Staffers Ensure Smooth Sessions Legislative Aides Experts on Process

Article excerpt

TALLAHASSEE -- When late-night budget negotiations reach the critical point in the hectic final days of the session, people like House Appropriations Staff Director David Coburn earn their pay.

Legislative staffers are the unsung heroes of the process, self-effacing and anonymous but working under extreme pressure to keep the session running smoothly.

It is widely speculated that when experienced legislators are replaced with novices with the advent of term limits this fall, these staffers and special-interest lobbyists will gain dramatically more power because of their knowledge.

Legislators come and legislators go, but key staff members like Coburn and his Senate counterpart, Elton Revell, remain, quietly greasing the legislative wheels and tweaking budget numbers.

Sen. Jim Horne, an Orange Park Republican who has two more years before term limits force him out, said it takes legislators almost the entire eight years to really begin to see the big picture in the budget process.

"As you walk out the door, you look back and those staffers are waving goodbye to you," Horne said.

Coburn has been a legislative staffer for nearly half of his 48 years, with a couple of years off to bail out former Gov. Lawton Chiles as his budget director when Chiles needed to repair frayed relationships with the Legislature.

In his current job, he commands a staff of 29, many with advanced degrees and years of experience in the arcane processes of writing the state budget, which now exceeds $50 billion. Coburn himself has a law degree and a master's in urban and regional planning.

Staff directors and senior analysts are well paid and heavily credentialed, often with law degrees or doctorates. Many also have years of experience, either in government or private enterprise, in their subject areas.

Lucy Hadi, the Senate Fiscal Policy Committee staff director, spent nearly 20 years with the old Health and Rehabilitative Services Department, the last nine as district administrator in Jacksonville.

She is now a key adviser to Senate leaders on issues such as welfare reform and work force development.

Sen. Jim King, R-Jacksonville, who headed a committee on work force innovation, said the Senate could not have completed its work on the issue in the allotted time without Hadi's technical knowledge.

Not everyone agrees that term limits will mean more power for the staff.

Alan Rosenthal, a public policy professor at Rutgers University who has studied the Florida Legislature, said term limits may actually decrease staff power rather than increasing it.

Rosenthal said the new legislators may be insecure and fear the staff is trying to control them.

More experienced legislators are willing to trust staff because they know them and are knowledgeable enough about legislative matters not to be misled by faulty advice, Rosenthal said.

"When you have secure legislators, they don't feel threatened by staff," Rosenthal said.

NOT ALWAYS WELCOME

Staff members are expected to keep their opinions to themselves and to deal in facts rather than policy.

Yet no one doubts that they often subtly affect the direction of legislation, as when they note in an analysis that a bill may be unconstitutional or cost more money than the sponsor thought. The bills' sponsors do not always appreciate this.

T.K. Wetherell, a former House speaker who is now president of Tallahassee Community College, said the new legislators may not be aware that cost projections are not always accurate.

"The difference is you've got new people who don't know how that game is played," Wetherell said.

When Daniel Webster of Orlando came in as the first Republican House speaker in this century, he downgraded salaries and titles for committee staffers, calling them researchers instead of staff directors and analysts. …