At the NCSL: Sabo recognition and a middle-class agenda


The 40th annual summit meeting of the National Conference of State Legislatures was held in Minneapolis last week and lawmakers from 50 states and 26 countries fittingly honored one of NCSL’s most important founders, Martin Olav Sabo.

Minnesotans know Sabo well. He served six impactful years as House Speaker in the 1970s and 28 distinguished years in Congress before retiring in 2006. Sabo was instrumental in modernizing the Minnesota’s Legislature and enacting a historic wave of progressive reforms. Institutions and traditions we now take for granted _ such as a nonpartisan legislative research staff, open public meetings and records, human rights laws and gender equity provisions, simple and open voter registration, and public financing of campaigns _ are in place because of Sabo’s influence. Few Minnesotans know that he also was a driving force behind the founding of the highly respected NCSL, the Denver-based organization that convenes legislators frequently and serves as a year-round resource to teach best practices and innovation and to improve state government performance.

Sabo, legendary for frankness and brevity, used his time on the stage to graciously praise NCSL for its impact since 1974 and its role as educator for legislators. But Sabo also flagged one of his biggest concerns: the damage done to state education systems by the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, As if on cue, Sir Ken Robinson, the celebrity “educationalist” who followed Sabo, as a keynote speaker, echoed those criticisms and warned of a national American education system that was squelching creativity with excessive testing and standardization. The Star Tribune’s editorial columnist, Lori Sturdevant, captured both Sabo’s recognition and the NCLB critiques in two blogs last week.

Meanwhile, illustrating NCSL’s ongoing value as an idea incubator, another Minnesota House member, Rep. David Bly, made something of a splash with the distribution of an essay and a link to his new booklet, urging state legislatures to create their own “Middle Class Agenda,” with a framework of policies specifically focused on restoring the economic health of the vast majority who consider themselves middle-income or middle-class. Bly draws on our policy work at Growth & Justice and we produced a commentary on this intriguing new idea earlier this summer.