During a career spanning nearly 40 years with the Nebraska Legislature, Nancy Cyr championed the concept that legislative staff work is meaningful.
“I love that it is a dynamic learning environment focused on doing good work,” says Cyr, who recently retired to Florida with her husband, Doug. “It is truly always a learning environment. I learned something new every day of my legislative career.”
I learned something new every day of my legislative career. —Nancy Cyr
From an early age, Cyr dreamed of being a lawyer, a profession she thought would open doors. She participated in a criminal law clinic in the county attorney’s office in Lancaster, Neb., which convinced her she wanted to do something other than traditional trial work. Instead, after law school, she became a bill drafter in the Nebraska Legislature and served in that capacity for 10 years. When her son was diagnosed with cancer, she accepted a part-time analyst position with the Nebraska Legislative Research Office, which allowed her to care for him while still working in the Legislature. Once her son recovered, Cyr returned to full-time work, eventually becoming senior legal counsel for the office.
For Cyr, the attraction of legislative research was the opportunity to take a deep dive into an issue. “With bill drafting, sometimes the urgency of the session means you don’t have time to really dig into the topic or issue and look at all angles or possibilities,” she says. “As a policy researcher, you do have that time, and you can look at a subject from a lot of perspectives. It really allowed me to dig more into the elements of the law and use (my) analysis skills.”
Cyr’s work with the research office led to one of her most consequential roles: staff to the redistricting committees in 2001 and again in 2011. As the only legislative attorney to have worked with the committee during the prior redistricting cycle, she tried to provide the members with a solid legal foundation and help them build on that to develop a new plan. It was a daunting task, but the Legislature completed its work, and there were no subsequent legal challenges.
When Cyr became director of the office in 2010, she encouraged her staff to be proactive in producing policy reports. “In fact, our office won the NCSL Notable Documents Award three years in a row for our ‘Backgrounder’ reports” from 2018 to 2020, she says.
Teaming Up With NCSL
Cyr’s first experiences with NCSL came in 1991 at the Senior Bill Drafting Seminar in Gainesville, Fla., and a meeting for directors in Panama City, Fla. The meetings got her hooked on NCSL and what the organization had to offer. But most significantly, they showed her that her peers really saw working for their legislatures as a career, not just a job.
Cyr was a longtime member of the Legal Services Staff Section before serving as its chair in 2004 and becoming involved with the Legislative Staff Coordinating Committee, NCSL’s staff advisory board. By the time she became NCSL’s staff chair, in 2009, Cyr knew she wanted to help others see legislative work as a career. She expanded opportunities and services for legislative staff by providing programs and tools designed to be educational, useful and sustainable.
During her yearlong term and under her guidance, the LSCC launched the Legislative Staff University and held its first webinar, “Writing for the Legislative Audience.” An audience of over 900 staffers from 47 states participated in the webinar, which was co-sponsored by the LSCC, all of NCSL’s staff sections (now called professional staff associations) as well as the Legislative Education Staff Network.
“We were able to show the potential of webinars and the impact and outreach they can have when you have the right presenters to reach legislative staff all over the country,” Cyr says. “The Legislative Staff University has stood the test of time.”
Cyr also worked with NCSL to create a website offering a series of videos promoting legislative service.
“Working for the Nebraska Legislature and … with NCSL taught me that legislative service is a good, honorable profession—and it is indeed a profession,” Cyr says. “NCSL always served to energize me, and I always brought back enthusiasm, new ideas and a new respect for my job. It was a great partnership in that way.”
Kae Warnock is a policy specialist in NCSL’s Legislative Staff Services Program and is the NCSL liaison to the Research, Editorial, Legal and Committee Staff (RELACS) and the National Association of Legislative Information Technology (NALIT) professional associations.
This story was first published in the Summer 2021 edition of State Legislatures magazine.