CHICAGO -- Some Democratic lawmakers are expressing concern about the political bent of the National Conference of State Legislatures, saying the bipartisan group is becoming more conservative in its positions and selection of speakers for meetings.
Concerns were expressed that the group -- which represents state legislators and staffers nationwide -- had become dominated by more conservative states and had allowed corporate sponsors to help direct panel discussions at the annual meeting. NCSL's annual legislative summit concluded Thursday in Chicago.
"Some legislators feel there is a more conservative movement and position in NCSL," New Jersey Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-East Orange) told The Huffington Post. "They are keeping a close watch on this."
Oliver said she and other northeastern legislative leaders have noticed conservative southern and midwestern states sending larger delegations to the conference in recent years. Still, under NCSL rules, business meetings limit each state to one vote, with states having members on various committees. Forty-three states were represented at Thursday's business meeting.
During Thursday morning's meeting, delegates did strip support for drilling in the Alaska National Wildlife Reserve from a resolution supporting domestic energy production. The vote was vocally opposed by Alaskan delegates, who said legislators were showing "no hope" for the state and wanted to devestate the state's economy. Then, despite the drilling support being absent from the bill, Alaska legislators attempted to keep ANWR in the final resolution's title, but to no avail.
Wisconsin Rep. Brett Hulsey (D-Madison) said he and several colleagues were concerned over the influence of the corporate sponsors at the conference, noting that the coal industry played a major role in a panel on energy issues. The coal industry had one of the largest exhibits in the NCSL exhibit hall, which featured trade groups and companies including the American Association of Nude Recreation, the National Rifle Association, and the American Massage Therapy Association.
Hulsey said during the energy discussion that he believed representatives from health or environmental groups should also be participating in the conversation.
"Needless to say they did not mention the 10,000 deaths caused by coal every year," Halsey said. "My major concern is you need some balance. You need the American Lung Association on there."
Hulsey also expressed concern over Jack Abramoff, the lobbyist who went to jail on corruption charges, giving a lecture on ethics reform.
"That is the devil lecturing on redemption," Hulsey said. "It seemed really bizarre to me. There are a bunch of people you can bring in to talk about reform like Common Cause."
Citing lobbyists seen in attendance alongside legislators, Hulsey said he feared the NCSL would become a version of the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, which is decidedly conservative.
But NCSL leadership stressed that the group is bipartisan in nature and that a series of Democratic and Republican panelists were invited to speak. NCSL spokesman Jon Kuhl told HuffPost he has even heard conservatives say the organization has been too liberal at times.
"I think we always hear from both sides that they want to hear more of their own people speak," he said. "We always try to improve and look for feedback."
Most of the panels included a series of speakers on both sides of the political divide, with the voter identification laws discussion including both Democrats and Republicans.
Oliver, of New Jersey, said she and other progressive legislative leaders have started talking about recruiting more of their members to attend future NCSL meetings to help influence the direction of the group. She said this will include using her authority to appoint New Jersey legislators to NCSL committees.
"As legislative leaders we have to encourage our members to play a more proactive role," she said. "Get them involved in committees and get policies adopted."