Tim Storey, NCSL’s CEO, joined the podcast to discuss the year ahead in legislatures and what we can expect in policy and politics in 2024. He noted that budgets remain in good shape and he expects technology, especially artificial intelligence, to be high on the priority list for legislatures. Other key issues will be housing, the workforce and the fentanyl overdose crisis.
Tim Storey, NCSL’s CEO, joined the podcast to discuss the year ahead in legislatures and what we can expect in policy and politics in 2024.
Storey said most state budgets will start the year in excellent shape, though legislators will continue to cast a cautious eye on economic conditions. He also pointed out that it’s important to keep in mind that 2024 is an election year and that tends to influence what happens in legislatures, including what is often a somewhat less active legislative agenda than you usually see in the first half of a two-year session.
Storey expects concerns about technology, especially artificial intelligence, to be high on the priority list. Housing challenges and the fentanyl overdose crisis are also likely to get a great deal of attention in most legislatures. At least some legislatures also are likely to look at legislation affecting migrants, especially in light of inaction at the federal level. And, of course, education and health care, two big budget items for states, also will get considerable attention.
Ed: Hello and welcome to “Our American States,” a podcast from the National Conference of State Legislatures. I’m your host, Ed Smith.
TS: It always comes back to the physical side of the equation – the budget. I feel like you’ve got to build that foundation because so much else comes on top of that. It is clear that state budgets are in very solid stable condition.
Ed: That was Tim Storey, the CEO of NCSL and my guest on this first podcast of 2024. As he does at the start of each year, Tim sat down with me to discuss the year ahead in legislatures and what we can expect in policy and politics in 2024.
Tim points out it is important to keep in mind that 2024 is an election year and that tends to influence what happens in legislatures including what is often of somewhat less active legislative agenda than you usually see in the first half of a two-year session. Most state budgets will start the year in excellent shape, Tim said, though legislators will continue to cast a cautious eye on economic conditions. He expects concerns about technology especially artificial intelligence to be high on the priority list. Housing challenges and the fentanyl overdose crisis are also likely to get a great deal of attention in most legislatures.
At least some legislatures also are likely to look at legislation affecting migrants, especially in light of the inaction at the federal level. And, of course, education and health care two big budget items for states also will get considerable attention.
Here is our discussion.
Tim, welcome back to the podcast.
TS: Ed, I’ve been looking forward to it. I love talking about what legislatures are doing so thanks for having me back.
Ed: So, Tim, as always, thanks for sitting down to talk about the state of state legislatures as sessions get ready to start in the beginning of 2024. This of course is our annual tradition to get your take on the coming year. Before we get into the specifics, into the policy areas, just set the scene for 2024.
TS: It always comes back to the physical side of the equation the budget. That’s the I feel like you’ve got to build that foundation because so much else comes on top of that. It is clear that state budgets are in very solid stable condition. States are sitting on full rainy-day funds and revenues are showing a few signs of weakness here and there you know coming in a little short in some states. But also, still continuing to exceed revenue estimates in some states. The big picture starts with states have prepared for whatever comes with the economy in 2024 so that’s really good. The other thing you’ve got to remember is that it is an election year. Anyone who works in around in the vicinity of a legislature knows that that’s always hovering in the room whether you are talking about some very technical policy issue or some radioactive, high-profile controversial issue. There is the looming election and then we’ve got to remember, especially with our audience, it is not just what happens in November. It’s what happens in the primaries. They generally start in March and kind of peak in June, July and then you know sort of tail-off as late as September. So, you got primary elections coming in on the calendar. And the U.S. economy, you know, is still sort of in this odd place of no one knows for sure if there will be a recession, if and when. That’s always the case. Economists are woefully poor if you look at the historic predictions of recessions and in fact things there are a lot of signs that the economy is on very sound ground. So, I think legislatures politically very evenly divided across the country. I mean, you’ve got so many states that have firm majorities of Republicans. So many states that have Democratic majorities that are really in solid, you know, not a lot of chance that it is going to flip from Republican to Democrat or Democrat to Republican. So, you’ve got this red state/blue state dynamic that has stoic proportions with very few divided legislatures even divided states – the trifecta that we talk about and we are kind of at historic lows on these things. So, you’ve got Republican states, Democratic states. That’s where we are as we head into the 24 session.
Ed: How many states are in session this year? We’ve only got a few that have biannuals so how many do we have in or will be in by the end of 2024.
TS: In January, you’ve got 37 legislatures that start in January. That is kind of the typical like the first Monday after the first Monday first day after Monday or whatever. Nine other states come in after that so eventually you will have 46 states with legislative sessions. And I always think and I should know for certain that legislative activity does tail-off a little bit in the election years. You know they don’t want to linger in you know long sessions and delays you know do the continuing resolution type thing that a handful of states do on occasion when they can’t get a budget passed. Everybody is eager to get out and start campaigns whether it is in the primary front or the general election front. So, I think the election year policymaking is always somewhat less than the first year of a biennium after the major elections. Now keep in mind that you’ve got these four states that have elections in the odd number of years. I’m talking about most states having elections in 2024. What I think of is in terms of bienniums, you know, so an election and then two years of that legislature, I think the bulk of the sort of policy innovation happens in that first year coming off of the election; not in the second year when you have the election in the mix. So, I think most of the real activity in terms of major policymaking is more likely in the years ending in even in odd numbers so that would be 23 and not as much in 24. But there will still be some major policy issues the states will work on.
Ed: Well great. And that indeed is what we want to talk about. There’s going to be a lot of different policy issues, but one of the ones that I’m interested in talking about is tech and certainly AI is on everyone’s mind. I know there’s a lot of states looking at that. But there’s also issues around social media particularly with kids, elections and other things. I know you have not only talked to the NCSL staff who are experts in this area, but I know you also have talked with leaders around the country about what’s coming up in 2024 and what do you think is going to happen in this tech area?
TS: Legislatures do mirror society. I mean they mirror the conversations people have in their gathering places whether it’s the pub or church or the Elks Club or whatever. And so legislative leaders especially, you know, I’ve spoken with a number of them recently and they are like we got to look at this AI. You know, AI is just in the ecosystem. Everybody is talking about it and if everybody is talking about it then the legislature is going to be talking about it. And so, we will talk about AI first because I have spoken with leaders like we’re going to be, you know, we are going to have a special committee. We’ve had a special committee look at it. Artificial Intelligence in its integration into American’s everyday lives is happening really fast. It’s been around for you know years, but then you get the introduction of ChatGPT, which somehow became the pivot point where everybody started like everyone knew then what AI meant in a way like oh now, I see. I mean about it when you text and your phone predicts the next word you are going to type, that’s AI. So, everybody sort of had it, but then ChapGPT rolls out roughly a year ago and then everybody is like whoa, and now we start having the ethical discussions about, you know, how do we do we need to contain it. What should regulations be. So, the reason I say this is that I am not sure legislatures even know what the issues are with AI. You know there’s a few things that see if they can get their head around. They are somewhat tangible. For example, deep fakes in everything. Let’s say deep fakes in courts. Like how do you, if you are presented with photo evidence of a crime or video evidence in a civil case, how do you know for sure it’s not a deep fake when these deep fakes have become outstandingly good enough and they are just getting better every single day. And if you are a legislator like oh, we need to look at our rules of evidence and what the laws say about what can be brought into a court. And then you need to talk about what about in the public’s fear. What about in a campaign context like if my opponent or they are probably not an opponent. Probably some third-party group puts out a video of you beating a baby seal and you’re like I never beat a baby seal. There’s a video. I see you on the video killing a baby seal. Let’s be clear no one supports harming baby seals on this podcast, but there might be a deep fake of one of us doing something awful. And so, if they are going to try to regulate that, but then how do you catch the person that created the meme of politician X doing awful thing Y. So that is something they are looking at.
And then how do you protect consumers from AI. There are so many issues around it, but we don’t even know what the issues are. Copyright issues in terms of where’s AI getting its information from on this video and the audio and the words.
Ed: So, some of this is legislatures really educating themselves on all the areas. That’s step one.
TS: Yes. Yeah, thanks for interrupting me there because I needed you to sum that up and that’s exactly what it is. I think that this is going to be a time where they are going to everyone, they are getting asked what are you guys doing on AI and they are like we are not sure what we are supposed to do. So, it’s going to be OK, what are the policy issues as this technology is coming so fast. You know technology just always gets faster in terms of how fast it hits and it gets integrated into American’s lives. The people are using it like crazy. And then that ties into workforce issues. But back to tech, let’s quickly talk about privacy. I think we continue states continue to be exploring what they can do to protect people’s privacy and information. Many states have taken the initiative on that including big ones like California and Texas so there will be more activity on that. And then other tech things like infrastructure and broadband and you know is drones a tech issue. There has been a lot of drone legislation that there probably will continue to be more. That kind of thing.
Ed: There has been some action in different states about social media and children and having to make the safety of children forefront in social media. I know there’s been some judicial action on that. I’m not completely up to speed on that, but do you think we will see some more of that from what you’ve heard from people. Is that a concern?
TS: In the state of Montana, the legislature of Montana banned TikTok from Montana. They knew the enforcement of that would be extremely difficult, you know, and so they were in fact they were trying to, I think they structured it in a way it would sort of penalize the carriers, Verizon or those people. But just in the last few weeks, you know the courts have struck down that ban. It stayed the enforcement of that, not that they were enforcing it. But it really is just a much more symbolic thing than anything. The lawmakers know that at least many lawmakers are convinced that there are there could be harms attached to you know different kinds of social media. I mean social media is a word that started to become meaning too many different things to too many different people. In this context, we are talking about apps like TikTok and Reals and Instagram and I guess Meta and Facebook. What’s fake. What do the algorithms know and what can this do to children. And no one has really established any kind of connection per say between social media and kids and harms. There’s a whole lot of folks who are you know and there is some medical research. I started to say there are some connections and when these kinds of things emerge, it is up to policymakers to explore if there needs to be a government solution so to speak. But to watch the problem are they trying to solve. But yes, that will be on the plates of legislators in 2024. You know, I was thinking about the fact that you know we know suicide rates have gone have spiked dramatically in recent years and it’s not just the pandemic. A lot of people are looking at the intersection of social media and suicides both in teens as well as adults. So, I think that’s absolutely going to be an issue legislators are going to want to find a be in fact finding mode you know. What are those connections if they exist.
Ed: I think, as you were saying, legislators are like the rest of us and even those of us who haven’t done the research look at kids and smartphones and you go seems to be like that might not be the greatest combination all the time.
TS: We are all wondering because look, the smartphone, I think is maybe 12 years old. It’s ubiquitous right. Everywhere in the world everyone basically it seems has a phone that has all the information of the world at their fingertips. And that is a massive change in humanity that’s only 10 years old – I’m rounding down. We don’t know have any idea I think long term how this changes and of course many of the changes are fantastically good.
Ed: Now, Tim, you mentioned workforce and I’ve got to expect that this is going to continue to get a lot of attention. I think in at least half the podcasts I did last year specifically the issue of workforce came up and we had some discussion about how the labor market was affecting that particular topic area. Can you talk a little bit about that and the different ways it affects states.
TS: Well, no one is ready to declare that we have fixed the workforce problem. It continues to persist. The states have it in sort of two buckets. One there is the state workforce trying to attract people who actually are employees of state government who provide services in the health care arena, safety and security, troopers and prison guards and people like that. Education, teachers, administrators, high ed, K-12, you name it. People that drive snowplows in states that employ snowplow drivers and people to do construction work who in states that are, you know, do a building infrastructure. You really can’t isolate it to any one industry. Every single industry is dealing with the inability to find enough qualified workers to do jobs they have. It is well documented. It also is just so, again, what makes our group of elected officials maybe not unique but is a trademark of being a state legislator is you are really in with your folks. You know you are seeing them in the dentist office and you are seeing them in the grocery store and you are seeing them at the synagogue and you are just with them all the time you know and they are telling you like my brother-in-law had to close down his landscape business because he couldn’t find anybody or my mom works at a major auditing firm and you know they are behind on all of their audits cause they can’t find people to do the audits.
Many states did attack it on many fronts by trying to provide funding for training programs and for mentorship programs and apprenticeships you know is a big area and incentivize state employees to stay on the job maybe not retiring as soon. Looking at it as a pension issue as well as a workforce issue. Where we wind up is it continues to be a topline top three issue that legislatures are going to come right back to in January and say what do we do now. What more can we do. What more can we do cause there’s still we are far from out of the woods.
Ed: Let me ask you about another persistent challenge the states are facing and that’s housing. Is this something that is going to be high on state lists to tackle this year?
TS: For the first time is our tracking of major issues, you know housing breaks into the top three or five. It’s always the budget. That’s always the number one issue and usually education because what percentage of state funds go to education and, of course, Medicaid always a huge issue. But we are putting housing at the top of the list and it really is a 50-state issue almost. I mean not every state and, of course, it is more pronounced in some states and not just, by the way, urban areas. I mean you’ve got housing issues in rural parts of the country as well. It’s mostly you put the word affordable in front of it. That’s the problem. There’s not enough inventory. It is just market forces, supply and demand. It is acute. We’ve got to come up with more synonyms for the word crisis, but it is a crisis one of many crises. And so, there’s the housing crisis. You know I think it’s fair to say we’ve got a mental health crisis in the country. A fentanyl crisis in the country. So, you know, you could just go on. Homelessness is its own subset of housing. But it is something I’ve heard from I mean I never heard legislatures talking about what they can do looking at zoning issues, looking at funding for affordable housing and then specific kinds of housing. But also working with local governments the same way. You may have to adjust some of your zoning. I mean there might be some state preemption of local housing rules because of the need to go after this problem. This classic thing of why didn’t you do this five years ago. Why didn’t you do it 10 years ago. In fact, it wasn’t done and it would be great if we did these things five years ago, but we can’t let another year and another year and another year go. It’s time to plant the trees today even though they may not grow and bloom for another two or three years. They’ve got to get after it right now.
Ed: Well, we’re here in Colorado and we watched exactly that kind of thing play out between the governor and his idea of how zoning and density and that sort of thing should play out and some very different ideas from the mayors and local leaders, so I’m sure that that’s the sort of thing as you suggest is probably going to play out in a lot of other places in the country. Clearly a crisis is our drug overdose problem. You would have to be living under a rock not to see this. I just looked this up, the CDC reported more than 112,000 overdose [deaths] as of for the 12-month period that ended last May. It is just staggering. What do you think legislatures are going to do with this. I’m not sure what the levers are that they can pull, but do you expect them to really tackle that this coming year?
TS: Not so long ago, it was the opioid crisis. I mean there was tremendous consensus to that because people were seeing it. They were seeing friends, neighbors, family members who were becoming victim of opioids, particularly rural areas. And, of course, there was a meth, methamphetamine crisis so to speak. It is my understanding that the new fentanyl opioid crisis is far worse than when we had the last opioid crisis and states came in and put tremendous money into treatment programs, into programs for prevention. They tried to do education as well as medications to help people who had overdosed from you know preventing them from dying Narcan and these kinds of things. You can’t say on any of these crises that there is some magic solution. You’ve got do this as a solution. It’s always choose every item off the menu and I think that’s what states are going to do. What I can guarantee is that it will not just be discussed in one subcommittee or one committee. It’s going to get action and they are going to look at again how do we channel resources into both on prevention as well as treatment. Is it as big as housing? It’s certainly right up there at the top. You can hear legislators talking about it. You can hear leaders talking about it. It affects them. Everyone knows someone if they’ve not been personally touched by that tragedy who has loss someone or is dealing with someone close to them but is suffering from that addiction. And it has all kinds of spillover effects on policy and society, homelessness and crime. I think you know crime will continue to be an issue for states and a big election issue as well.
Ed: Well, all I can say is this conversation demonstrates that if you don’t want to challenge yourself with the tough issues, don’t run for the legislature.
TS: Right. You can’t hide from it. It seems very gloomy. Everything we talk about is like boy what do you do to solve fentanyl. What do you do to build thousands, millions of houses that the country needs and how do you find people to do these jobs when employers including state governments have been trying to employ every creative trick they can come up with.
Ed: Well, that’s why we say thank God for the people who are willing to run for state legislature and do the hard work that it takes to try and you know tackle these issues. It’s not to say that they are not going to nail it every time, but that is I think really what those of us who pay attention to legislatures appreciate about them and about the people who work there.
TS: And it’s not an easy job and what we also have faith in this system that groups of people in committee which is where legislators get their work done can spend time studying and come up with creative solutions listening to experts, listening to people directly affected by these issues. What we do know is that the states will act. Maybe not all of them in lock step, but some number of states are going to do some creative attack on fentanyl and on housing and then next year a group of states will say what did they do. And are they seeing any early signs of success. At a time when you know the federal government is really unable to tackle big policy issues because of the political landscape in Washington. And so, I was saying the other day that as of today, the U.S. government has only passed 22 pieces of legislation this year. They’ve passed 22 bills that the president has signed into law. So, and when I say 22, you got to knockout about half of them as just kind of symbolic task forces or changing the name of a building or issuing a coin. You know you knockout half of them. By the way, three of them were just continuing resolutions to keep the government open. So now you are down to 19 and then you take away the buildings and the coins and the task forces and you got about 10 pieces of substance of legislation in the U.S. government. None of them dealing with what we are talking about. These big issues on American’s minds like immigration as well.
Ed: Let me ask you about that because immigration is an issue, I think a lot of people do think of as a federal issue though states have always had some involvement with driver’s licenses, in-state tuitions, some of the things like that. But the landscape has changed and I think the landscape has changed in states away from the border in the last year or so for a number of reasons. The migrant issue has been very close to people in places like Denver or places like Chicago or New York where a lot of migrants have come. What is it that states can do around this. I mean there’s been a scramble. I think people have sort of responded almost on an emergency basis how do we take care of these people when they first come. What can states do about this. What do people say?
TS: It really has been and probably should be predominantly a federal issue because of the nature of borders. Even I think Thomas Jefferson and I’m probably getting this paraphrase wrong. He said, you know, Jefferson was no fan of centralized government so I think he was the one that said something to the effect of we really just need a federal government that can deliver the mail and guard the borders. Guard may not be the right word, but clearly secure the borders and immigration is broken and has been for decades right. I mean I remember you know the Clinton administration, the Bush, the first George H.W. Bush administration trying to work on a major immigration overhaul and unable to do it. So, one thing states do need to do is continue to put pressure for a national work around it that honors the role of the states. In the interim, you are correct that you know it’s a very different viewpoint when you are in California, Arizona, Texas you now those border states along the southern border of Mexico than you know other states that are removed from that. And I think there does seem to be something of a change since these migrants being bused to these major cities. It seems to have changed the conversation. But in the interim, states like Texas just appropriated I think $1.5 billion to put up some border fencing; barriers I should say because it might be fence. It might be a wall. Like everything, states are like well they’ve just almost given up on the U.S. government to handle this so they’ve you know states like Texas are doing that. That’s a more conservative Republican approach, but there’s all kinds of things that need to happen in concert. There is no isolation in terms of workforce and work visas and then there’s the asylum issue from people to legitimately need and seek asylum and something this country has always done. I feel like it’s as much pressure could happen and something has got to give and we probably would have said that back during the Clinton administration or the George Bush the first administration, but it sure feels like this is. You know it’s a crisis. We have an immigration crisis.
Ed: Yeah, we do have a lot of crises, but I have to say I think the temperature has been turned up on this one in recent months and I have no idea what the solution is, but it does seem as though it probably does have to go back to our federal elected officials who, as you have pointed out, don’t seem to be quite as effective at getting things done as our state elected officials.
What else is on the agenda? We’ve hit a bunch of crises, a bunch of hot button issues, but are there other things you think states will be paying attention to?
TS: Well, we haven’t talked about education which again states well it’s been roughly half, 45% of the state’s budget general funds are K-12 and higher ed. In the education sphere, legislatures will be looking at the workforce shortage primarily. School choice has been a hot button issue in a number of states and I think will maybe be in a handful of states this year. And then this learning gap that occurred as a result of Covid, tests have shown clearly that there was a loss in you know so a lot of kids who are still in school both in K-12 and higher ed you know need some help to sort of bridge that gap from that year hiatus. And I know schools kept going at some level, but clearly it was not the same.
You know and then health care is the other one. I mean Medicaid spending is like 15% not counting federal funds. You put in the federal funds you are up to like 25% of state’s spending. The issue will continue to be is it enough spending because it’s such an expensive program and can, you know, the coverage aspects of who is covered by Medicaid and then continuing to be innovative particularly around therapeutics and prescription drugs and drug costs always a perennial issue so those things are going to be top issues. I was thinking about tax cuts and other budget issues that might come up. Thirty-five or 40 states have cut taxes in the last two years. But it’s an election year so I could see some symbolic discussion of rolling back certain taxes. And then you know there’s the election and states have primary authority over election law. I don’t think they are going to make a lot of change. You are kind of late in the game because really administrators are gearing up to run the primaries and to run the general election. But I think there’s going to be a lot of discussion of you know in hearing just to say like election security. What have we done. And really just kind of assuring the voters that their vote is counted effectively and fairly and safely and it’s confidential. It’s going to be important for legislative voices to speak out and ensure people in their states of that. What I don’t think will be as high profile are the in particular the very controversial issues like abortion, which after Dobbs landed with the states and so you had states that didn’t have authoritative statutes came in and even some that did and changed those statutes and you saw primarily conservative states going towards more restrictive abortion access and other democratic states primarily doing guarantees for the abortion as a sort of a guaranteed right in their states. I do not think that’s going to be a big issue in these legislative sessions. I mean I think just about everybody has sort of settled their law in the last year of course pending litigation in a number of states on this. Same thing with some of the policies having to do with LGBT people and such as gender and sports and transgender people and sports and gender therapy for minors. So, I think as much attention as that got as those issues got you know gun regulation issues. Those really lightening rod issues do not tend to dominate legislative sessions in the election years so I don’t think we will see as many incendiary kinds of headlines that really send people to their corners. I’m sure there will be a handful of those, but not nearly to the extent that those kinds of things dominated this past session.
Ed: Well, Tim, I thank you for taking us through what we are probably going to see in 2024 and just remind people that for all the crises we discussed, we are happy that we have a group of hard-working people in legislatures ready to tackle this stuff because the only thing worse than having crises is having nobody paying attention trying to do anything. That makes me feel good about going into 2024. Thank you so much.
TS: Thank you. The cynics will say of course, but it’s so true that these people really care so much and you know disagree on so many things, but the vast majority of them are like let’s find some solutions. And that’s what I’m going to and that’s what we will see in 2024. Thank you, Ed.
Ed: I’ve been discussing the upcoming state legislative sessions with NCSL’s CEO Tim Storey. Thanks for listening.
You can check out all the podcasts from the National Conference of State Legislatures by searching for NCSL podcasts wherever you get your podcasts. This podcast “Our American States” dives into some of the most challenging public policy issues facing legislators. On “Across the Aisle” host Kelley Griffin tells stories of bipartisanship. Also check out our special series “Building Democracy” on the history of legislatures.