By Thom Little, Ph.D.

I have spent much of the last three weeks in the 1940’s. Okay, not literally, but intellectually and emotionally. Three weeks ago, I had the pleasure of seeing President Harry Truman’s grandson, Clifton Truman Daniel, portray his grandfather in a live performance of “Give’em Hell, Harry” in an intimate theater in Oriental, NC. The next weekend, my wife and I went to see the cinematic blockbuster “Oppenheimer.” (No, I have not seen Barbie yet.) Finally, over the last few weeks, I have been reading A.J.  Baime’s Dewey Defeats Truman: The 1948 Election and the Battle for America’s Soul.

As a history geek, I loved every minute of these experiences. As a student of government, I was struck by the earth-shattering significance of decisions that President Truman and others had to make in the 1940s and the millions of lives altered, for good and for ill, by those decisions. Dropping the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki resulted in the deaths of more than 200,000 Japanese citizens but may have saved as many or more US and Japanese soldiers by hastening the end of the conflict. The decision to integrate the military pushed the civil rights movement forward, but also resulted in the death and harassment of African Americans throughout the southern United States. Decisions to initiate the Berlin airlift and to enter the Korean conflict, while perhaps correct in hindsight, were perceived by many as the opening salvos for World War III, and the effects of the controversial decision to recognize the new state of Israel are still being felt today.

Last week, I returned to the 21st Century with attendance at SLLF’s annual meeting of the National Speakers Conference and I was reminded that while today’s state legislative leaders may not have to make decisions that could save or cost millions of lives or prevent or provoke World War III, the decisions they make daily do have significant impacts on the lives of the people they serve. At that meeting, we had three plenary sessions that reminded me that what state legislative leaders do can and does have a dramatic impact on the lives of their constituents.

First, we heard from the founders of The Policy Project, three dynamic women who empowered women and young girls across Utah to get involved in state government and in so doing have improved the lives of young women across the state. Their first project involved working with state legislators to remove or reduce taxes on feminine products, making them more accessible and affordable. They then worked successfully (unanimous votes in both chambers!) with the state legislators to have free period product dispensers placed in bathrooms across the state. Next, they worked with policymakers (successfully advocating for a $15 million budget allocation) to establish Teen Centers in schools across the state and now, they are working to address sex trafficking. There is no doubt that the laws advocated by The Policy Project and passed by the state legislature have improved the quality of life for young men and women across the state.

Second, we listened in on a conversation between Utah Speaker Brad Wilson and “unicorn”(1) entrepreneur Ryan Smith, founder of Qualtrics and owner of three professional sports franchises in Utah, including the NBA’s Utah Jazz. Smith reminded legislators that the policies they pass (or don’t pass) can be the difference in encouraging or discouraging investment in their states. He noted that most entrepreneurs are less interested in tax incentives than in policies that are predictable, less restrictive and provide a high quality of life for their company’s employees. The laws state legislators pass can create jobs with living wages for hundreds of thousands of citizens across their respective states.(2)

The final session of the meeting addressed an issue that is now front and center for state and national policymakers around the world: what to do about Artificial Intelligence. In this session we heard from representatives of Adobe, Google and Microsoft about the framework that states can set up around AI so that they can most benefit from its successes and protect themselves from its dangers. With thoughtful policies by state legislators, AI can improve economic productivity, constituent services and government efficiencies. Without cooperative efforts between the public and private sectors, Artificial Intelligence and the misinformation it distributes may wreak havoc with everything from democracy to education. For all our sakes, state legislators and the private sector have to get this right.

So, while it is unlikely that state legislators will be called on to make decisions that prevent or provoke a war or that could lead to the deaths of hundreds of thousands with the push of a button, that does not mean the decisions they make do not matter. In fact, America’s state legislators have not only the power, but the obligation and responsibility, every day to make decisions that improve the lives of their citizens. What leaders do matters, whether it is in1940s Washington, DC or 2020s state capitols!

(1) The term unicorn refers to a privately held startup company with a value of over $1 billion.

(2) Utah must be doing something right. In 2023, US News and E=World Report ranked it the best state in the nation with No. 1 rankings in health, education and the economy. In 2022, the state had the nation’s fastest growing GDP and ranked second in population and business growth and has more “unicorns” per capita than any state in the nation.