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Policy spotlights, skills trainings, and more: GRA and Florida TaxWatch host 106th annual conference

From July 21 to 24, members of the Governmental Research Association (GRA) gathered in St. Petersburg, Florida for the annual conference. Over the course of four days, meaningmakers and wayfinders from across the country heard from experts on issues ranging from energy regulation to starting wage to school leadership, and they had the opportunity to attend skills sessions.

To catch up on the conference, follow us @TheGRA1914 and the #2019GRA hashtag on Twitter.

Day 1: Budget games

The conference kicked off on Sunday night with an organizational roundup, followed by Florida TaxWatch’s “budget game.” Broken up into teams of six or seven, attendees worked through balancing a hypothetical Florida state budget that started with a $2 billion deficit — and had to make tough choices along the way.

Over pizza, they debated various policy proposals from raising the sales tax to cutting environmental spending to increasing education spending. The game, according to Florida TaxWatch, is “designed to show participants that while cutting services, cutting taxes, or raising revenue may seem simple, there are always difficult choices to be made, and each choice that the legislature makes impacts real Floridians.”

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Conference attendees work as a team to balance a hypothetical Florida state budget. Nancy Rose/EducationNC

Day 2: Newsmakers, energy, environment, and more

On Monday morning, Dominic Calabro, president of Florida TaxWatch, provided welcoming remarks.

Then, Bill Nichols, vice president at Freedman Consulting, LLC and former founding managing editor and editor-at-large of POLITICO, talked about how research organizations can leverage the new media landscape to be their own newsmakers. Nichols, who is also on the team of Spotlight on Poverty & Opportunity, presented data on the decline of newspaper journalists and the lack of news coverage on the issue of poverty across the country.

But, despite this changing landscape, he left attendees with a hopeful message.

“Nonprofit journalism is the future … this democratization of media, this ability that the web has given us — that everyone can be their own publisher — that’s a very hopeful thing.” — Bill Nichols

Then, participants had a chance to engage in two different policy spotlight and skills sessions. In the first round, participants chose between a panel on starting wage policy and a skills session on how to frame grants for policy research.

Kelly O’Brien, principal consultant of KTO Strategy & Communications, LLC, discussed barriers to funding and how to use logic models to frame grant requests.

In the policy session, Jeff Hornstein, executive director of the Economy League of Greater Philadelphia, hosted a panel with representatives from  Florida TaxWatch, Citizens Research Council of Michigan, Colorado Futures Center, and Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation on the different approaches that states have taken to increase starting wages.

In the second round of policy spotlights and skills sessions, attendees chose between a panel on criminal justice and a skills session on hacking maps on a budget or a deadline. Peter Reichard, president of the Utah Foundation, Lisa Margulies, senior policy specialist at the Crime and Justice Institute, and Robert Weissert, executive vice president of Florida TaxWatch, discussed criminal justice policy and sentencing, release, community corrections, and sustainability.

Joe Adams, research coordinator at Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama, shared a variety of ways to quickly make maps or clean data sets.

Before lunch, John Reed, CEO and chairman of the board for Concentric Energy Advisors, and Catherine Stempien, state president of Duke Energy, discussed energy deregulation.

In the final session of the day, Dr. Ellen Prager of Earth2Ocean, Inc. discussed the data behind climate change and why the unknowns shouldn’t drive policy.

Attendees ended day two of the conference by cheering on the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field.

Focusing on school leaders

Throughout the conference, brief multimedia sessions provided perspectives on school leaders. Mebane Rash shared the story of EducationNC’s work in Edgecombe County around chronic absenteeism, playing a video of the day we walked the streets with Miracle, a student, listening to her reasons for why students don’t come to school.

Patrick Archer, a teacher in Memphis, Tennessee, shared his perspective on the role of school leaders and lessons learned after the first year of teaching.

Florida TaxWatch shared this video on nine exceptional principals who were recognized for their outstanding leadership and positive influence on students.

To close out our discussion of school leaders, we shared this video from Opportunity Culture on how schools provide on-the-job, consistent support for all teachers to reach many more students by having teachers lead teams or reach more students directly, with more school-day collaboration and planning time, and without forcing class-size increases.

Day 3: Priorities projects, people-centered policy, and more

On Tuesday morning, Criketa Matlock welcomed young members and newcomers to the GRA conference with a game of human bingo.

Then, David Casey, senior vice president at MAXIMUS, and Marsha Simon, president of MJ Simon & Company, discussed OPM’s recent clarification on state contractors — and important change in many states especially during recessions and disasters.

During a third and final spotlight and skills session, participants chose between a panel on medicaid expansion and healthcare or a skills session on social media boosting and surveying.

Timothy Michling, research associate at Citizens Research Council of Michigan, Jason Stein, research director of the Wisconsin Policy Forum, and Shawn Teigen, vice-president and research director at Utah Foundation, discussed medicaid expansion and healthcare.

Analisa Sorrells, chief of staff and associate director of policy for EducationNC, shared social media tips and walked participants through how to boost their content to new audiences on Facebook.

Before lunch, Jen Zuckerman, director of strategic initiatives at the World Food Policy Center, shared the importance of understanding history and developing relationships to plan for the future. Zuckerman called attention to the historic disinvestment in communities that resulted in wealth disparities and, ultimately, food deserts.

Over lunch, representatives from numerous GRA organizations — including EducationNC, the Utah Foundation, Colorado Futures Center, and the Public Affairs Research Council Alabama — shared the work they have done in using priorities projects to lift up citizen voice to shape public policy and inform elections.

Attendees then enjoyed an afternoon at the nearby Dali Museum.

On Tuesday evening, Jeff Chapman, director of state fiscal health at Pew Charitable Trusts, discussed preparing states for upcoming fiscal and economic challenges.

In a final keynote, Tom Ross, president of the Volcker Alliance, discussed democracy, state governments, and the aging of the federal workforce.

To close the day, GRA awards were presented in three categories: distinguished research, most effective education, and outstanding policy achievement.

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The Frederick P. Gruenberg Award was presented to Sam Tyler of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau for his “unwavering commitment and outstanding contributions to the field of governmental research and the GRA.”

Day 4: Award presentations

Following the GRA annual meeting on Wednesday morning, Dean Mead, senior research manager and GASAC Coordinator at GASB provided an update on the Governmental Accounting Standards Board.

Award winners shared IGNITE presentations on their research.

Thank you to Florida TaxWatch, MAXIMUS, EducationNC, and Brian Auld, president of the Tampa Bay Rays, for their support of this conference.

Analisa Sorrells

Analisa Sorrells was the chief of staff and associate director of policy for EducationNC.