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Spotlight on the States: Key Online Resources (August 2012): Politics and Public Policy

Francine Graf and George Graf

Politics and Public Policy

State politics and governance are the focus of many professional associations and organizations, whose websites provide valuable information.  Notable among them is the site of the National Governors Association (NGA), described as "the collective voice of the nation's governors."  This site links to governors' biographies, state-of-the-state speeches, and governor staff directories.  It covers many key issues of the states, e.g., fiscal problems, educational standards, health reform, and federal regulation.  For issues and priorities reflecting the ideologies of the major political parties, red state/blue state perspectives, and the upcoming gubernatorial elections, the sites of the Democratic Governors Association and the Republican Governors Association are worth perusing.

Some organizations serve the states by providing expertise and services to enhance state government performance.  One major organization is the Council of State Governments, "a region-based forum that fosters the exchange of insights and ideas to help state officials shape public policy."  Its website contains sections on regional activities and news as well as a section titled Knowledge Center, which provides extensive coverage of policy issues, e.g., public safety, transportation, and interstate compacts.  An especially useful resource from the Council of State Governments is free digital access to Book of the States, an annually updated work on state government operations, which contains numerous downloadable tables.  Another ambitious project of the Council of State Governments, States Perform, provides performance profiles for each state in six major areas (e.g., fiscal, health, education); allows users to compare performance measures across states; and permits creating customized charts and spreadsheets.

Similarly, the National Conference of State Legislatures assists state governments by providing a wide range of services and research, as reflected on its site.  In particular, the Legislatures and Elections and the Issues and Research sections address core concerns of the states, including campaigns, health care, education, labor, banking, immigration, ethics, and redistricting.  The Center for State and Local Government Excellence engages in research and policy specifically related to state government workforces and the importance of government workers in promoting and sustaining excellence in state government.  Much timely information on the hot topics of public sector compensation, pensions, and health care benefits is available on this organization's site.

The prolonged economic downturn has focused much more attention on poverty and inequality; Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity is dedicated to shedding light on these crucial concerns.  Numerous foundations support this site in its mission to report on poverty in the United States and to examine policies and programs at the federal and state levels that reduce poverty and improve opportunities.  The In the States section of the site is particularly valuable for locating key data on poverty rates for each state.  This section displays a map of the United States; moving the cursor over a state reveals four key statistics: the state's overall poverty rate, the rate for children, the rate for seniors, and the "extreme" rate of poverty.  Clicking on a state or selecting it from a drop-down menu reveals much more specific data on other relevant indicators (e.g., food insecurity, children in foster care, homeless people, and adults/children receiving welfare assistance) as well as links to reports and research related to poverty for the state.

The Pew Charitable Trusts is highly respected for its research and online resources.  One such resource, the  Pew Center on the States , examines many key policy and economic issues and presents an impressive amount of comparative data on the states, particularly in the Trends to Watch and the States sections.  An important related Pew site, Stateline, which provides coverage of state news, is discussed in the General Reference section of this essay.  In addition to comprehensive news coverage, Stateline's Special Reports section provides resources that are invaluable for keeping up with policy issues at the state level, particularly the annual "State of the States" and the "Legislative Review" reports.  Also dedicated to improving state governance is The Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government, based at the University at Albany, State University of New York.  Reports and research studies on many issues relevant to the states are available on the institute's site.  A particular focus and strength of the institute is information on New York State.

George Mason University's Mercatus Center produces a unique report, Freedom in the 50 States, which "examines state and local government intervention across a wide range of public policies, from income taxation to gun control, from homeschooling regulation to drug policy."  An "individual-rights framework" is the principle on which each state's fiscal, regulatory, and "paternalistic" policies (social freedoms such as same-sex civil unions/marriages and home-schooling) are ranked.  Freedom rankings are given to each state for three main categories: overall freedom, economic freedom, and personal freedom.  For the 2011 report, New Hampshire, the "live free or die" state, comes in number one on overall freedom while New York is dead last.  The report contains a profile for each state, which includes a brief analysis and key policy recommendations on actions the state can take to improve citizens' freedom.  A data appendix describes each variable used in the study.

Those interested in the legislative processes of the states will appreciate the site of StateScape, a government relations firm.  While much of the site is geared to StateScape's clients, the Resources section contains valuable information free to the general public, including links to descriptions of each state's legislative process (i.e., how a bill becomes a law); calendars of legislative sessions for each state; maps of political parties controlling the governorship and legislatures for each state; and links to state legislative bodies.  Similarly, FindLaw: State Resources provides a directory by state to legal research sites and documents including state statutes, state courts, and law firms.  This site also provides links to related state government sites as well as news and media outlets.  Other excellent portals to state and district laws and legal documents include the Public Library of Law; Law Library of Congress: U.S. States and Territories; the Legal Information Institute's collection of state legal materials, from the Cornell University Law School; and U.S. State Law and Government from

Useful for locating agencies that handle state and city/county public records (e.g., birth, marriage, land records, professional licenses) are the Free State Public Record Sites and Free Public Records Search Directory, both of which provide links to the agencies that maintain the records and to databases containing any online public records.

Urban areas, the biggest drivers and cost centers of state government, are key to a state's vitality and fiscal health.  According to the Brookings Institution, "Metropolitan areas are home to 83 percent of the U.S. population, 85 percent of the nation's jobs and 92 percent of all college graduates."[1]  Several organizations provide excellent information and data specifically focused on urban issues.  The Brookings Institution's Metropolitan Policy Program site features many excellent reports on urban trends and issues.  For example, the "State of Metropolitan America" initiative, accessible from a link on the home page, features a valuable report on demographic and social trends of large metropolitan areas; it is accompanied by an interactive U.S. map that can be browsed by various indicators, e.g., population, immigration, and age.  Interested readers can sign up to receive a biweekly newsletter from the Metropolitan Policy Program.  Likewise valuable is the Urban Institute's MetroTrends, described as "the Urban Institute's report card on how metropolitan America is faring."  This rich repository of commentary, charts, and downloadable data on economic and social trends will be of value to anyone interested in the condition of America's cities.  The Metropolitan Spotlights section of the site features reports on individual cities; recent ones include Detroit, Chattanooga, Philadelphia, and New York.

The site of The United States Conference of Mayors is a straightforward and useful source of information on cities and their elected officials.  To find a mayor of a particular locality, users can go to the Meet the Mayors section (under the Mayors tab), and search in various ways (e.g., name, city, population).  Also under the Mayors tab is Cities Online; clicking on a state on the interactive map produces a list of cities and their websites.  Other interesting resources available through this site are links to reports and other publications such as the U.S. Mayor newspaper and MayorsBlog.

The National League of Cities site contains much governance and policy information and advice to assist city leaders.  Useful to students and the general public is a tutorial, "Cities 101," that explains the structure and powers of municipal governments and elected officials.  The National Association of Counties (NACo) notes on its website that it is the "only national organization that represents county governments before the Administration and Congress."  The site reflects this mission, with links to legislation and policy issues, including reports detailing key legislative priorities.  The About Counties section contains an interactive map; clicking on a state produces a list of counties with associated links.  Although some areas of the site are accessible only to members or subscribers, much useful and unique information is available to the public.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is associated mainly with housing-related issues, but its State of the Cities Data Systems (SOCDS) provides links to a broad array of data sets on cities from many federal agencies, including the Census Bureau, Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

1. "About the Metropolitan Policy Program."  Brookings Institution.