tax systems are barred in the Illinois and Michigan constitutions), and Iowa will soon join these states as the result of legislation passed this year.

Under HF 2317, Iowa will gradually move to a flat tax rate of 3.9 percent by 2026. It has been one of seven Midwestern states with a graduated tax structure; for incomes above $78,435, the top rate is 8.53 percent. This transition to a flat tax in Iowa, along with a new exemption for retirement income, will reduce net general fund revenue by $1.2 billion in FY 2026, according to the state’s Legislative Services Agency. Additionally, if certain fiscal triggers are met, Iowa will transition to a flat corporate income rate of 5.5 percent.

Indiana and Nebraska also adopted income tax-related changes this year:

Indiana’s HB 1002, signed into law in March, will drop the current flat rate of 3.23 percent to 3.15 percent starting next year. Further reductions will occur if two thresholds are met: 1) year-over-year revenue growth in the general fund is at least 2 percent, and 2) the balance in the state pension fund sufficiently covers pension liabilities. If these thresholds are met, the flax tax rate in Indiana falls to 2.9 percent by 2029. The revenue loss for the state would be an estimated $942 million by 2030, according to an analysis of HB 1002 by the Indiana Legislative Services Agency.
In Nebraska, the top rate (which applies to incomes above $32,210 for single filers and $64,430 for joint filers) in the state’s graduated system will fall from 6.84 percent to 5.84 percent by 2027. LB 873, signed into law in April, also gradually drops the corporate income tax rate to 5.84 percent; accelerates a phaseout of Social Security income; and expands a refundable income tax program to not only include property taxes paid to K-12 schools, but community colleges as well. All told, by FY 2027-’28, the various provisions in LB 873 will result in a net revenue loss to the state of $948 million, Nebraska fiscal analysts say.

For Meyer, part of the appeal of the flat-tax proposal in North Dakota is that it’s simple and clean, and because of the exemptions from income taxation for many households, “everyone will benefit,” he says.

Supporters of a graduated system, in contrast, say it provides a counterweight to the regressivity of other major sources of state revenue such as the gas tax and sales tax.

“Higher rates on higher incomes are an effective way to capture the increasing share of economic benefits flowing to those at the very top,” Wesley Tharpe, deputy director of state policy research for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, noted three years ago in an article supporting Illinois’ proposed switch from a flat tax to graduated income tax. (Illinois voters rejected this proposed constitutional change.)

Illinois expands reach of earned income tax credit

This year, the center tracked how some states used their strong fiscal standing to target relief for “families struggling to afford the basics.”

Illinois, for instance, permanently expanded its earned income tax credit (SB 157) from 18 percent to 20 percent of the federal credit while also making more people eligible — namely, childless adults between the ages of 18 and 24 or 65 and older, as well as certain immigrant workers.

Most states in the Midwest have an EITC of some kind, but policies vary in terms of the amount of the credit and whether it is refundable or non-refundable. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, another policy option for states is to provide a child tax credit to families. Three U.S. states added such credits this year, but none in the Midwest.

Many states in the region do offer child care tax credits (see map). Other policy moves this year included an end to the grocery sales tax in Kansas (HB 2106) and the issuance of tax rebate/refund checks in states such as Illinois and Indiana.

Across the border in Saskatchewan, all tax filers are receiving a $500 tax credit as part of the province’s four-point “affordability plan.”

Michigan spending $50 million to pay for tuition, other costs of student teachers

In Michigan, student teachers now have the chance to earn up to $9,600 a semester, a move designed to address educator shortages in many parts of the state. Often the last part of a college student’s journey to completing a teacher-preparation pathway and earning state certification, student teaching has typically been an unpaid position, one that can last a semester or a full year depending on the college.

Michigan’s new education budget (SB 845) appropriates $50 million for higher-education institutions to offset the costs of a student teacher’s tuition, living expenses or child care (up to $9,600 per student, per semester). Also in the new budget:

money to provide $10,000 in scholarships to 2,500 future educators (known as the MI Future Educator Fellowship);
$175 million in grants for schools to help existing employees earn their teacher certification (known as “grow your own”); and
$15 million for school districts to offer a paid mentorship and salary for military veterans seeking teacher certification.

In the Midwest, most states have reported drops in recent years in the number of individuals completing teacher preparation programs.

Saskatchewan implements scaled-back expansion of provincial sales tax

Starting in October, Saskatchewan residents had to begin paying a sales tax for ticket admissions to sporting events, concerts and many other entertainment venues. This planned expansion of the Provincial Sales Tax was unveiled in early 2022, but more recently scaled back as part of the Government of Saskatchewan’s four-point “affordability plan” — for example, fitness and gym memberships were removed from the list of newly taxable services, as were recreational activities for young people.

In Canada, events already are among the many service-related activities subject to the federal general sales tax, or GST. The GST is 5 percent; Saskatchewan’s PST is 6 percent. Five provinces, including Ontario (but not Saskatchewan), partner with the Government of Canada to levy a Harmonized Sales Tax, which combines the federal and provincial sales taxes. The HST is administered by the Canada Revenue Agency, with each province entering into an agreement with the federal government on what the tax base will be and how revenue will be shared.

In the United States, there is no national sales tax, though the federal government does collect excise taxes from sales of motor fuel, tobacco products, alcohol, and some health-related goods and services, according to the Tax Policy Center. At the state level, professional and large-scale events are typically subject to taxation. More generally, state systems vary widely on the taxation of services; a Federation of Tax Administrators survey from 2017 found that South Dakota collected revenue from more than 100 services, while Illinois, Michigan and North Dakota taxed fewer than 30.

How State Leaders Can Improve Maternal Health Outcomes

By: Valerie Newberg

Despite advances in technology and policy substantially decreasing the risk of pregnancy associated deaths in the 20th century, the U.S. is one of only a few countries with significant increases in maternal mortality in the 21st century

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines an instance of maternal mortality as a person dying during pregnancy or within 42 days of the end of pregnancy of a cause that was not accidental or incidental. Maternal mortality is used by the World Health Organization to quantify the concept of maternal health and reflects the economic, social and public health conditions of mothers in a population. Maternal mortality can also provide insight on disparities in care. The United States lags other developed nations, ranking 46th globally. Current data on maternal health, while imperfect, paints a troubling picture of inequity across American racial and ethnic groups, regions and states. The Department of Health and Human Services reports that Black and Indigenous Americans are 2-3 times more likely than white Americans to experience pregnancy-related mortality and rural mothers are increasingly likely to suffer from pregnancy-related morbidity and mortality due to decreases in rural hospital access. Maternal mortality rates are highly variable among states. California has a rate of 10.2 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births, just half of the U.S. average. Alabama’s rate is 36.2.

Despite these challenges, there is reason for hope: many instances of maternal mortality and morbidity are preventable when medical professionals have the resources to provide care before, during and after a pregnancy. Additionally, the Biden administration released its “White House Blueprint for Addressing the Maternal Health Crisis,” which includes a request for a $470 million budget to develop much-needed tools that will help states and local communities tackle this issue. The blueprint aims at “cutting the rates of maternal mortality and morbidity, reducing the disparities in maternal health outcomes, and improving the overall experience of pregnancy, birth, and postpartum for people across the country.” The plan also makes clear, however, that reforming the American maternal health system cannot be the burden of one person, agency or institution alone. Efforts must reflect collaboration between the federal and state governments to be truly effective and equitable.

As outlined in the blueprint, the federal government is taking several steps to help states improve pregnancy outcomes.

Increasing data collection efforts

  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Levels of Care Assessment Tool creates “standardized assessments” of maternal care levels for policymakers in participating states.
  • A review of Women, Infants, and Children participation and maternal health outcomes will provide state policymakers with robust information on the risk factors for maternal mortality and extreme morbidity.

Using equity as a guiding principle.

  • Expansion of the Nurse Corps and Community Health Worker Training Program will bridge gaps in care for medically underserved communities, including rural areas, by providing additional resources for Health Professional Shortage Areas.
  • Revision of guidelines will ensure rural and Indian Health Service medical facilities are prepared to care for pregnant people and mothers, even if those facilities do not have obstetric units.
  • Utilization of self-monitored blood pressure regulation programs will assist those at risk for hypertensive disorders, which disproportionately impact pregnant people over 35 and Black and Indigenous mothers.

Encouraging state innovation.

Potential options for state responses include expanding current programs to promote equity and implementing an all-government approach that incorporates several agencies and programs.

  • In Arkansas, the governor issued initiatives expanding Medicaid-eligible pregnancy benefits to include home visits for those at high-risk for pregnancy complications and coverage for mothers who earn up to 212% of the federal poverty level.
  • In Delaware, lawmakers passed a bill requiring doula services be covered under Medicaid. At-risk populations not receiving doula care are twice as likely to suffer from pregnancy complications as those with doula care. Those receiving doula care covered by Medicaid report lower levels of C-sections and premature birth.
  • In Nevada, lawmakers passed a bill revising the responsibilities of the Maternal Mortality Review Committee to include collaboration with the Advisory Committee of the Office of Minority Health and Equity of the Department of Health and Human Services, a practice that allows the committee to better analyze racial, age and geographic disparities in maternal care.

As the Sept. 30 deadline for Congress to pass appropriations bills approaches, the Blueprint for Addressing the Maternal Health Crisis remains a valuable opportunity for Congress to prioritize state-federal partnerships. In the meantime, states have several options in place to address disparities in maternal health outcomes, including expanded Medicaid coverage, updated data collection and more comprehensive monitoring guidelines.

Additional Resources:

MLC Chair’s Initiative for 2022 | Sen. Carolyn McGinn | State Water Policy

The Midwestern Legislative Conference Chair’s Initiative for 2022 is focusing on state policies in the Midwest that foster water quality and sustainability.

Kansas Sen. Carolyn McGinn, the MLC chair in 2021, has long been a local and state leader in water policy — inside and outside the Legislature. The goal of her 2022 MLC Chair’s Initiative is to help legislators share information and explore ideas for promoting sound water policy.

Recent CSG Midwest articles related to the 2022 MLC Chair’s Initiative

Article on featured session at MLC Annual Meeting »
Policies in Midwest to address rising concerns about PFAS pollution »
A look at new plans in Illinois to remove all lead-service lines in the state »
How and why Nebraska is looking beyond its borders to meet its water needs »
FirstPerson article by Wisconsin Sen. Robert Cowles on new partnerships that look beyond state regulation to improve water quality »

MLC Chair’s Initiative | 2022 | State Water Policy

Over the past two years, policy “firsts” have cropped up in state legislatures across the country to deal with the problem of PFAS, a class of widely used chemicals linked to harmful health effects in humans and animals. In the Midwest, Illinois became the first U.S. state to ban the incineration of PFAS (HB 4818), and Minnesota is the first in the region to outlaw these chemicals in food packaging (SF 20).

Wisconsin, for the first time, now has enforceable limits on levels of certain PFAS chemicals in community drinking water systems, joining Michigan in the Midwest.

Outside the region, some of the recent actions have been even further-reaching.

Maine, for instance, is prohibiting all non-essential uses of PFAS in products, and after sewage sludge was discovered to be a source of widespread PFAS contamination on farmland, the state banned the use of sludge as fertilizer. Also this year, Maine legislators established a $60 million trust fund for farmers whose land and products have been contaminated by PFAS. Through the fund, the state will purchase contaminated property, replace the lost income of farmers and monitor the health of affected families.

In Vermont, residents exposed to PFAS contamination now have a right to medical monitoring (paid for by PFAS polluters).

“It’s everywhere, and the cleanup is very difficult to do and very expensive,” Minnesota Rep. Ami Wazlawik says about the challenges posed by PFAS contamination. “So you have the prevalence of the chemicals in the environment, the fact that they are ‘forever chemicals’ that stick around, and then the negative health impacts.”

‘Turn off the tap’

All of those concerns led Wazlawik to become a leading voice on PFAS-related issues in the Minnesota Legislature. Her focus, in particular, has been on measures to “prevent further contamination.” That’s why she sponsored the food packaging bill from 2021, and introduced measures this year to ban the manufacture and sale of PFAS-containing cosmetics, cookware, ski wax and apparel (none of the legislation from 2022 passed).

Sarah Doll, national director of the group Safer States, refers to bills like these as a “turn off the tap” approach to PFAS. States have been at the forefront of these policies as well as two other types of strategies, she says. One, “figure out the problem,” through more testing and monitoring, as well as studying the health effects. Two, “address the problem” — investing in PFAS cleanup, establishing regulatory standards, suing polluters, etc.

The “turn off the tap” approach has particular appeal because of the “forever” nature of these chemicals, says A. Daniel Jones, a biochemistry professor at Michigan State University and associate director of the school’s Center for PFAS Research.

“If we keep manufacturing more of them, and they don’t go away, the levels are just going to increase unless we do something about it,” he says.

But instituting such bans can be difficult.

As a class of chemicals, Jones says, PFAS can have some “really important functions, so we’d like to be able to distinguish between what are the essential needs and then where there are some good substitutes that are available and that would not be just better for our health, but better for our economies and the ecology.”

PFAS refers to a class of many different chemical compounds. Two of them, PFOA and PFOS, have “become the poster children for PFAS,” Jones says, because the toxicity and health effects of these particular compounds are relatively known. The same cannot be said for many other chemical compounds in the PFAS family that remain in use today. (PFOA and PFOS are no longer manufactured in the United States.)

In Minnesota, Wazlawik says, one reason for the success of her food-packaging ban was that parts of the food industry already were moving toward PFAS alternatives in its products.

According to Doll, another policy lever for states is to help private industry find those alternatives. “It’s not just about dinging the companies,” she says.

Minnesota has a university-led Technical Assistance Program to help businesses with environmental stewardship. In the state of Washington, a recent law directs the Department of Health to designate chemicals of concern and then identify the products in which these chemicals are being used.

To ban the use of these chemicals, the department must first demonstrate that “safer alternatives are feasible and available.”

‘All over the planet’

The Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research and advocacy organization, tracks PFAS pollution in public and private water systems, and then regularly updates its national findings by state. As of June, it had documented close to 3,000 contaminated sites in the United States. Michigan has among the highest number of these sites, but Jones says that’s because the state has been a leader in terms of monitoring and testing.

“These chemicals are all over the world now, but Michigan has taken a much more aggressive role in trying to figure out where these chemicals are,” Jones says. “That’s been really important, because we need to understand what the scope of the problem is and how to prioritize cleanups. Where is it the worst? Where are the hotspots?”

Along with widespread testing for the presence of PFAS in the environment, Michigan has regulatory standards for levels of PFAS in drinking water, surface water, groundwater, and the releases by wastewater treatment plants. In recent years, too, legislators have invested heavily in PFAS contamination and cleanup — most recently with this year’s SB 565, which specifies that $55 million in state water revolving funds be used to eliminate PFAS and other emerging contaminants in drinking water.

According to Wazlawik, much of the work in Minnesota is being guided by a PFAS “blueprint,” an agency-led effort that prioritizes the state’s response. In future sessions, she says, much of the legislative role will be to adequately fund those priorities.

Part of the focus in Minnesota, and other states, is getting a better handle on the risks of different PFAS chemicals to human health. Jones says a colleague at MSU’s Center for Policy Research aptly refers to PFAS as “general messer-uppers.”

“They’re not your classical environmental poison,” he says. “They mess up a lot of biological functions, and then the question is, at what level does that become significant? And we just need to know more.”

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, high levels of certain PFAS may lead to increased cholesterol levels, a greater chance of kidney or testicular cancer, small decreases in infant birth weights, and an increased risk of high blood pressure.

PFAS fallout for farmers

To date, much of the attention on PFAS has related to the contamination of drinking water.

But Jones says the focus of states may turn more and more to the presence of PFAS on agricultural land, and in crops and livestock. To date, that problem has been most acute in the Northeast, as evidenced by Maine’s new $60 million trust fund for impacted farmers.

Earlier this year, though, the state of Michigan issued a consumption advisory regarding beef from a farm in the state. The cause: the use of biosolids containing PFAS on the land where the cattle were located.

“Some groups estimate that 20 percent of the farms may already have contaminated biosolids spread on them,” Jones says. “If that’s the case, what do we do next? How do we preserve our farms? Can you add things into the soil that keep the PFAS chemicals from getting into the crops?”

Those are among the many questions that may lie ahead for legislators, whose work on addressing the impacts of “forever chemicals” has just begun.

Kansas Sen. Carolyn McGinn has chosen water policy as the focus of her Midwestern Legislative Conference Chair’s Initiative for 2022. 

Tackling the PFAS problem: Five examples of strategies from Midwest


Minnesota will soon become the first state in the Midwest to ban the use of PFAS in food packaging. Under SF 20, signed into law in 2021, “No person shall manufacture or knowingly sell … a food package that contains intentionally added PFAS.” The law takes effect in 2024. According to Safer States, which tracks PFAS-related legislation, 10 other U.S. states have taken steps to eliminate PFAS in food packaging. To date, the most common state action has been to ban or limit the use of firefighting foam with PFAS — including laws in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin.



Many Midwestern states have expanded PFAS testing and monitoring in drinking water. That includes Minnesota, which has an interactive online dashboard that allows residents to find out levels of PFAS (if any) in their community water systems. In unveiling this new resource, the Department of Health noted that Minnesota has joined states such as Illinois, Michigan and Ohio in conducting statewide testing of PFAS in drinking water. 



Michigan and Wisconsin are among the states with enforceable standards that require action to be taken if certain PFAS compounds are detected in local drinking water systems at or above levels considered harmful to human health. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is planning to adopt standards that are more stringent than any current state-level limits. Some states also have established regulatory standards for the presence of PFAS in surface water (Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin), groundwater (Michigan), soil (Michigan and Wisconsin), and the air (Michigan), according to The Environmental Council of the States.



Earlier this year, Michigan lawmakers made a historic $4.7 billion investment in the state’s water infrastructure. One area of emphasis: PFAS cleanup. Language in Michigan’s SB 565 allocates $55 million in state water revolving funds to address PFAS and other emerging contaminants in drinking water. Another $15 million will be used to clean up a single PFAS-contaminated site in the state.



Four years ago, Minnesota reached a $850 million settlement with 3M. The state had sued the company over the degradation of drinking water and other natural resources in parts of the Twin Cities metropolitan area due to the production of PFAS. Money from the lawsuit is going to 14 impacted communities to invest in their drinking water infrastructure. According to Safer States, Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin are among the 13 U.S. states where attorneys general have active lawsuits over PFAS contamination against manufacturers and others.

In a year that ALS took the life of a longtime colleague, Minnesota legislators make historic investment in research, caregiver support

Minnesota earlier this year made the largest single state investment into ALS research — $20 million over the next three fiscal years — under legislation sponsored by Senate President Pro Tem David Tomassoni, who died last month of complications from the neurodegenerative disease.

SF 3372 authorizes $20 million to be allocated in fiscal year 2023 for grants to Minnesota-based research facilities, universities and health systems for “clinical and translational” research on ALS — research on people via surveys or clinical trials, or into connecting the findings in different areas as a way to more effectively advance from discovery to application.

Grants could go to drug development, precision medicine, medical devices, assistive technology and cognitive studies.

Another $5 million is slated for caregiver support programs with ALS-specific respite care services.

Both pots of funds can be awarded through June 30, 2026.

“Watching him champion this, knowing full well he would not benefit from it … in politics it’s connect the dots to tell a story to influence the outcome,” says Minnesota Rep. Dave Lislegard, who agreed to sponsor SF 3372’s companion bill in the House (HF 3603).

“To watch him go through this, it’s a true testament to the kind of champion he was,” he says.

House Deputy Minority Leader Anne Neu Brindley, for whom the law is also personal — her husband, Jon, died from ALS in 2016, one year before she joined the Legislature in a special election — agrees.

“He was the driver. We all watched what happened to him in the course of just over a year,” says Neu Brindley, whose amendment to HF 3603 added the money for caregiver support.

“The only reason we were able to do that is because Sen. Tomassoni was right in front of us. It was happening right in front of us,” she says.


Tomassoni, who played professional hockey in Italy for 16 years (and skated for Italy’s 1984 Olympic team) before winning a Minnesota House seat in 1992, announced in July 2021 that he had been diagnosed with ALS, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease).

ALS is an always-fatal progressive motor neuron disease that has no known cure.

According to the ALS Association, most people in the U.S. who develop the disease do so between ages 40 and 70, with a median age of 55 at the time of diagnosis.

Men develop ALS 20 percent more commonly than women, and, for reasons still unknown, military veterans are more likely to be diagnosed with ALS than the general public.

Only 5 percent to 10 percent of cases can be attributed to a family history of the disease; in some of those cases the disease can be traced to a genetic mutation, the association says.


Minnesota’s law is the first of its kind in the country, Neu Brindley says, adding that as of early September, no research grants had been issued yet.

The state is also working with the ALS Association to further stretch the caregiver grant allocation by trying to provide training to family members to become caregivers (as opposed to hiring caregivers), she says.

This is important, Neu Brindley says, as Medicare doesn’t cover the kind of home care support ALS patients need — such as 24-hour care, meal delivery, homemaker or personal care services — because it only covers home care on a short-term or intermittent basis, which is impossible by definition for ALS patients.

“We have an opportunity in Minnesota to be a leader in this. So little money is put into this space [ALS research and support] that we can be a real leader with relatively little money,” Neu Brindley says, adding that she’s open to expanding caregiver funding but wants to see results from this first allocation. Such support is one of the ALS Association’s policy recommendations for states.

Tomassoni, quoted by the St. Paul Pioneer Press at a signing ceremony for SF 3372, expressed his hope that the state’s new investment marks “the beginning of the eradication of an insidious disease.”

“Not for me but for future generations,” he said. “[Baseball great] Lou Gehrig died of ALS in 1941, and for too long, little to nothing has been done in research to uncover new and effective treatments for ALS. … If we do nothing else this session, we can all say we accomplished something significant, something significant in a virtually unanimous fashion.

“I don’t remember ever in my 30 years in the Legislature passing such a significant bill this early in the session without leveraging it against something else. I think we can all be proud of that, too.”


Federal support for ALS research got a significant boost in the fiscal year 2022 budget — 20 percent above FY 2021 levels, to almost $200 million.

Part of that funding commitment includes implementation of the ACT for ALS law (H.R. 3537), a measure signed into law late last year. Money will go to public-private partnerships that research rare neurodegenerative diseases. The goals: advance understanding of the diseases, and develop new treatment methods.

Under the new law, too, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration was charged with developing a five-year action plan for extending the lives of patients through advances in drugs, other medical products and new treatment methods.

That plan was released in June.

The U.S. Congress also continued funding an ALS-focused research project at the Department of Defense ($40 million), while providing $115 million to the National Institutes of Health and $10 million for an ALS Registry and Biorepository, according to the ALS Association.