People and Politics: September 2009
New president. Senator Don Balfour, chairman of the powerful Rules Committee and Georgia’s longest serving Senate Republican, is the new president of the National Conference of State Legislatures. Balfour, a 17-year veteran of the Georgia Senate, is a business executive and board member of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce. He has led the fight to make Georgia’s ethics laws, eminent domain laws and immigration laws among the strongest in the nation. His son, Trey, is currently serving in the Georgia National Guard in Afghanistan.
New staff chair. Nancy Cyr, senior legal counsel for the Nebraska Legislative Research Office, is the new staff chair of NCSL. Cyr has served the Nebraska Legislature since 1981. As legal counsel, she provides nonpartisan legal and policy research for Nebraska legislators and staff. Previously, she served in the bill drafting office, first as a bill drafter, then as assistant reviser of statutes. Active in NCSL for more than 20 years, she is a member of the Legal Services Staff Section, where she has held several leadership positions and received the staff section’s achievement award in 2007.
A Florida statesman. Jim King, the former president of the Florida Senate widely recognized as one of the state’s most powerful politicians, died from pancreatic cancer in July at age 69. A Republican, he served in the Legislature for 23 years and was recognized as a statesman who transcended partisanship. He was the key champion of the state’s death-with-dignity law, which prevented a reinsertion of a feeding tube to keep Terri Schiavo alive against the wishes of her husband. He voted with the Democrats and said at the time, “I think Terri’s better off in heaven than in bed.” A man of great girth and humor, King said it was a “mid-life crisis” that led him into politics. Hailed as the “lion of the Senate,” his chief of staff, Gus Corbella, said, “His heart was bigger than his waistline. … He was a character of such great character.”
Like son, like father. Don Svaty, the newest member of the Kansas House of Representatives, is following his son Josh’s footsteps. He was named to replace Josh Svaty who in July was tapped by Governor Mark Parkinson to become the new state secretary of agriculture. A 65-year-old farmer and former teacher, Svaty said he plans to run for the seat in the 2010 election.
Investigation. First-term New Jersey Assemblyman Daniel Van Pelt resigned from the Legislature in July under the cloud of an FBI corruption sting. He is accused of taking a $10,000 bribe from an informant posing as a developer in exchange for promising to help win environmental permits. Assembly Speaker Joseph Roberts suspended pay and benefits for Van Pelt following his arrest and that of Assemblyman L. Harvey Smith, who allegedly accepted $15,000 in the sting.
Palin's successor. Alaska’s new Republican governor has been in office a month, but his popularity beats his predecessor and vice presidential candidate by some 20 points. Sean Parnell began his political career in the Alaska House in 1992 at age 29 and served there for two terms before moving to the Senate in 1996. His father also served in the Alaska House. Parnell, who was the lieutenant governor, moved into the top job July 26 when former Governor Sarah Palin stepped down. His approval rating is 66.5 percent. Palin’s was 46.8 percent when she left office.
Corruption sentence. A powerful Pennsylvania senator has been sentenced to 55 months in federal prison following his conviction on 137 counts of corruption in defrauding the Senate, tax fraud and obstruction of justice. Vincent Fumo, former chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, was convicted of misspending more than $2 million in Senate money and $1.5 million from a nonprofit and a museum. Senate staffers testified that he had them run his farm and his finances, oversee renovations at his mansion, create campaign material and do other work. Fumo, who resigned from the Senate in December, lost his state pension of $100,500 per year when he was convicted.
Another California clash. California legislative leaders challenged the legality of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s line-item vetoes of a budget bill passed in July aimed at closing the state’s serious gap. The governor made the vetoes, stating that legislators approved a budget with a “$156 million negative reserve” because they rejected two measures to raise revenue, one to take gas tax money from local governments and the second to allow drilling off Santa Barbara. Schwarzenegger also insisted the budget include a $500 million reserve, so he vetoed $489 million in line items. Assembly Speaker Karen Bass said the vetoes will have “catastrophic effects on children, domestic abuse victims and seniors.” Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg said the budget revision package included a satisfactory reserve. “We question whether the majority of these vetoes are legal. This is not the last word.” The state had issued 209,000 IOUs worth $1.08 billion by the end of July.