Legislative Staff Face the Future

By Boulard, Garry | State Legislatures, July 2000 | Go to article overview

Legislative Staff Face the Future


Boulard, Garry, State Legislatures


House clerks and Senate secretaries were the legislatures' first staff. Some of today's clerks and secretaries take a look at legislative staff, and their jobs, of the future.

Texas Senate Secretary Betty King answers with one sentence when asked to contemplate what's ahead for the legislative staffs of the future. "A whole lot of hard work," she laughs.

It is laugh born of experience.

Coming to the old pink granite Texas State Capitol in 1947 as a clerk for the House Appropriations committee, King was elected to her current post as secretary of the Senate exactly 30 years later.

In the intervening half century King has seen amazing changes in her beloved capitol where once mostly white, male lawmakers representing farm and oil and gas interests held sway. Today, Texas lawmakers represent one of the nation's fastest growing and diverse populations with more than 13 million new people since 1947. One quarter are Hispanic, with African-Americans accounting for an additional 2 million or 10 percent.

"Everywhere you look, this state is growing, something is being built," says King. "And that goes on all of the time."

With a birth and immigration rate that is expected to add an extra 8 million new people in the next two decades (New York, by contrast, expects the addition of no more than 800,000), that building and expansion is going to continue.

OLD DAYS ARE OVER

All of the demographic changes, says King, will have to be addressed by the Legislature. But to make things even more complicated, these population explosions are occurring simultaneously with an emerging technology that is changing in nearly every way the manner in which legislatures have done their work in the past.

"I started out with boxes and boxes of little index cards, that's how I kept track of nearly everything around here," says John B. Phelps, the clerk of the Florida House of Representatives, another Sunbelt state where the population has nearly doubled in a generation.

"But those old days are over."

"It is a remarkable thing," reflects Sanford Peterson, legislative and parliamentary scholar who is the co-author of the much-thumbed Sturgis Standard Code of Parliamentary Practice.

"Long-time secretaries and clerks have always been highly valued by legislatures not only because they know so much, but because they know what to do with that knowledge."

"But increasingly," Peterson adds, "those same people and their staffs are feeling hard-pressed, because now they have to know everything about the future, as well as the past and the present. They have to have a feel for the demands of tomorrow especially with the advent of the new technology. And that's a tough job for anyone.

"It's really become a bifurcated role," remarks Patrick Flahaven, sec-retary of the Minnesota Senate. "On the one hand, we have a responsibility for the traditional operations of the Legislature--making sure the procedure is correct, that the statutes and constitution are observed, record-keeping and that sort of thing. On the other hand, we have this new demand that requires us to improve the process and use technology to make things better.

"That makes you a guardian of the past and of the future at the same time."

For King, the dual challenges of past and future have meant welcoming and encouraging a wired Capitol that sees individual members receiving upwards of 400 or more e-mail messages from constituents and lobbyists per day. She's also instituted video conferences featuring policy planning sessions and "town hall" meetings between a member who may still be at work in Austin and the residents from his district in El Paso or Laredo or Houston.

"Every interim we have improved our computer system for the staff," King explains. "And we try also to improve their accessibility to all of the new information that is out there in order to make it easier for them to separate what they need from what they don't. …

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