A decade ago, a dispute over health policy threatened to tear apart the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), a bipartisan group of state lawmakers that shares ideas and lobbies Congress.
Back in 2009, while Congress was still considering the Affordable Care Act (ACA), a majority of delegates at the group's annual meeting approved a resolution endorsing the measure. Then as now, Republican legislators opposed the health-care bill. The resolution threatened to drive them away from an organization they already viewed as dominated by Democrats.
"That vote could very easily have ripped NCSL apart," says Utah state Sen. Curt Bramble, a Republican.
But the group remained intact, thanks to Bill Pound, NCSL's executive director, who managed to find a position everyone could live with. Despite the strong vote in favor of the ACA, the group would not lobby for the health bill in Congress. The group's bylaws made clear that 75 percent of the states had to vote in favor of any resolution for its passage. That threshold wasn't met.
"They didn't use that as something to bludgeon conservative states or energize the more liberal of the states," says Bramble, a former NCSL president. "Bill did that with a very transparent, very open approach."
After leading NCSL for more than three decades, Pound tells Governing in an exclusive interview that he will step down by the time of the group's next annual meeting in August 2019. He will be leaving at a moment when the group faces a changing political landscape.
"In the early years, it was hard sometimes to tell the Democrats from the Republicans," Pound says. "The growth of partisanship in the country is the greatest challenge we've had in the country."
Despite that challenge, Pound says NCSL has been able to flourish in large part due to its founding bylaws, which require its four legislative officer positions to be split evenly between the parties. Others credit Pound himself for the group's ability to maintain a bipartisan approach in an increasingly partisan era.
"NCSL has been able to focus on those policy issues and those challenges that states have in common," says Bramble. "Bill has been able to navigate some fairly turbulent political waters over the years, and he's done so successfully. If you look at the success of governing at the state level -- it's not a cause and effect, but it's a reflection of Bill's ability to lead an organization that has some very diverse political elements."
NCSL's executive committee over the weekend to begin figuring out how to replace Pound, who is 78 years old. It also kicked off the process of rewriting its strategic plan. It may be time for a fresh start, but the group's leaders, including South Dakota GOP state Sen. Deb Peters, who served as NCSL president until its annual meeting last month, emphasize that its fundamentals -- serving as a resource for legislatures and acting as their voice in Washington -- will not change.
Still, it's the end of a long era.
"They're going to miss him, big time," says Ray Scheppach, whose tenure as executive director of the National Governors Association (NGA) overlapped with Pound's leadership for more than a quarter-century.
Pound, who had been a political science professor in Colorado, joined NCSL shortly after its founding in 1975. He became its executive director a dozen years later. Peters notes that Pound joined the group just a few months after she was born.
"It's going to be tough losing somebody with that historical and institutional knowledge," she says. "When you come in as president, there are things you want to try. He would just look at you with this little look on his face like, yep, been there, done that, and here's why it doesn't work."
Back to the Beginning
NCSL was born when three prior organizations merged. During the 1960s, the Ford Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation took an interest in modernizing state legislatures, which were then backwater institutions with no hope of matching the power and expertise of governors and the executive branch. The foundations helped fund work by Rutgers University and the old Citizens Conference for State Legislatures that set the template for overhauls of legislatures around the country, including changes such as moving to annual sessions and creating nonpartisan staff positions for research and fiscal analysis.
NCSL started with a much smaller staff than it has now. It was a different era back then. As Pound notes, states were still enjoying revenue-sharing programs with the federal government. NCSL's work in Washington today is devoted largely to playing defense.
"In recent years, it was more trying to prevent [the federal government] from doing things unless they find money, and sometimes even then," Pound says. "Protecting state role and authority is a more important part of things."
Under Pound's leadership, NCSL has worked closely with the National Governors Association. That wasn't always the case. The jealousy with which legislators sometimes regard governors seemed to extend to the organization, says Scheppach.
"Without talking too negatively about the previous guy, there were all kinds of tensions between the two organizations," he says. "We could never get on the same page."
But Pound and Scheppach quickly found common ground. They joined forces on lobbying efforts on policy issues as well as attempts to stave off preemption, while jointly funding projects, including the State and Local Legal Center, which represents state and local viewpoints before the U.S. Supreme Court, and Federal Funds Information for States, which parses congressional spending bills to show how much money each state can expect at every stage of the process.
Given rising partisanship among their own ranks, NCSL and NGA have each struggled at times to speak for their membership with one voice in Washington. Both are part of the "Big 7" group of state and local organizations.
While most of the other organizations have seen leadership turnover -- and, in some cases, turmoil -- Pound has remained a stalwart presence. He has lent knowledge of both politics and policy not just to NCSL but the whole of the Big 7, says Scheppach. Pound seemed not only to know everything that had happened in states but had his finger on the pulse of everything that was happening currently in 50 state capitols, with a feel for the idiosyncrasies of each.
"He's just the ideal executive director for a bipartisan national legislative organization," says Joe Hackney, a former North Carolina Democratic House speaker and NCSL president. "You just about couldn't ask him anything about the people and the happenings in legislatures across America that he wouldn't know about."
Despite Republican dominance at the legislative level during this decade, attendance at NCSL's annual meeting remains heavily Democratic. Keeping Republicans interested and on board has been a challenge but one that legislators say Pound has risen to. He has recruited Republicans to lead who are also active with the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), such as Bramble and Wisconsin Assembly GOP Speaker Robin Vos, NCSL's president-elect.
Despite the heated partisan rhetoric and divisions that have filtered down from Congress to the state level, Pound says the majority of state-level bills still pass on a bipartisan basis. Granted, that doesn't include the most divisive social and financial issues, but legislators of all stripes and in all states face challenges in common. Helping them share their concerns and expertise remains NCSL's core mission.
Legislatures -- Not Legislators
Notably, it's the National Conference of State Legislatures -- not legislators. NCSL remains the leading professional organization for clerks, sergeants-at-arm and other legislative staff. That aspect of the organization may receive less attention than the policy fights, but NCSL has stepped up its efforts at providing technical assistance and offering leadership training as well as testimony and expertise on legislation.
Over the past three years, NCSL has averaged roughly 100 in-state programs per year. Its own staff or experts from other states offer background on issues that all states experience, such as criminal justice, as well as innovations, such as Oregon's experiment with swapping the gas tax for a tax based on vehicle miles traveled.
"We as an organization are not selling any particular policy," Pound says. "We are telling people, 'Here are the options available to you and what the pros and cons are.'"
Pound recognizes as well as anyone the divisions that exist in politics today. But he's done his best to keep those differences from preventing legislators and staff from finding ways to work together when they can.
*CORRECTION: A previous version of this incorrectly stated Bill Pound's age.