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Look to the states for solutions in 2021

Look to the states for solutions in 2021
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It’s too early to tell what changes lie ahead in the political, cultural, and social spheres in the United States in 2021. The future of the American political system, which has just come through an extraordinary series of elections, is strong. The energy and vigorous debate between the two parties has enriched the system rather than diminished it, even if the results are somewhat ambiguous.

Historically slim majorities in Congress are a mandate for uncertainty. Remember, while media and pundits focus relentlessly on what happens in D.C., the real action — with the most impact on Americans’ lives — is in the nation’s 50 state capitols where the laboratories of democracy, as Justice Brandeis termed them, go about their business. State legislators working with organizations focused on state policy are empowered by the information they exchange, leading to policy discussions with multiple stakeholders.

There are several organizations that seek to fulfill this critical role of convening legislators for policy discussion, education, and development. The National Conference of State Legislatures is one; the Council of State Governments is another. The State Innovation Exchange aims to bring together progressive state legislators; The American Legislative Exchange Council, of which I am CEO, aims to bring together free-market proponents. All of us have different objectives, strategies, tactics and ideological leanings, but we all bring together legislators with other experts — think tanks, corporate leaders, academic professionals, grassroots leaders, and more — to develop best practices and policies at the state level. To oppose one of these groups without opposing the others betrays pure partisanship, not a reasonable opposition to the process.

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Legislators benefit from this activity, as do their constituents. The lockdowns of 2020 have wrecked the economy, making these discussions more important than ever. The year will be remembered for the pandemic, but the long-term impact of the steep decline in Americans’ institutional trust, undoubtedly deepened as government officials exposed their unlimited role in American daily life, cannot be overlooked. According to Edelman’s annual Trust Barometer, American institutional trust declined by two points from 2019 to 2020. American pessimism about our financial futures increased by 7 points. The media didn’t escape blame, either. Nearly six in 10 people around the world now believe the media — even the outlets they themselves choose to read or watch — is untrustworthy.

It’s imperative that trust be rebuilt and confidence reignited in institutions. No group is better positioned to do this than state legislators. They aren’t tarred by the often-contentious opinions about Congress. They represent small districts and have few or no staff; when voters call their offices, they often speak to the legislator directly. State legislators go to the same worship services as their constituents, dine in the same restaurants (when they’re open), and belong to the same social organizations. Their spouses meet at the local PTA, and their kids sit in the same classrooms and play on the same sports teams.

State legislators are the cornerstone of government. State governments, meanwhile, are the place where policies are discussed, implemented, tested, and refined.

It is policies made in the states rather than Washington that have the most direct impact on the most aspects of how people live. If the COVID-19 pandemic revealed one reality, it’s that state policies matter deeply. That’s why organizations that bring state legislators together to discuss policy solutions are critically important. Bringing legislators together with individuals, business leaders, federal lawmakers, and others ensures the best policies are implemented at the state level.

At ALEC, we bring together all kinds of stakeholders because we believe no one has a monopoly on good ideas. We are fiercely nonpartisan: while we unabashedly advocate for free-market ideals, and while we believe that states are better agents of policy implementation than the federal government, we welcome any opportunity to work with ideologically diverse individuals and organizations. Our own history shows us that any political or policy work is strengthened by bipartisanship and ideological diversity. ALEC’s criminal justice reform efforts, which helped lay the foundation for Congress’ historic 2018 First Step Act were accomplished in partnership with progressive and free market groups.

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At the outset of a new year, as America begins to rebuild after a tumultuous pandemic-infused election year, we need to encourage more conversation, not less.

The more conversations, discussions, and debate that legislators have around policy, the better equipped those legislators will be. The policies they bring to their capitols and the opportunity they bring to the American people across the states will prove it.

Lisa B. Nelson is the chief executive officer of the American Legislative Exchange Council, the country’s largest and oldest membership organization of state legislators, who are dedicated to individual liberty and free enterprise. Follow her on twitter @LisabNelson.