NCSL's annual meeting this week in Boston is dominated, as you would expect, by sessions covering issues such as taxes, health care costs and homeland security. But legislators are also swapping stories about procedures and process. I just got out of a session called "The Rise of the Task Force," which examined what happens when legislators punt an issue into the hands of a commission or study group.
This typically happens when an issue is complex, or politically charged, or both. One of the dangers, cautioned Rick Berg, majority leader of the North Dakota House, is that a task force can get highjacked by advocates of a particular point of view. They could be lobbyists or a state agency that invites legislators to participate in a study that ends up turning them into proponents for a program.
"If I were a lobbyist and I had an issue I wanted passed," he said, "I would do a study and get that steamroller rolling so nobody could stop it once it was in session." It's fine to seek input from interested players, Berg said, but it's important for legislators to maintain their authority by, for instance, holding a legislators-only vote on adopting whatever consensus is reached by a task force.
"There's always a danger with these task forces," he said. "You want legislative control, but not so much control that you end up missing out on creative ideas."
The flip side of sharing influence with the public at large is that it creates a constituency that can push for passage of any legislation that a task force comes up with. That was one of the lessons Hawaii state Senator Les Ihara Jr. took away from a joint task force he cochaired last year on issues surrounding family caregivers who work with senior citizens.
The actual members of his task force were all legislators, but they solicitied input from a wide network of citizens interested in a range of seniors issues. They held several public meetings and collectively formed an opinion about approaches to address various topics. Where there was disagreement, those holding the minority viewpoint agreed to hold down their objections until the legislature looked at the proposals and they'd have another shot at making their objections known.
The mix of inputs from citizens and legislators worked well. Legislators who also served on finance or subject committees helped smooth passage of bills that the network of citizens created and educated by the task force helped lobby for. The group enjoyed considerable success in the actual legislative process, winning passage of 23 of the 33 bills they proposed and $70 million in new funding.
Task forces are almost a given in part-time legislatures, where members simply don't have the time to listen to hours of testimony on topics other than the budget. But they can be helpful in full-time legislatures as well, suggested Wisconsin state Representative Cory Mason.
Legislators can always solicit expert testimony and advice, he said, but task forces provide a way to get more citizens engaged in the process. There will always be a tension between legislators who are going to tell the state what their solution to a problem would be and those legislators who feel their role is to ask citizens what they think the solution should be. A task force is a way of tipping that balance toward the citizen-input approach.
"I wouldn't start a task force unless I knew five people in my disrict who cared deeply about the issue and were willing to work on it," Mason said.