On a luminous August afternoon, civic leaders from across the country gathered before the longstanding canopy of brick arches at The Council of State Governments’ home in Lexington, Ky., to observe a milestone in the organization’s history.
Casting shadows on the pavement, the group watched as David Adkins, the council’s ninth executive director, joined CSG national leaders on Aug. 31, 2015, for a rededication of the headquarters after an extensive, $5.5 million renovation to the building where CSG got its start in Kentucky nearly 50 years ago.
The council’s history, however, dates back even further.
“For over eight decades, state leaders have looked to CSG for insights and information,” Adkins said. “CSG, in turn, has provided the forums, products and opportunities to empower state leaders to serve the common good.”
In 1925, Henry Wolcott Toll, then a Colorado state senator, envisioned an association in which legislators would work together for the purpose of improving legislative standards and personnel throughout the country. Toll created the American Legislators’ Association, the forerunner to CSG, which provided legislators with information and opportunities to connect.
Toll believed interstate cooperation was imperative for states to maintain control over inherent state issues.
“He had a vision for a more perfect union in founding CSG. That phrase, in fact, would appear on CSG lapel pins of his era,” Adkins said. “When any state is improved by learning from the experience of another state, our union is made stronger.”
CSG—the only national organization that serves all three branches of state government—was born on Oct. 22, 1933. “Probably 12 or 15 of us sat around a table in a small room,” Toll recalled 25 years later. “The Council of State Governments had never been heard of before that day.”
About five years after CSG was conceived, a new building at 1313 East 60th St., in Chicago became the council’s central home.
When Toll stepped down as executive director in 1938, he believed CSG was on its way to becoming the organization he had envisioned. More than 35 years later, Toll visited CSG and praised the thousands of state officials who had contributed to the council’s success, but the visit did not happen in Illinois.
Moving to the Bluegrass State
In 1967, CSG and the Commonwealth of Kentucky entered into an agreement that provided CSG with 23 acres of state land and a headquarters building for nearly $1.2 million. The building was dedicated on June 9, 1969.
“Kentucky has been very generous to the council, going back to the 1960s,” said Carl W. Stenberg, who served as CSG executive director from 1983 to 1989. “I think that has been a real help in terms of providing a very solid foundation for the headquarters.”
During his tenure, there was talk about moving CSG headquarters, but it was decided—after considering offers from other states—that CSG would remain in Kentucky. In 1993, the state financed the construction of a second building—known as the Daniel M. Sprague National Headquarters Building—to facilitate the council’s continued growth.
But as the years rolled by, the need for a more modern space eventually became clear. In 2012, the Commonwealth of Kentucky appropriated money for renovation of the 1969 building, resulting in a facility better equipped to serve states.
“We specifically, and with intention, designed a transparent, highly collaborative, team-oriented space that would be flexible and adaptable to the changing trends in state government,” Adkins said.
Enhancing Resources for State Leaders
Some CSG services have been offered since the early years. The Book of the States, which provides comprehensive data and analysis about state governments and their operations, was first published in 1935. Suggested State Legislation—compilations of legislation on topics of current importance to states—also are published in annual volumes. The SSL program started in 1940.
“I think the research and fact finding and innovation dissemination—I really think that is something that remains critically important for the organization and over time has proven the value of CSG to state leaders,” Stenberg said.
State Government News, which later became the CSG bimonthly magazine, Capitol Ideas, was first published in 1958.
Stenberg said the council’s regional presence has strengthened the organization. The Eastern Regional Conference was established in 1937. CSG opened a Washington, D.C. office in 1938. The Midwestern Legislative Conference was established in 1945. Both the Southern Conference—now the Southern Legislative Conference—and the Western Regional Conference—now CSG West—were established in 1947. In 2006, the CSG Justice Center was formed.
The CSG Henry Toll Fellowship program, a leadership development program for state officials, was established in 1986.
“Back in the early ‘80s, leadership development was something that was pretty much largely confined to the federal government and corporate sectors,” Stenberg said. “We didn’t really have a lot out there for state leaders or for local leaders.”
CSG Looks to the Future
CSG is more important than ever because of the emerging trend to nationalize every issue, Adkins said, but states are fully capable of self-governing.
“We build a more perfect union when we honor the proper role of the states in our federal system,” he said. “The states are the laboratories of democracy, and in every state capital across this land dedicated public servants are committed and capable of innovatively solving problems for the citizens of their state.”
As CSG inches toward a century of service, it will continue to adapt as it serves the changing needs of the states.