staffhub 2022 Sabrina Lewellen Jay Hartz Keenan Konopaski José Luis Galarza Garcia Toi Hutchinson

Discussing the vital roles staff play in the legislative institution were, from left, Sabrina Lewellen, Jay Hartz, Keenan Konopaski, José Luis Galarza Garcia and Toi Hutchinson, who moderated the session.

Piecing Together the Many Roles of Legislative Staff

By Lesley Kennedy | Oct. 10, 2022 | State Legislatures News | Print

ATLANTA—It’s not often that session titles get shoutouts from meeting speakers, but during “The Mosaic of Legislative Staff: How We Fit Together”—the opening general session of NCSL’s StaffHub ATL 2022—it was noted more than once that “mosaic” was an excellent description.

Unlike a “melting pot,” in which different groups join to form one thing, “mosaics are individual little tiles that make up this whole picture, and you all are a very, very beautiful picture,” says moderator Toi Hutchinson, former NCSL president, Illinois state senator and chief of staff.

Mosaics are individual little tiles that make up this whole picture, and you all are a very, very beautiful picture.” —Toi Hutchinson, former NCSL president

Held in a standing room-only ballroom in downtown Atlanta Monday morning, the session brought together legislative staff from across the states and territories for a glimpse at the inner workings and commonalities of a variety of staff roles and the parts they play in the legislative institution.

“The statehouses don’t work, policy does not get moved, stuff does not get drafted … Nothing happens without you all. I always, always knew that I couldn’t be an A-team player in this game if I didn’t have A-team folks around me, and you all are the embodiment of all of that,” Hutchinson says.

Keenan Konopaski, legislative auditor for the Washington Legislature, helped fill in the blanks on how the audit evaluation functions, with every state doing something a little different.

“I ran into the great state auditor for Georgia in the audience before we started,” he says, “and we were both commenting, ‘Once you’ve met one legislative auditor, you’ve met one legislative auditor.’”

Building Trust

Konopaski’s team reports to a bipartisan bicameral committee, assisting in the Legislature’s role of overseeing the executive branch and performing conformance audits.

“One thing that’s really important for our office—and probably pretty consistent with most of the other states—is we really see ourselves as this arbiter of helping members find out what’s happening based on evidence,” he says. “When we do that, we are very objective. We try to make sure that when we enter into any evaluation, we aren’t presuming that any agency is performing poorly, and we aren’t presuming that they are performing great. We really try to let the evidence lead us to what the conclusions are.”

As a result, the nonpartisan status of the office is key, he adds. “We’re extra careful to make sure it doesn’t appear we’re advocating for or against a legislative policy or the administration of an agency.”

Jay Hartz, director of Kentucky’s Legislative Research Commission, agrees. He says the full-service organization with about 350 permanent staff provides nonpartisan support to all members of the General Assembly, on everything from taking messages from constituents to investigating school board hiring decisions to drafting tax policy to making sure if you want to hang a new picture in your office, that picture ends up where you want it.

“Because we provide services to all members, they know that if they ask one of us a question, they will get the same answer whether they’re minority, majority or the chairman of the committee or not even on the committee,” he says. “They’re going to get the same level of service and the same answer to the same question. It’s that knowledge that builds the trust that we need to be able to do our jobs.”

‘Changing Lives’

José Luis Galarza Garcia, director of the Office of Counselors to the Senate President in Puerto Rico, says there is no place he feels more comfortable than in a legislative role.

“Every single amendment that you draft, every single policy that you draft, you’re changing lives, you’re affecting the economy of the community or state,” he says. “So, you have a lot of responsibility in your hands and that responsibility needs to be shared with your team.”

And even with a diverse group of legislators and staff, he adds, Puerto Rico passes most bills that are introduced.

“That speaks to that will of the people to come to understandings and come to agreements for the benefit of others, no matter where they sit—on the right or the left or the center—on any issue, because some are very liberal in one thing and very conservative in other things,” he says. “We are small—small budget, small branch of government—but we are the voice of the people, and when a member of the House or the Senate chooses us to be part of his team, he’s transferring to us that responsibility.”

‘Every Single American Needs You’

Sabrina Lewellen, deputy director and assistant secretary of the Arkansas Senate and the NCSL staff vice chair, also points to her state’s nonpartisan staff, “where everyone receives the same great service every single day.”

And that service, she adds, is crucial, especially in these hyperpartisan times.

“Democracy is delicate,” she says. “All of you are required for its sustainability—period. If you are not doing your job, who is going to do your job? Every single American needs you. It certainly feels shaky, and there are days that are so ugly sometimes. But it does not change the fact that the service that you give, the time, the talent, the treasure you invest, is required for the furtherance of our nation and the stability of our country.”

And on those days, when you just want to wave the white flag, Lewellen says she hopes you’ll do things to support yourself—as a human.

“Get a trust tribe, take vacations, separate from the space that you love, that you give and that you invest in so much, so that you can come back renewed and refreshed. Because your presence and your service and your dedication are required,” she says. “There is no United States of America without you.”

Lesley Kennedy is a director in NCSL’s Communications Division.

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