Senator Deb Peters
South Dakota Senator Deb Peters is the nation’s leading legislative voice on internet tax fairness, an issue with tremendous budgetary consequences for states across the nation. She’s testified before Congress on the issue and is fed up with congressional inertia, which is causing a loss to states of some $23 billion a year. She has sponsored a bill she hopes ultimately will provoke a U.S. Supreme Court decision in the states’ favor.
Peters, a fourth-term Republican senator, is NCSL’s new president. Her determination in pursuing the federal legislation comes as no surprise to her supporters and colleagues. A certified public accountant and chair of her state’s Government Operations and Audit Committee, Peters always has her eye on the bottom line—and in this case, the bottom line of the 45 states with the sales tax.
Leading the Effort
For more than a decade, Peters has led this national tax fairness effort. But after watching the Remote Transactions Parity Act in the House and the Marketplace Fairness Act in the Senate languish in congressional committees, she decided she’d had enough.
“I’ve played nice with Congress, I’ve been respectful of the system, I’ve been respectful of the process. I am done.”
In 2016, she introduced state legislation allowing South Dakota to collect internet sales taxes. She worked with her governor and state businesses to write the measure so that it would fast-track the expected lawsuit through the courts. She says it was her “nuclear option”—and it had the desired effect: South Dakota sued four online retailers, who then countersued the state, and the case is now in the South Dakota Supreme Court, with a hearing date of Aug. 29. If it makes it to the U.S. Supreme Court—the end of 2017 or early next year is a great possibility—Peters is hoping it will reverse the 1992 Quill Corp. v. North Dakota case that restricts states’ ability to collect sales taxes from retailers with no physical presence within their borders.
Her hard work on the national stage led Governing magazine to name her one of its 2016 Public Officials of the Year.
But her drive as a legislator comes from her love for her home state and a desire to see others succeed in business, as she has. Most major issues lawmakers face on a daily basis, she says, “are trying to keep the efficient programs running well and fix the glitches or find more efficiencies” in the ones that don’t. “Rarely will you see South Dakota take a major risk with taxpayers’ money,” she says.
Building on NCSL’s Strengths
Peters got involved with NCSL as soon as she took office in the South Dakota House in 2005. Since then, she’s served on numerous NCSL committees. Before her election as the organization’s vice president in August 2015, Peters was co-chair of the standing committees.
Along with continued work on e-fairness, Peters wants to boost involvement in NCSL. “I don’t care if you’re Republican or Democrat, I want you involved,” she says. “And then I want more women on both sides.”
She also wants to build on NCSL’s strengths, which she says include research, expert testimony and other in-state assistance efforts; the grant programs and various task forces; and communications. The challenge, she says, is converting success in those areas into involvement in the “core business of the standing committees.”
“How do you translate the grant information, like fiscal leaders’ grants and labor and economics grants and all the fun stuff that we’re doing there, into the business meetings, because the participation and attendance are so low?”
Taking the Bull by the Horns
Peters’ leadership style leans on consensus building—to a point. There are times, she says, when you just need to be firm. “I mean, e-fairness, for instance, I was all about building consensus, putting names on a paper to get prime sponsors on bills and move them forward.” Until they stopped moving. “We have the consensus, but we’re still not pushing the bill across the finish line. It hits a point in time when you’ve just got to take the bull by the horns and get to work, right?”
Peters has a lot planned for her year at the helm of the organization. If her past accomplishments are any predictor, NCSL is bound to achieve great things this year.
“My nickname is Honey Badger for a reason,” Peters says. “I work hard. I make the tough decisions. And I make people work hard. I maintain high expectations of people and I expect achievements.”
Chuck Truesdell began his career in journalism at a newspaper an hour from where he was working on his political science degree at the University of Kentucky. Soon the exhausting commute began to weigh on him, and he started searching for a job closer to home.
“As it happened, one of my coworkers at the newspaper was the daughter of our state representative,” Truesdell says. Eventually, the representative invited him to come work for the legislature. Truesdell accepted the offer, and after a couple of months had a permanent position with the public information office, where he worked for eight years.
In a Bit of a Rut
With the Kentucky Legislature split between Democrats and Republicans, bills were introduced year after year in one chamber only to die in the other, and Truesdell found himself writing the same speeches and press releases over and over. “I got into a bit of a rut. ... I couldn’t think of new words to say. I couldn’t rephrase things anymore.” He adds, “And, to be honest, I don’t think I was the best speech writer.”
So he went back to the University of Kentucky, got a master’s in public financial management and made the transition to the budget office. “I fell in love with the idea of working for the budget office, partly because I enjoy spreadsheets and numbers,” he says, “but also because that’s where the action is.” And his communications experience was part of why he was hired. “You need to know not just numbers, but how to communicate what those numbers mean.”
The most challenging part of his job is explaining it to people. “My parents still think I work for the governor,” he says, laughing. “I have never worked in the executive branch.”
He has found that many people don’t realize the complex network that exists within the legislative branch. “I think a lot of people think of the legislature as the elected officials and that’s it, and there’s a lot of support network behind the legislators to get them the information they need.” Truesdell doesn’t mind working behind the scenes, however.
“I think there are very few legislative staffers who would even entertain the idea of running for the legislature. It’s happened, but most of us really enjoy the policy details and a lot of us are uncomfortable with the spotlight. … And it takes both actually to make a strong legislative institution.”
One of Truesdell’s core missions as NCSL’s legislative staff chair is to spread the word about NCSL as a resource for legislative staff, many of whom, like Truesdell himself at one time, don’t realize they are members. “My very first exposure to NCSL was the LINCS full-day speech-writing boot camp in 2005. I was blown away. I saw a whole new world of professional development in front of me.” What’s more, “I met staffers from North Carolina, from Florida, from New Hampshire, from Mississippi, from Wyoming … I never realized how vastly different each legislative staff agency was.”
Truesdell went on to serve as LINCS chair in 2010-11 and received the group’s Staff Achievement Award. He has served on numerous committees and was appointed to serve as overall staff co-chair of the NCSL Standing Committees in 2011-12.
One of his goals as staff chair is to get more staffers engaged in NCSL. “I want to push people out of their comfort zone … and develop formal strategies for mentorships, for encouraging people to run for the executive committee within their staff sections, to run for officer positions on the standing committees. And that will filter up, as it were, because NCSL is really a ground-up organization.”
His other major goal is to continue developing NCSL’s Young and New Professionals program. He wants to get young people involved with state legislatures and provide the professional development opportunities that entice them to stay. “How can we better serve the needs of people just entering the legislature? Because their needs are different than folks who are at midlevel in their career or five years from retirement.”
Hard Worker Who Can Take a Joke
Truesdell says his coworkers would describe him as a hard worker who can take a joke. “I take public policy and the work I do very, very seriously. I don’t take myself seriously at all. I am the one person that you can poke fun at … and lord knows, my coworkers love to needle me.” He urges other legislative staffers not to be intimidated by NCSL officers or the size of the organization.
“If there’s anything about NCSL that interests you, call somebody, ask somebody. We always welcome more people getting involved. And the more people we can get involved, I think the better off democracy is.”
Kevin Frazzini is the assistant editor of State Legislatures magazine; Olivia Berlin is a Colorado College student who interned with the magazine.