Public assistance benefit programs offer a safety net to more than 37 million low-income families. Yet, despite even the smallest increase in income or assets, individuals or families may be disqualified from certain programs. This sudden disqualification is a benefits cliff.Continue reading
Elected educators’ policy work places students first
By Maggie Mixer and Abeer Sikder
From classrooms to Capitols, a nationwide community of state leaders serve as educational advocates on their chamber floors. They drew inspiration from real-world experiences and outstanding students that left lasting impacts during their previous — and even ongoing — careers as teachers, professors and school administrators.
Despite having a diverse set of backgrounds and experiences, the policy work of nine state legislators is rooted in one common cause: students.
Kentucky Rep. Kim Banta, a former teacher, principal and assistant superintendent, noted that educators are deeply in touch with their communities and the day-to-day challenges faced by students and their families.
“Teaching is an amazing boot camp for most other things that you can do in life that might be stressful or difficult,” Banta said. “[Educators] have their fingers on the pulse of what the struggles are, what problems people are having … because you see every single segment of society [in schools].”
The 17-year teaching career of California Sen. Susan Rubio went beyond the classroom, as she helped students and their families navigate housing and food insecurity, language barriers and more.
“As an educator, I was exposed to so many of the issues our community members were facing,” Rubio said. “Early on, a few families came to me for support and help outside the classroom, letting me know they didn’t have funding for supplies … and I would try to connect them with [other] resources [too].”
Rubio said soon after she learned the true scale of the problem “and, as a teacher, [she] could only do so much.” Rubio decided she wanted to help her community from a broader platform. With access to more resources, she launched her first political campaign. Prior to joining the California Senate, she served Baldwin Park, California, for 13 years as a city clerk and city council member.
Other state leaders, such as Virginia Sen. Ghazala Hashmi, were driven to run for office due to specific challenges experienced in the classroom as an educator. Hashmi, who was professor at Reynolds Community College in Richmond, Virginia, also founded the college’s Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning. After teaching for nearly 30 years, she put her name on the ballot because she “saw the state government pulling funding and resources away from students and families, and [she] knew that we could do better for thousands of deserving students.”
Current and former students have been a continuous source of inspiration for these elected officials. While most gave up being full time educators to hold elected office, many still teach part time or make guest appearances at their district’s schools and agree that it remains one of the best parts of their jobs.
Indiana Sen. Andrea Hunley, who taught high school English before her 10 years as a principal, recounted being inspired by students organizing against gun violence, high schoolers’ talented navigation of artificial intelligence programs and a third-grade class’s sit-in protest for more recess time. According to Hunley, students’ creativity and enterprise are “leaps and bounds ahead of us” and ahead of the legislation currently in place.
Hunley’s experiences drove her not only to serve as an elected official but to also always focus on creating broad and innovative policy because “we’re legislating for the future and for future generations.”
“It’s like our legislation never caught up to where our kids are,” Hunley said. “If we legislate in a way that we think like teachers … we plant seeds for today so that they can bloom tomorrow. We would legislate very differently as we think about generational impact, which is what teachers do every single day.”
Once elected, many of these legislators continued to draw substantive lessons, as well as inspiration, from their time as educators. Among the most important skills, though, was interacting and communicating with others in an effective manner.
Hashmi compared serving constituents and students, discussing the importance of being “timely, responsive and informed about how to resolve constituent concerns.” She added that it has improved her ability to engage with colleagues as she strives to “focus on the nuances of arguments” and “bring as much background and information as [she] can to influence the understanding of others.”
Pennsylvania Sen. Dave Argall took a unique path compared to most other legislators, entering elected office before becoming an educator. While serving in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives and later in the Senate, he took night classes for 13 years to earn his master’s degree and doctorate in public administration.
As an instructor, Argall returned to teach night classes as a state and community college instructor. It was there he acquired the ability to concisely present complicated issues to his constituents.
“When you’re meeting with college students one night a week for 15 weeks, you learn how to condense a lot of information.” Argall said. “I think that practice has been really helpful to me [when] meeting with constituents at town hall meetings.”
Listening respectfully is another side of communication legislators learned from their classroom experiences. Indiana Sen. Fady Qaddoura teaches courses on civic engagement and executive leadership as an adjunct faculty member in Indianapolis. In his experience, receiving critique on projects in academia as a doctoral student and researcher taught him the important role that diverse perspectives play in the process of creating high-quality work.
“[This perspective] helps us build bridges of trust among legislators to understand that when we raise a question or concern, it is not politically motivated,” Qaddoura said. “It comes from a genuine concern about the policy that is being debated or discussed.”
Qaddoura’s approach helped shape how he interacts with other senators and last year contributed to colleagues nominating him for the Indiana Senate’s annual civility award.
Similarly, Iowa Sen. Jeff Taylor — even as a member of a majority caucus — said he works to listen to everyone on the Senate floor. After many years as a professor, academic and author, he believes that there is always more to be learned from others.
“I make it clear [to students] that they’re free to disagree if they don’t see things the way I see it; I’m not going to hold it against them,” Taylor said. “I think I borrow that approach of fairness and objectivity from the classroom while on the Senate floor and in committee meetings.”
Rubio found that her experiences listening to and balancing the different perspectives of 30 students in a classroom greatly informed her ability to “create policy that’s sensitive to everyone’s needs.” In a large, diverse state like California, this crucial skill has helped her understand where her community fits in massive, statewide bills.
Many legislators who held administrative positions, like principals and superintendents, reflected on how listening was one of many skills they learned as educators that improved their ability to collaborate, especially with colleagues across the aisle. Banta and several of her colleagues with backgrounds in education work hard to build consensus, which she attributed to their experiences in education environments where “it was never my way or the highway.”
“We [educators] tend to listen a little bit better and we tend to be problem solvers and we try to get everybody on board,” Banta said. “You always have to work with people and come to some kind of consensus [as a principal] and I think that transfers right into this job.”
Wisconsin Rep. Dave Considine described how the goal of educational environments and improvement, not perfection, informed his approach to collaboration. Considine, a special education teacher for nearly 30 years, credits the patience he has brought to the Legislature for enabling him to stay focused on moving forward — no matter how slowly.
“[Politics can be] a step forward, then maybe a step or two back, and then another big step forward, and then maybe half a step back,” Considine said, drawing parallels to his teaching tenure. “You don’t change behaviors overnight. That was my specialty, and so I’m used to that.”
For many legislators, education offered an avenue to acquire strategies now utilized for policy development. Curriculum development is among those strategies. Often data driven, this specific process is one that helped prepare many of the nine legislators for life in office.
According to Delaware Rep. Sherae’a Moore, a former English teacher, data-driven curriculum development “translates well into the legislative process.”
“Evidence-based policymaking is crucial for achieving effective and equitable outcomes and [limiting] unintended consequences,” Moore said. “By being on the front lines, we understand that the educational systems are intricate, involving multiple stakeholders and layers of governance. This experience prepares us to navigate complex policy landscapes as we are the ones witnessing the impact of policies directly in the classroom.”
Moore has integrated this approach into her work in the statehouse by using “data to drive any type of decision making, before [she] even drafts legislation,” to ensure that the policies she proposes fit the needs of her constituents.
Educational experiences can also form legislators’ outlooks on the connections between different issues. Argall described sharing the view of his predecessor — another long-time educator — on the “spaghetti bowl theory of government” that “everything is related to everything.”
For Argall, the perspective of his predecessor impacted his approach to identifying and creatively addressing problems. In 2003, After seeing the “very tight correlation” between the availability of good jobs and a community’s education level as a community college instructor, he organized the conversion of an abandoned junior high school into a community college center.
“The building had been around since, I think, the 1920s, and was just sitting kind of sad, empty and beginning to deteriorate,” Argall said. “Sometimes in this job, you just need to bring the right people to the table.”
Through the combined efforts of the community college, the local government, Argall’s office and a private foundation, they not only converted the building into a new education center but also funded the incoming class’s tuition.
“I can still see the faces of the parents when [former Pennsylvania Gov. Mark Schweiker] made the announcement about free tuition for two years,” Argall said. “The parents understood the power of that moment and we literally changed lives that day.”
The project helped “breathe new life” into local students’ futures and the surrounding community, a central goal of Argall’s efforts around Pennsylvania, which have also included a series of anti-blight laws.
The transition from education to elected office was not necessarily a career switch for these nine legislators. Rather, it presented a new side of the same path of service that they were already walking. Education placed them on the front lines of their communities and helped teach them how to effectively work with and for others — lessons that they have brought into elected office to continue to serve current and future generations.
“We give that level of support to our kids because we genuinely, and in a loving and compassionate way, want our kids to be better than us,” Qaddoura said. “Imagine if you can extend that feeling — to give them the best of who you are so that they can live better lives — to the rest of the population and to your fellow citizens.”
CSG ‘laboratories of democracy’ remain steadfast champions of state leaders. Explore the history and development of The Council of State Governments’ presence in the now flourishing Eastern, Southern, Midwestern and Western regions.Continue reading
New Mexico secretary of state works collaboratively to improve elections for Tribal communities.
By Lexington Soures
When New Mexico Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver served as Bernalillo County clerk, she learned firsthand the challenges of translating election language. In the Navajo Nation, where Diné bizaad is spoken, no direct translation exists for Republican or Democrat.
When Toulouse Oliver attended her first Navajo Nation chapter meeting, she learned more about how election and political terms may differ from community to the next. While one community may identify a Democrat as a “donkey rider,” another may use the phrase “someone who walks with a donkey.” This experience led her to prioritize word choice.
“That was that was one of the big, mind-blowing things for me — how do we communicate,” Toulouse Oliver asked. “What terminology do we use even within the context of the Navajo language to make sure that that idea is communicated accurately? That is one of our big challenges.”
Toulouse Oliver acknowledged that assimilation and language eradication occurred in many Native communities. However, some voters maintain a traditional lifestyle.
“I have people in New Mexico that live in hogans with no running water and no electricity,” Toulouse Oliver said. “They live their very traditional way of life and that has not changed in their lifetime. So, what do we want to do? Leave these folks behind when it comes to the voting process? No, we have to come to them.”
Before 1948, the New Mexico Constitution did not allow certain Native people to vote. Miguel Trujillo, a member of the Pueblo of Isleta and a World War II Marine Corps veteran, then stepped in to challenge the constitution’s language. Prior to Trujillo coming forward, voting rights were denied to Natives who did not pay private property taxes on reservations despite having paid all state and federal taxes. With the right to vote eventually secured, Native voters faced limited access to voting locations and a lack of translated voting materials that included instructions, notices and even ballots.
While some counties complied with federal law and Department of Justice intervention, others were slow to adapt their processes.
“There’s sort of a history of really needing to get with it in terms of complying with federal law,” Toulouse Oliver said. “Fast forward to today, we have one letter of agreement left in existence for one county. We have the Native Voting Task Force in my office and then we passed the Native American Voting Rights Act this year.”
This year, New Mexico’s Legislature passed HB 4, covering a variety of voting rights issues including the first Native American Voting Rights Act. The bill expands a nation, tribe or pueblo’s ability to apply for amended voting locations and a secure ballot drop box, and allows voters to use government buildings as their mailing address.
“We gave them the opportunity to ask for and receive a secured monitor container, also known as a drop box, for once they receive that ballot, especially if they receive it at that tribal government building,” Toulouse Oliver said. “They can also deposit the ballot back at the government building. They don’t necessarily need to send it back through the mail.”
Local tribal governments were also provided much more flexibility through the bill. As a result, they can now establish the site of their polling locations, in addition to choosing where and how long early voting takes place.
“We’re hoping all of those things go a long way towards really improving some of those ballot access challenges,” Toulouse Oliver said.
Implementation is the secretary of state’s next major challenge. She and her office plan to provide resources to Native communities that include the new options and work to determine what is best for each community.
Otero County Clerk Robyn Holmes said the bill helps solve some challenges her county faces, such as a central address for ballot delivery. Otero County has around 12,196 Native voters who live on the Mescalero Apache Reservation.
“We work as county clerks with the Secretary of State’s Office and we come up with things that we feel will help voter outreach and get people out to vote,” Holmes said. “For that, we get along very well with our secretary of state. Our legislator’s listen to us and subsequently they pass the laws.”
Holmes said this hasn’t always been the case, though. However, over time, and despite party differences, clerks and legislators have been able to work together with Toulouse Oliver to communicate voters’ needs.
“We’ve been very fortunate with the offices of the secretary of state and clerks working so well together. It’s not always perfect, but for the most part, we can work it out and make it work for everybody,” Holmes said. “It’s different when you have large cities in one county and then you have very small, rural counties with two people working in their offices. It’s hard to implement bills and policies and procedures exactly the same for everybody.”
Toulouse Oliver recognizes that policy cannot be copied and pasted between New Mexico’s 23 federally recognized tribes, who speak eight different languages. The Native American Voting Rights Task Force was created in 2017 by the secretary of state to better connect with the needs of New Mexico’s three main tribes, including the Navajo Nation, the Pueblos and the Apache Tribes. The task force has representation from all of these groups, as well as an urban Native representative, but limits membership to a few members to remain productive. Members collaborate to inform the Secretary of State’s Office on areas of outreach and improvement, in addition to useful and appropriate language and messaging.
“We don’t want to copy and paste, first of all,” Toulouse Oliver said. “We don’t want to treat all of our tribal areas the same and all of the individuals because they have different cultures, different languages.”
While Holmes doesn’t need to translate ballots, her office does translate the portion of the proclamation affecting the reservation. These translations are recorded and played through the local radio station.
Because each tribe has a unique voting culture, including who can vote and what positions are open for election, it is important to approach each tribe with their culture in mind, according to Toulouse Oliver.
“There are just so many culture and language ins and outs that, as a white woman from Albuquerque, New Mexico, I am not the expert, nor am I ever going to try to be, nor am I ever going to try to superimpose what I think works in tribal areas,” Toulouse Oliver said. “I want folks to tell us what works in [their] community. What creative ideas do you have? How can we invest in those? How can we live those? That’s kind of the work that [the task force members] do.”
Despite progress, Native voters continue to face challenges, including limited ballot collection services, language translation and the digital divide. A report by the Native American Rights Fund found voting barriers typically fell under 11 categories, including geography, infrastructure concerns, nontraditional addresses and IDs, and the digital divide. The 2020 report found only 66% of eligible native voters across the nation are registered.
Toulouse Oliver uses buildings of cultural importance, like chapter houses in the Navajo Nation, to help increase access to polling locations.
“We use schools, we use other public buildings where available, but even then, you’re often talking about an individual having to drive 50 to even as many as 200 miles to get to the nearest in-person polling place,” Toulouse Oliver said. “We’re trying to expand — as much as we can — mobile early voting units [that travel] to these communities to be there for two or three days to a week during the early voting period.”
Because many who live on reservations receive their mail at a post office box or reside in remote, nontraditional areas without valid U.S. mailing addresses, New Mexico law allows voters to describe their addresses.
“We’ve done a really good job in New Mexico for years at addressing the issue of not having a standard physical address,” Toulouse Oliver said. “You can literally draw a map, write a description or say, ‘I live three streets down from the giant cottonwood tree after you get off of the exit at Highway 85.’”
While voters are able to describe their address, this can be challenging when ballots or other voting materials need to be delivered. Toulouse Oliver said mail delivery can be infrequent, or that individuals may not receive mail at their home. In New Mexico HB 4, the Legislature addressed issues regarding ballot delivery, allowing individuals to use their local tribal government building as an individual’s mailing address. Toulouse Oliver said this eases the process because the U.S. Postal Service delivers to every tribal government building in the state.
“One good thing that came out of this last session was that the Legislature passed the law that on reservations they could have one location, like at their community center or wherever they designate,” Holmes said.
“They’ve created this law that allows our reservation to say, ‘Anybody that wants to request a ballot that was on the reservation, you can have it mailed back to our community center and we’ll get it to you,’ as opposed to going to their address where apparently they feel like they don’t get their mail all the time.”
Native voters living in urban areas face challenges that are different than those on reservations. Based on the population, some urban areas are required to have translated ballots or a translator on call. Many urban native voters have access to broadband internet and are aligned with their nonnative neighbors, but there may be more cultural challenges.
“I think there is a particular part of the Native community that may live physically within an urban area. They live in Albuquerque, New Mexico, or Gallup, New Mexico, or Farmington, but they still consider their whole chapter and maybe their parents’ or their grandparents’ residence [to be] where they actually live, where they are from,” Toulouse Oliver said. “In many ways, it’s interesting to see our urban Native voters needing to go back to that place of origin in order to vote or to apply for and get an absentee ballot. The challenge there then is just going like we would do with any other group. What is what makes you interested in wanting to vote? How can we make it easier for you to register and get your ballot?”
Another challenge is the size and resources available for some communities. A tribal community’s size or economic resources may lead them to be more invested in federal elections, or the opposite may be true. Toulouse Oliver added that opinions on the importance of elections may differ even within communities, increasing the challenges of civic education.
Many of these smaller communities also struggle with access to broadband connectivity or phone service. This creates an additional challenge for election officials.
“How do we make sure those voters have information and access to the ballot box in the same way that a voter who lives in Gallup or Shiprock,” Toulouse Oliver said. “Those are the kinds of challenges we’re trying to navigate.”
One program tackling this challenge is the Native American Election Information Program. Created in 1988, the program facilitates voter education programs in counties with the largest Native populations. The program educates communities on the election process, upcoming elections, and provides election assistance for both tribes and county clerks to ensure compliance with federal and state law.
Toulouse Oliver increased the number of staff to better cover the needs of Native communities. The liaisons translate necessary documents into both the appropriate language and the correct media. For example, publication requirements necessitate the use of radio in some communities.
“It’s a lot of work for two people, but they do an amazing job,” Toulouse Oliver said. “They’re the ones who are physically out there in the communities, hearing from those tribal leaders on what they need, what we need to be doing better and what is something that they need from us versus what is something they need from county government. Sometimes we can all three work together to get something accomplished.”
In counties with a larger Native population, a tribal liaison works with the county clerk to provide tools or resources. As well, while not required, each Native community hires poll workers from their community. These workers provide a cultural connection and can help with any language or assistance needs. Toulouse Oliver said this lessens the stress and intimidation of voting, especially for new or infrequent voters.
Holmes said she does not work with a liaison, but she has built close relationships with community members, like an attorney on the reservation. For voter drives, a member of the New Mexico Secretary of State’s Office joins Holmes’ office.
“I’m friends with the attorney up there,” Holmes said. “We make sure we have an open dialogue between us. If they need anything or if we need something, [we’re both very good to accommodate each other].”
Looking ahead, Toulouse Oliver hopes to expand her office’s work with the Native community. A facilitator will join the Native American Voting Task Force to help the group explore programs and funding for the future. Toulouse Oliver said the successes, or failures, of this “regearing” phase will determine future programs.
The work of the Secretary of State’s Office with the Native community can, in a larger sense, be applied to other minorities. Toulouse Oliver said that while not all marginalized communities may face the same challenges, other voters benefit from the lessons learned from listening to communities’ needs and allocating appropriate resources to them.
“As an elected official, you have to be open to saying, ‘You tell me what you think your community needs. I’m not here to tell you what I think it needs,’” Toulouse Oliver said. “If it’s not me, who can I give tools and resources to that are needed to be that person, that messenger. Not all marginalized communities have the same challenges. [We’re] not just taking that cut and paste approach.”
Facing social media’s rapid advancement, the Great Lakes state sets the tone with support from a multitude of resources and strategies
By Trey Delida
It’s safe to say that social media has impacted nearly everyone’s day-to-day lives, both personally and professionally. This decades old technology — now dating back to 1997 — has permanently altered the way we communicate, share and receive information.
As rapid advancements in the field continue, government organizations remain in pursuit of fully understanding social media, its ever-changing nature and all it has to offer, while simultaneously trying to reap the benefits of its dominance in society.
In 2023, there are approximately 308 million social media users in the United States alone. So, how do state governments intend to continue navigating this growing, dynamic juggernaut?
When looking at the states, there is one that seems to have its finger on the pulse. Boasting millions of followers across its platforms, the state of Michigan’s award-winning social media program utilizes a plethora of tools to engage, support and provide processes for staff managing social media accounts across its many state departments.
Michigan was ahead of the curb when it came to embracing social media, even adopting a statewide “Social Media Day,” celebrated annually on June 30. The Great Lakes state was one of the first states to adopt a centralized social media strategy for its executive branch departments, which now supports more than 300 staff managing more than 800 state-affiliated accounts across 11 different platforms.
According to Andrew Belanger, statewide social media director and digital content administrator with the state of Michigan, the state’s centralized governance strategy for social media has been key to fostering a proactive statewide digital footprint.
“We believe governance is an important element to a strong and proactive social media program,” Belanger said. “Over the years we have developed numerous statewide resources that support our program and provide guidance to our agency teams as they manage their accounts.”
Through such resources, Belanger’s team established a statewide social media standard, developed social media guidelines and best practices, hosted routine trainings, and standardized many processes across the state that were once decentralized across agencies.
“From a centralized governance perspective, our program resources and processes have been helpful in establishing a baseline for our staff and our activities on social media,” Belanger said. “We reference these resources daily as our teams share content and engage with residents across the state, nation and globe.”
Michigan was one of the first to establish statewide social media policies, issuing its “Social Media Standard” in 2011. That particular document created guidelines for any state-affiliated account and established best practices for creating and using state-affiliated social media accounts.
The standard outlines everything state social media professionals may need, including how to request an account, properly deactivate or close an account, and how to recognize content that may be at risk for violating community and state guidelines.
“In addition to our social media standard, we created a social media guidelines book containing things that are subject to change based on platform functionality and best practice,” Belanger said. “The guidelines book addresses and outlines processes, shares tips and tricks and best practices, and helps guide staff as they manage their accounts and share content.”
Belanger added the state also developed statewide social media community guidelines and a customer use policy that identifies criteria for content moderation. The criteria are used for staff who are monitoring and engaging with user-generated content that may potentially violate state policy or the terms and conditions of a specific platform.
“Standardizing our community guidelines and customer use policy across agencies was a game changer for our agencies,” Belanger stated. “Independent of where staff work and what programs and services they support, our application of consistent statewide guidelines, and criteria, helps promote a unified user experience as users reach out and engage with us across agencies, platforms and accounts.”
Since 2016, Belanger has overseen the state’s entire social media program, including branding, best practices, training and enforcing statewide social media policies and standards. His support of government social media has led to him being featured in publications like USA Today, the New York Times, the Washington Post, U.S. News World & Report and more.
One of Belanger’s first projects was to establish a social media governance board. Now known as Michigan’s Statewide Social Media Governance Council, the council, comprised of members from all state departments and agencies, support him in guiding policy, branding, best practice, education and scaling of social media for the state.
“We found that it’s really important to have that regular touchpoint with all of our teams so they can provide feedback and suggestions on policy, training and best practice,” Belanger said. “During our council meetings, we also have dedicated time set aside to provide support and discuss content collaboration, and how we can best partner on interagency campaigns and high-level messaging coming out of the governor’s office.”
As part of Michigan’s effort to provide structure and support for agencies across the state, they are regularly reviewing and updating their approach to ensure they adhere to industry best practices. They continually monitor policies, standards and practices in other states, the federal government, and those of community partners and local governments.
“We are always looking for opportunities to improve our standards, guidelines and strategies to best meet our business needs and the needs of our constituents,” Belanger said. “Through the council, our collaborative approach to social governance, our commitment to service delivery and our focus continues to be on our users. We seek to provide users with the information they need on the platforms where they feel most comfortable.”
With streamlined processes in place, partnered with open lines of communication, Michigan maintains consistency with its digital footprint while ensuring the people who are running these social media accounts are equipped with the information, they need to create successful, on-brand content.
Consistent messaging is essential for public sector institutions. In a world where news can break to millions of people at any given moment, it is important for states to be able to tell their story and be able to share dependable information in real-time.
Social media is used as a daily source of news by 50% of Gen Z, 44% of millennials, 39% of Generation X and 24% of Boomers, according to a Morning Consult poll published in August 2022 and later reported by Statista. That same source reported that U.S. Congress members were utilizing social platforms heavily, sending out 477,586 posts on X, formerly Twitter, in 2021.
“Social media has played an important role in government communications over the last decade — we’ve seen it,” Belanger said. “Now, more than ever, we see the immediate impact it can have in disseminating information in real time. Whether it’s in times of crisis, a natural disaster, a public safety situation or public health emergency, social media will continue to play an important role in government communications.”
Belanger credits state leadership for recognizing social media’s value, which allowed Michigan to become one of the first states to embrace social media and roll out their policies.
“For a successful social media program, it’s important to have leadership buy-in and understand the value and the benefits that social media can provide,” Belanger said. “Being able to enhance transparency, communication, customer service, collaboration and information exchange in real-time and in times of crisis can help humanize the people, programs and services that government agencies provide.”
When it comes to developing these processes, Belanger said it starts by bringing people together, asking questions and sharing information.
“If you’re not having conversations with your team, other agencies or departments, start having them,” Belanger said. “Start by asking questions: What are other agencies doing? What do they have in place? How can we partner and collaborate?”
These questions can be a starting point for reviewing or updating your agency’s social media resources. As Belanger put it, social media is here and it isn’t going away anytime soon. Just like organizations and businesses across the globe, there is potential for governments to leverage this technology to connect and better serve their public.
“The platforms and the strategies we use may change, but the idea of connecting and exchanging information, engaging with our constituents, is not going to go away,” Belanger said. “We need to adapt and evolve as the social landscape continues to change.”
Fifty-seven pieces of licensure compact legislation enacted in 2023; 290 enacted since 2016.
By Jessica Thomas and Kaitlyn Bison
A recent uptick in the number of newly enacted licensure compacts has come as result of support from both sides of the aisle. The rise in these compacts, which establish mutual agreement between member states for professional licensure, offer state legislatures an opportunity to safeguard state sovereignty while also ensuring the quality and safety of services.
Since 2016, 290 pieces of licensure compact legislation have been enacted and, to date, 46 states, Washington, D.C., and three territories have enacted licensure compact legislation. A total of 15 professions currently have a compact available to states for enactment. In 2023, 57 pieces of compact legislation were enacted, with six new compacts becoming available for states to enact.
The National Center for Interstate Compacts, housed within The Council of State Governments, played a role in the development of all active licensure compacts. Through the work of NCIC, as well as policymakers sponsoring compact-related legislation, licensees in compact member states can more quickly obtain authorization to practice and get to work in other member states.
BIPARTISAN SUPPORT FOR WORKFORCE ADVANCEMENT
Compact legislation has experienced success in states with majorities from both sides of the aisle, while also having been sponsored by legislators from both parties. Support for state workforces proved to be a unifying theme among sponsors of 2023 compact legislation.
Rep. Michelle Caldier, a Washington Republican elected into the House in 2014, was grateful for the bipartisan support she received when sponsoring the Dentist and Dental Hygienist Compact, which is recognized in Washington as HB 1576. Resolving workforce issues in the state, especially within health care, has been a priority.
“I think trying to resolve Washington’s workforce issues is one of those things — across the board — that we acknowledge as one of the state’s goals,” Caldier said. “Breaking down the borders and allowing people from other states to come in and practice easily was one we could get a win on, so that was one of my focuses.”
Bipartisan support led to the enactment of the Cosmetology Compact bill in Arizona, where the successful HB 2049 was sponsored by Republican Rep. Tim Dunn.
“This is a bipartisan bill that promotes the flexibility for stylists to move between states,” Dunn said. “Arizona has a lot of winter visitors, and this could provide work for them when they visit.”
In Indiana, Democratic Sen. J.D. Ford coauthored both SB 251 ‚ the Interstate Medical Licensure Compact, and SB 160, the Counseling Compact. In addition to highlighting the bipartisan sponsorship of these bills, he explained ways in which he collaborated with his counterparts in the Indiana General Assembly to learn about and address community health needs.
“Access to care isn’t a partisan issue, it impacts all communities,” Ford said. “I think we were able to really come together well in that common goal with these compact bills.”
MILITARY FAMILY BENEFITS
Legislators often mention how compacts break down barriers for military families who move frequently and face challenges working in a licensed profession. Without a licensure compact, both military members and their spouses must navigate each state’s process for licensure.
Nebraska Sen. Carol Blood, a Democrat motivated to sponsor several compacts, believes they offer many benefits and opportunities to military families.
“Interstate compacts benefit others in specific licensure areas, but the reason I started working with these compacts is because of our military families,” Blood said. “Military families tend to move every two to three years, which means new schools, new doctors, new homes and more. This is one less headache for these families to deal with.”
Due to the increased military support, the Department of Defense facilitated the development of interstate compacts as a mechanism for ensuring the portability of professional licenses for military spouses. In September 2020, the Department of Defense entered into a cooperative agreement with CSG to fund the creation of new interstate compacts designed to strengthen licensure portability.
“[Compacts] are very positive for military partners who move to our state and people who are moving out of active service but want to continue working in a field where they are already licensed in another compact state,” said Colorado Rep. Mary Young.
Many sponsors of compact legislation were licensed professionals themselves. The sponsors of Colorado HB 23-1064, the Interstate Teacher Mobility Compact, worked in the field of education and understand the barriers teachers face.
Young, a Democrat and former special education teacher and school psychologist, noted having her own experience with barriers to licensure as a teacher upon moving to Colorado. She admired efficiency and ease that compacts brought to licensure and wanted teachers moving to Colorado to remain in the profession.
“With the Interstate Teacher Mobility Compact, we can ensure that teachers who want to come to Colorado can do so,” said Colorado Rep. Meghan Lukens, a Democrat and former social studies teacher. “Giving teachers
the flexibility to live and work in any state in the compact benefits everyone. This compact will help incentivize teachers to stay teachers because of the flexibility that is provided to move to other states.”
As a former dentist, Caldier, like Lukens and Young, was also familiar with the compact profession she sponsored. She also recognized the need for license mobility and the need to address the shortage of dental hygienists in Washington. Although she continues to support the field of dentistry, Caldier’s support of compacts extends to other professions as a cosponsor on the Counseling Compact, the Nurse Licensure Compact and the Occupational Therapy Compact.
Licensure Compact Enactments by State and Territory
Licensure compacts for health care professions can bring an added benefit to states: access to telehealth services. Ford said that compacts can “provide us with the opportunity to have more providers move to Indiana, but also greatly expand telehealth opportunities when you can meet with specialists in other states.”
Much of the general population can benefit from the increase in telehealth that compacts present. Communities that do not have access to health care providers, as well as people with low mobility due to a lack of public transportation or low accessibility, can all benefit from a rise in telehealth.
Of the 15 available licensure compacts, Audiology and Speech-Language Pathology, Psychology Interjurisdictional Compact, Counseling,
Occupational Therapy and Social Work include provisions specific to telehealth.
Blood offered the example of Nebraska LB 1034, the Psychology Compact, as psychology is a licensed profession. If a patient moves or travels to a different state than where their psychologist is licensed, their care can be stalled or halted.
“Prior to that compact, Nebraska psychologists could not legally counsel someone over the phone if they were to have a mental health crisis in another state because that psychologist would not be licensed in that state,” Blood said. “With the compact, if the psychologist belongs [to the compact] as well as the state the patient is calling from, that psychologist can provide care for their patient.”
With the rise of telehealth and telemedicine, compacts are an important tool to meet the needs of patients. As more states join compacts, the pool of providers grows, and patients access to care expands.
OPPORTUNITIES FOR INCREASED STATE INVOLVEMENT
Legislators developed key takeaways throughout the process of introducing and enacting compact legislation. Attending informative events, involving key stakeholders, and working with colleagues from all parties enabled success.
Several legislators noted how collaborative convenings, such as the CSG National Conference, are useful for learning from other leaders who
have sponsored compact legislation. At the 2022 CSG National Conference, Caldier learned about the Dentist and Dental Hygienist Compact while Kansas Sen. Pat Pettey was impressed by discussion on the Teacher Compact.
Pettey, a Democrat, and Washington Republican Sen. Ron Muzzall both suggest involving others, including other legislators and members of boards and professional associations.
“Engage stakeholders on an individual basis and engage with Department of Defense and organizations dedicated to supporting military spouses,” said Muzzall, who introduced Washington SB 5219, the Counseling Compact.
As the sponsor for Kansas SB 66, the Interstate Teacher Mobility Compact, Pettey recommended looking at compacts with an open mind.
“Take note of compacts your state may already be involved in,” Pettey said. “Make sure that you talk to other legislators on either side of the aisle about the legislation that you are considering introducing, as well as talking to your state board of education and your teachers’ associations. Doing early work to make contact with other parties will be helpful for when they actually introduce [legislation].”
More information on compacts can be found at the following website: compacts.csg.org. Policymakers interested in sponsoring a licensure compact can reach the National Center for Interstate Compacts via email at [email protected].
By Maggie Mixer and Abeer Sikder
Across the country, from Kentucky to Wisconsin to New Mexico, educators have been elected to the highest executive offices in their states. While their careers as teachers, coaches and administrators have taken different paths, they have all been driven by a commitment to serving their communities and future generations. Education, for them, is the cornerstone and catalyst of their public service.
Serving the State by Serving Youth
Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers started as a teacher before climbing the educational administration ladder, advancing positions that ranged from principal to state superintendent. After his three terms at the helm of the Department of Public Instruction, which manages all of Wisconsin’s public education systems, he was elected as governor on a platform that put education front and center.
Throughout Evers’ career in education administration and elected office, he has been driven by his goal to ensure that the education system “had the resources they needed” to set Wisconsin’s students on the path to success. His favorite adage — “what’s best for our kids is best for our state” — is a slogan he joked his longtime supporters are tired of hearing, yet he said it still rings true and has served as a guide stone during his career.
“Public education is still at the core of my being and it continues to be. I get in front of schools as much as possible,” Evers said. “What I learn on a daily basis is the most important thing is to get out and talk to people, ask them what they need, what they’re irritated about, how we can help.”
Regardless of who he is talking to around Wisconsin, Evers always asks them about the kids in their life and what the state can do to improve the education system. Despite all possible differences in policy discussions, he still sees the unifying power of education. This approach has served Evers well as he coordinates with his state agencies, the state Legislature, community organizations and constituent groups across the state to create a better future for Wisconsin.
“Whether you’re in front of a classroom of kids that come from any kind of background you can imagine, to working with parents and school boards, the ability to bring people together and accomplish things is critically important,” Evers said.
This year, concerned about the crises he was “seeing in every part of the state,” Evers declared 2023 the “Year of Mental Health in Wisconsin” and directed his administration’s resources towards strengthening the mental health support systems available throughout the state. Through negotiations with the Wisconsin Legislature, he secured $30 million in the most recent budget for school mental health programs.
The Accidental Advocate
Kentucky Lt. Gov. Jacqueline Coleman has also prioritized student mental health during her term. An educator for more than a decade, she first served as a teacher before later becoming an assistant principal. During that time, according to Coleman, she became an “accidental advocate,” choosing to teach social studies and civics because “there were so many young people that didn’t understand how government should work and their role in ensuring that it does work.”
Although Coleman loved her time as an educator, “the lack of resources, the lack of funding, the attacks on teachers … were all things that really drew [her] to more of the advocacy arena.”
“With every challenge that we face in Kentucky, the solution — or at least part of the solution — is education. I see [every challenge] through the eyes of the kids in our classrooms and the families that I got to work with every single day as a teacher.”— Kentucky Lt. Gov. Jacqueline Coleman
In 2021, Coleman launched the Team Kentucky Student Mental Health Initiative. She said schools are “microcosms” of the communities that make up Kentucky, which is why it is so crucial to include the perspectives of teachers and students in the legislative process.
As part of the initiative, Coleman’s office held 10 regional summits where students facilitated conversations with their peers and used that information to create policy recommendations. These recommendations became the “North Star” of the administration’s efforts after they were presented to the Legislature, state agencies and community partners. Coleman credited the initiative with helping her secure $40 million in federal funding to support Kentucky’s mental health care workforce and strengthen mental health services in schools.
An educator and “lifelong learner,” Coleman’s recent work pushed her to also extend her own education on student mental health. She is currently pursuing her doctorate in educational leadership from the University of Kentucky and plans to focus her dissertation on the topic.
Special Education and Service
Educators’ focus on building a better future has been crucial for pushing policy forward, especially in the face of serious setbacks. After teaching special education for 10 years, New Mexico Lt. Gov. Howie Morales served in the state Senate for 11 years before taking office as lieutenant governor.
In the Senate, Morales proposed the creation of an Early Childhood Education and Care Department to organize New Mexico’s support structures for early childhood development. The bill failed to pass, but he continued working and was able to oversee the department’s creation during the beginning of his term as lieutenant governor.
Morales’ effort was part of his long-term goal to improve not only K-12 and higher education opportunities, but also New Mexico’s programs and services around early childhood, extracurricular and adult education, so that all New Mexicans can receive a quality education.
“Being a special educator, I think it has really shown that it’s about the personalization of the educational process. I believe that we’ve focused all too often across the country on student proficiency or student achievement when, in reality, we should be focusing on student engagement.”— New Mexico Lt. Gov. Howie Morales
Through Morales’ work, “a historic $20 million appropriation” was directed toward after-school programs that engage students “beyond the walls of a classroom.” Known as the General Appropriate Act of 2023, New Mexico HB 2 was signed into law in April.
Morales’ goal for more personalized education comes from both personal and professional experiences as the first member of his family to attend college and graduate school. From a young age, as a member of student council, he was committed to his “responsibility” to ensure that the students after him had access to the educational path that transformed his life. His experiences and family also instilled in him the idea that “leadership is about service … it’s not about a position, it’s about action.”
“I left the classroom to make a difference in policy,” Morales said. “Above all, what I love more than anything is to interact with people … to be there shaking hands, to be accessible, be respectful and always have the opportunity to create those relationships.”
By Lexington Souers
Pennsylvania and Virginia, much like Congress, have split chambers with the House and Senate led by each respective party. Five other states — Alaska, Arizona, Michigan, Minnesota and New Hampshire — have a near or total party split within either one or both chambers.
With split chambers, legislators face unique challenges when compromising and collaborating on legislation.
The 49th state, with thriving waterways, sweeping mountain views and distinct detachment from the contiguous U.S., has a history of coalition building, according to Alaska House Minority Leader Calvin Schrage. Because parties lack a definite voting majority or minority, Alaskan legislators join across party lines, creating coalitions made up of likeminded individuals, with more emphasis placed on values and fiscal policy.
“It’s not trying to necessarily achieve a party agenda but trying to meet your unique needs in unique districts. When you then try and form a majority or minority around the party issues, it just doesn’t work,” Rep. Schrage said. “So you see a lot of work going into trying to find what values and what issues can we find a majority support around. That’s where in the last Legislature, and in this Legislature, we have coalition governments that are formed much more around values and fiscal policy than you do around party identity.”
Rep. Cathy Tilton, Alaska’s House speaker, noted a bipartisan partnership allowed the Legislature to serve Alaskans effectively, especially because of Juneau’s geographical location, which may keep citizens from participating in traditional government activities.
“Over the last several years, it’s taken a long time for the House, specifically, to organize because it’s so split,” Tilton said. “One of the goals was to organize in a timely manner because Alaskans are really frustrated with sending their representatives to Juneau. … Fortunately, we found alignment with the [Alaska House] Bush caucus, or the more rural partners, to organize. We’re able to do that on the second day of session.”
The minority party is also comprised of Democrats, Republicans and independents, which Schrage credits as being “vital” to the legislative process. By uniting around shared values, rather than strict party identity, Schrage said the coalition can work together. However, he recognizes that each member has legislation they are passionate about, which may not align with the coalition as a whole.
“If it’s something that support isn’t there, individual members need to do the work of finding a way to meet those diverse members where they are,” Schrage said. “For those issues, individual members have to do a lot of work and kind of figure out how they can tailor their legislation to meet that very unique political identity of the Alaskan Legislature. There’s a much greater appetite in Alaska to pass bills out across party lines, or across caucus lines. That’s just something that I think is inherent in a close Legislature like this. You don’t have votes to spare within your own caucus, and sometimes you’re going to have to work across those lines to find a path forward.”
To do this, both Schrage and Tilton emphasize communication.
Schrage noted how communication can assist with better understanding what values members align on and how those with differences can comfortably work together and make incremental progress. He added that communication also helps address potential roadblocks in legislation, which can be more easily achieved by straying from “typical political messaging” and clearly explaining bills to fellow legislators to find common ground.
From this communication, members build strong relationships, regardless of party identity. Tilton said the relationships she built led to some of her favorite memories from her time in the Legislature. Among them was her past work as House minority leader with Alaska Sen. Tom Begich, who was then Senate minority leader. Despite standing on opposite sides of the aisle, Tilton and Begich established a close relationship that helped meet the needs of the minority parties.
“I don’t know that if you were out in the real world that you would have that opportunity to build a relationship, and what I would call it true friendship, with somebody who was on the other side of the aisle from you,” Tilton said.
“Member-to-member communication” and relationships build trust and familiarity, according to Schrage. The role of legislator also allows him to meet and engage with individuals who are “experts in their fields.” The result of those relationships can lead to effective policy work and coalition building — both now and in the future.
As speaker, Tilton said she recognizes her role as a “leader of leaders,” regardless of party identity.
“I realize that my responsibility is to be the speaker of the entire House. I have to take in and listen to the needs of all of the members here,” Tilton said. “Because they were all elected in their districts to be a leader, just like I am that leader. Being a leader of leaders is a fine balance.”
This balance often leads to compromise, which Tilton said can be difficult when “everyone has a different idea” of what major legislation like the annual budget will look like. These types of decisions can have a lasting impact on Alaska, which is why Tilton believes she — and those in similar positions — must make every effort to acknowledge the needs and wants of every member.
Both Schrage and Tilton highlighted the importance of passing a budget that addresses the distinct financial challenges found in Alaska, like the reliance on natural resource revenue and the question of implementing broad taxes.
“A lot of the discussion surrounding organization of the majority and minority caucuses are around what you view as the right fiscal solution for the state, so you don’t see a lot of compromise,” Schrage said. “As you face challenges, or as you see the need to negotiate on fiscal issues, the focus is really on consensus building, education and discussion. We have a large amount of time and energy focused around really making sure that members are communicated with and that everyone has an opportunity to speak to their districts’ needs, to be heard and to have a say in that process.”
While the budget remains a complicated compromise, other legislation illustrated the benefits of bipartisan support. Schrage said Senate Bill 58, which extends postpartum Medicaid coverage to 12 months, is a key piece of bipartisan legislation. The relationship between respect and bipartisan success remains vital in this session and beyond, the speaker added.
“I think we’ve done great things with the bills that we’ve had,” Tilton said. “But more than looking at creating laws, I think that it’s just important that you’re building good relationships. I think it goes back to how you have to be true to yourself and respect yourself, but you also need to respect the other person that you’re working with.”
By Trey Delida
For 90 years, The Council of State Governments has pursued the advancement of common good in state government. CSG is among some of public policy’s most influential nonpartisan, nonprofit organizations that represent state and local government.
It all began in 1925 when Henry Wolcott Toll, who was then a Colorado state senator, envisioned an organization that would convene state leaders and improve legislative standards — together. The result of that vision was the American Legislators Association, the first iteration of what would soon become The Council of State Governments.
As the organization gained traction, interstate issues became more prevalent. Toll knew to achieve his original vision, the scope of his organization had to include the federal government and state administrative officials. In a letter to ALA board members, Toll wrote that the ALA’s role was evolving and that it was no longer a service organization solely for legislators. Simultaneously, ALA engaged in undertaking “an attempt for harmony in state activities between state and state, and between state and nation.”
It wasn’t until Oct. 22, 1933, when a group of state legislators gathered at the Penn Harris Hotel in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, that CSG was born. Though there is no official record of the meeting, Henry Toll recalled it nearly 25 years later as the conception of CSG.
“Probably 12 or 15 of us sat around a table in a small room,” Toll said. “The Council of State Governments had never been heard of before that day.”
That same meeting brought forth the Articles of Organization for this newfound, nonpartisan organization. One sentence from those articles stated, “In thousands of instances the laws of the states are in conflict, their practices are discordant, their regulations are antagonistic, and their policies are either competitive or repugnant to one another. Such disharmony cannot continue.”
By 1939, the organization had reached national acclaim for its collaborative nature and efficiency. On Jan. 20, 1939, The New York Times published an editorial noting how CSG successfully facilitated an interstate compact between New Jersey and New York, which established joint authority over the Palisades Interstate Park.
“Notice the fitness of the machinery for the job. The commission members of state legislatures will look after the necessary laws. The administrative members will execute them. CSG is a practical machine of information and action, highly useful in a day of complex problems,” the editorial read.
The piece also noted the assistance of CSG in ending a 55-year-old question between eight states on the regulation of fishing in the Great Lakes.
Throughout the organization’s history, CSG has consistently played an integral role in uniting state legislatures, notably during the dawn of World War II. In 1940, CSG members met with federal officials at the request of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration to craft plans to aid states in developing legislation that helped fuel federal government defense efforts near the onset of World War II. As a result, the CSG Suggested State Legislation Committee, now referred to as Shared State Legislation, was developed. Throughout the war, CSG united state defense councils, administered the Selective Service System, and established state guards to offset the shortage of National Guard members who were called into federal services.
It was around this time that CSG had become a notable force in the policy world. Toll and his 15-member staff established a headquarters in Chicago, with an additional office space in New York City.
After the war, CSG continued to broaden its service area through the expansion of its regional presence. While the Eastern Regional Conference had already been developed in 1935, by the mid-1940s, organizational leaders across the nation had established regional conferences in the Midwest, South and West. As the regions began to take root, the scope of CSG services expanded. In 1969, under Executive Director Frank Bane, CSG relocated its headquarters to its current location in Lexington, Kentucky.
In 1983, Carl W. Stenberg III came on as executive director of the organization. Prior to his role at CSG, Stenberg directed the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service at the University of Virginia. He has also authored several books and publications relating to policy, including “Managing Local Government Services: A Practical Guide,” “Pulling the Lever: The States’ Role in Catalyzing Local Change,” and “America’s Future Work Force: A Health and Education Policy Issues Handbook.” He went on to serve as director of the Master of Public Administration program at the University of North Carolina School of Government from 2006-11.
Before Stenberg was named executive director, he recognized the unique perspective CSG had in the policy space.
He added, “CSG is a regionally based, national organization. It is unique in that it has a national office and Washington presence, but it also has four regional offices that enable it to, in a more focused way, identify and help policymakers deal with issues that are not national in nature, but may be regional or Interstate. The capability to have a broad national view, but also the more focused regional perspective sets CSG apart from the other organizations that serve state officials.”
One of Stenberg’s first big projects was the 50th anniversary of CSG, a pivotal moment in the organization’s history as it was the first national convening of all regions and affiliated organizations.
“I believe it was Dec. 5, 1983,” he said. “Until that time, CSG National had not held annual conferences in a very long time, but the 50th anniversary was kind of a pilot. It was well attended with representatives from all three branches, and it was a terrific substantive program.”
As a newcomer to the organization, Stenberg wondered if bringing everyone together at the end of each year added value to CSG for members and affiliates.
The event proved to be so well-received that it morphed from an anniversary celebration to the annual convening now known as the CSG National Conference.
“When I look back and think of some of the ways I left CSG as a better organization, having an annual conference served a number of important purposes. Not being in Washington, D.C., it was hard to maintain the national visibility for the CSG headquarters office. Having an annual meeting that was moved around the country was one way to do that.”
For the past 40 years, CSG has convened state leaders, policymakers, representatives and affiliates in cities across the nation in a homecoming-style reunion where participants can share ideas, collaborate and learn from one another.
This December, the CSG National Conference will be held in Raleigh, North Carolina, the home state of Rep. Julia Howard, who is serving as the 2023 CSG National Chair.
Howard is the longest-serving member of the North Carolina House. She also has an extensive history with CSG, serving as the organization’s national vice chair in 2020 before advancing to chair-elect. She is a 2008 CSG Henry Toll Fellow and previously served as the 2007 chair of the CSG Southern Legislative Conference.
Over the past nine decades of serving the states, CSG has had nine executive directors lead the organization through times of triumph and national hardships. David Adkins, a former Kansas State Legislator who is at the helm of CSG in its 90th year, has seen the organization through some of the most testing times in our nation. Joining as executive director/CEO in 2008, he has led CSG through the Great Recession and the COVID-19 pandemic. With every new challenge, Adkins has held the core values and principles that founded the institution at the forefront of his guidance.
With each generation, CSG has grown and adapted alongside our members to address the ever-evolving, uniquely complex landscape of public policy. In doing so, the organization has settled into a distinctive niche that sets it apart from any other establishment.
“Our four strong regions, our three-branch participation, and one-of-a-kind Justice Center, all help set us apart. But, when one asks state officials what they value most about CSG, we consistently hear one response: ‘It’s a family,’” Adkins said. “We create spaces where state officials from
both parties and from many ideological perspectives can come together, see the humanity in each other, learn together and support each other, commiserate about successes and failures, support each other and share many memorable moments.”
The Council of State Governments has undoubtedly grown, advanced and changed over the course of 90 years. Some of the problems faced in the nation’s statehouses today are resonant of the issues CSG aided leaders with in its early years, while others were unheard of even a decade ago. However, much of the organization’s origins in state stewardship, advancing democracy and the common good remain.
So, what’s next?
“When someone asks me what the future holds for CSG, my answer is simple: We will continue to do what we have always done,” Adkins said. “We will focus on the priorities state officials tell us are important to them; we will provide objective, nonpartisan analysis of public policy issues; we will be a source of trusted data and information; we will provide state officials with meaningful ways to learn from each other; and we will fiercely defend the role of the states in our federal system. Like always, we will adapt to changing conditions, find new ways to accomplish our mission and be responsive to the states we serve.”
States turn to new legislation to remedy affordable housing issues
By Cody Porter and Jennifer Horton
Lingering fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic placed an immense economic burden on countless Americans. Since 2020, the housing market is one area experiencing the brunt of its weight, remaining in a volatile state due to significant reductions in jobs and wages.
Deemed at an “inflection point” by the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University, the homebuying market’s record 2021 was followed by increased interest rates in 2022 that helped slow purchases in a market lacking inventory. Due to limited supply, costs for homes and rentals alike continued to soar in unison with rising rates.
Those most directly impacted by the active shortage of affordable and available rental homes are extremely low-income households, which includes those with incomes at or below the poverty guideline, or 30% of their area median income, whichever is higher. There are just 36 affordable and available rental homes for every 100 low-income households — a deficit of 7 million homes nationwide. For extremely low-income renter households, 71% are severely cost burdened, meaning they spend more than half of their income on housing, making it more difficult to afford healthy food and health care.
In its February policy brief on housing prices and affordability, the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute at the University of Utah noted that housing affordability comes in two forms that are not mutually exclusive: affordable housing and housing affordability.
In 2022, a person working full-time in the U.S. needed to earn $25.82 an hour on average just to rent — not purchase — a modest, two-bedroom home. That hourly wage is $18.57 higher than the $7.25 federal minimum wage. In some states, the two-bedroom housing wage is even higher— up to more than $40 an hour. The average worker earning minimum wage would need to work almost 96 hours per week to afford a two-bedroom rental at the national average fair market rent of $1,324.
With the rapid increase in home and rent prices over the last several years, millions of low-income renters struggled to afford their rent even before the pandemic. The economic impacts of COVID-19 exacerbated the problem even further as low-wage workers lost income. While temporary eviction moratoriums and Treasury Emergency Rental Assistance programs kept millions of disadvantaged renters housed during the pandemic, as these programs end, the need for affordable housing for the lowest-income renters will not.
Homes suited for low- or middle-income earners to rent or purchase have been quickly consumed by investors in recent years for rental income or for quickly upgraded resells. During 2022’s first quarter, investors accounted for 28% of single-family home purchases, which is 9% higher than the year prior, according to CoreLogic data cited by The Joint Center for Housing Studies in its 2022 housing report.
More densely populated areas, such as Atlanta, Los Angeles, Phoenix and San Jose, and were favored by investors in recent years due to higher home values compared to those in smaller cities. This factor, combined with the workforce’s ability to work remotely, promoted substantial population growth from 2020-22 in the likes of Idaho, Montana and Utah. Axios reported Idaho’s population increase of nearly 4.9% as the most for any state during the two-year span, while Utah came in just under 3%.
Utah, ranking fourth overall in growth from 2020-22, experienced similar increases from 2020-21 by adding 56,000 new residents, or 1.7%. Much of the state’s continued growth can be attributed to its lure as an employment hub, including in the tech space. The Milken Institute’s 2023 “Best-Performing Cities” featured many impacted by Utah’s employment boom, including Provo-Orem — its best-performing city for a third consecutive year — in addition to Logan and St. George as viable options among smaller cities.
A common theme for the states without dense populations has been determining how to best offer sufficient housing. Plagued by challenges stemming from the pandemic, funding for new projects has been difficult to obtain. When available, new housing projects are marred by issues associated with zoning mandates.
Former Utah Sen. Wayne Niederhauser, a real estate broker by trade, was involved in many affordable housing efforts prior to assuming his current role as Utah homeless coordinator in the Office of Homeless Services. While proud of his state’s ability to attract new employment opportunities, he said it doesn’t come without “a little caveat.”
“With all of these new, high-paying jobs there’s more money chasing a limited supply of housing,” Niederhauser said. “Our population could not have sustained such employment growth, so we’ve had huge in-migration from places like California where real estate values are higher. You’ve got all this equity coming in from a state with higher property values chasing after a limited housing supply, and it only multiplies our problem.”
In October 2021, The University of Utah Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute revealed in its “State of the State’s Housing Market” report that more than half of the state households could not afford median-priced homes. In the time since, prices have only increased.
“Our children and grandchildren are priced out at this point unless you’re making a lot of money — almost six figures at this point,” Niederhauser said. “We’ve had unprecedented home appreciation, and we have got great economy, but that does price out social workers, case managers, firefighters, police officers and teachers. Compared to the national level, [Utah] ranks near the top in appreciation and that’s why it’s different here.”
AVENUES FOR RESOLUTION
In Maine, where the population grew quicker from 2020-21 than its previous 10-year average, state leaders have remained active in identifying avenues for additional housing.
It’s quite possible the state has even underproduced housing for quite some time, according to Ryan Fecteau, senior advisor of community development and strategic initiatives for the Maine Governor’s Office of Policy Innovation and the Future. However, as Fecteau noted, the issue of affordability and availability has only emerged in the past few years due to in-migration.
“We’ve had net migration of around 37,000 people. For most states, that might not sound like a lot, but for a state of 1.3 million people that is a pretty significant number of individuals moving here,” Fecteau said. “The vast majority of the people moving here as part of the in-migration have been under age 45. So, we’re not talking about retirees calling Maine home; we’re talking about working-age folks. We now have this real gridlock, this stalemate, in our housing sector, where older adults might [be prepared to] downsize but [unsure if ] they’re going to be able to find another housing opportunity.”
Maine Gov. Janet Mills appointed Fecteau to his current role in January as part of a string of efforts to address the state’s pressing need for housing. Maine’s House Speaker from 2020-22, Fecteau sponsored many bills on housing and community development. Among them was LD 1645, which created the Maine Affordable Housing Tax Credit that — to date — remains the state’s largest investment in affordable housing.
Maine’s Affordable Housing Tax Credit is an eight-year program granted $10 million per year, including shares for senior and rural housing. As a result, the state’s investment is matched with federal low-income housing tax credit dollars. To qualify for the program, individuals must earn below 60% of the area’s median income and monthly rent cannot exceed 30% of an individual’s monthly income.
Fecteau reported the completion of 192 housing units since LD 1645 was enacted, with an additional 701 units in the works. The governor’s budget includes an additional $35 million for the tax credit that could lead to the development of 350 more units.
Additional housing initiatives in Maine include the Rural Affordable Rental Program and protecting United States Department of Agriculture Section 515 properties — the latter of which employs the use of the state’s tax credit. Mills has also proposed $10 million for a new Innovation Fund for Attainable Housing, expediting the production of affordable housing for qualified renters and homebuyers.
EQUITY FOR THE “MISSING MIDDLE”
Fecteau’s other prominent work came with 2022’s enactment of LD 2003, advancing affordable housing and housing-friendly zoning and land use regulations. The legislation resulted in the creation of a local zoning and land use commission that delivered recommendations to the governor’s office in December 2021 allowing, “Maine property owners to build accessory dwelling units in residential areas and up to two units on a lot zoned for single-family housing.”
Although it could possibly aid growing housing issues, the topic of zoning is a highly debated one. In February, NPR reported on the discussion to end single-family zoning mandates in Arlington, Virginia, thus paving the way for new housing opportunities. As part of Arlington’s “missing middle” housing reform plan, developers could construct multiple units on a single-family lot, including duplexes up to six-unit buildings.
Arlington, much like Minneapolis and the states of Maine, California, Oregon and Washington before it, looked to capitalize on an opportunity to do more than increase affordable housing — it looked to re-establish racial equity in areas previously segregated by single-family zoning laws, as well as limit the need for commuting.
The “missing middle” plan, which was ultimately passed in March, included opposition who believed that not even increased community density would improve pricing. Other local Arlington homeowners were also concerned about potential parking issues, high taxes and flooding.
Public outcry led to city commissioners in Gainesville, Florida, reversing course on their decision to end single-family zoning just months after adopting the plan. Gainesville was originally the first city to adopt the plan after Florida Statute 163.31771 passed in 2021.
The following examples of state adopted affordable housing legislation include that plan and more:
California Assembly Bill 2162 (2018) encourages the production of supportive housing statewide by mandating streamlined and expedited approval for such projects and the elimination of minimum parking requirements for developments located within half a mile of public transit.
Florida Statute 163.31771 allows localities with a shortage of affordable rental housing to adopt an ordinance permitting accessory dwelling units in single-family residential areas to increase the availability of affordable housing for low and moderate-income individuals.
Massachusetts State Statute 40B enables local zoning boards of appeals to approve affordable housing developments under flexible rules if at least 20-25% of the units have long-term affordability restrictions.
Oregon HB 2001 (2019) implemented state-level legalization of “missing middle” housing. It expands the areas across the state available for duplex construction.
Utah SB 153 (2023) establishes the Redevelopment Matching Grant Program under which local governments can qualify if they have an approved development application that allows for “the creation of new or additional affordable housing units.”
“People achieve economic prosperity through homeownership. In some cases, being a homeowner is going to be what sets someone up for economic security in their later years,” Fecteau said. “Obviously, we want folks to take every initiative they can to save and plan for retirement, but homeownership is a very critical means to economic security and prosperity.”