Q and A with Senator Don Balfour

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NCSL's new president talks about the challenges in the year ahead.

Georgia Senator Don Balfour is the new president of the National Conference of State Legislatures, a post he assumed in July. Balfour succeeded North Carolina House Speaker Joe Hackney.

Balfour was first elected to the Georgia Senate from the ninth district in 1992 and has served consecutively for more than 17 years. He is also the longest serving Republican in the state Senate. In addition, he serves on the Appropriations Committee, Education and Youth Committee, and the Health and Human Services Committee. Over the past few years, Balfour has worked to strengthen the immigration laws in Georgia, which has some of the strongest laws in the nation.

Balfour talked with State Legislatures magazine about the year ahead.

State Legislatures: Describe your leadership style and how that might affect your role leading the organization in the next year?

Senator Balfour:  MBWA: Management by Walking Around. In the restaurant business you need to be where the food is, where the service is, and where the cash register is to get the best understanding of your custumer. Being active and present in the community is vital to understanding the needs of your constituents. If government is to make changes, or if cutbacks are necessary, we need to be aware of how government services work in relation to our communities. This ensures that we make the proper decision on how these programs will benefit us.

With this in mind, I look forward to working with as many state legislators as possible to encourage growth within in the organization. We should strive to have a positive and lasting impact on the future of NCSL.

SL: You have an extensive business background. How will that affect how you lead NCSL?

 Senator Balfour: In this leadership role, I bring a diverse knowledge of how small businesses are both helped and hindered by government. Because of this background, it affords me the knowledge to make tough decisions, understand budget needs, and work in a timely, efficient manner.

SL: Do you see advocacy as an important role for NCSL? How do you think it helps the states?

Senator Balfour: Advocacy is the most important role of NCSL. We are the lobbying arm and states' voice to the federal government. Washington listens to and respects NCSL. It is because of this that we are able to make positive changes in legislation that benefits the needs of states. State legislators should have a strong voice in Washington on issues such as health care, transportation and education. By lobbying the federal government on issues that positively affect our states, we can ensure that legislation helps states most and when necessary, hurts states least.

SL: What issues are your priorities as you’re representing your colleagues over the next year?

Senator Balfour:  I am very excited to work with my colleagues on fundamental issues that will make each of our states a better place to live. I want to bring strong programs to each of our meetings that inspire state legislators to grow in their roles and encourage a bright future for NCSL. By learning from each other, we will be privy to a wealth of experiences that we can use to influence positive state legislation. I want to advocate new ways of learning, thinking and acting. Resources such as new media, which includes Facebook, blogs and Twitter, are successful and inexpensive tools that we can each use to build strong, effective messages within our communities.

SL: What do you think is the value of a bipartisan organization such as NCSL?

Senator Balfour:  It is very important that NCSL remain bipartisan. Bipartisanship is an invaluable instrument that allows us to have a strong, respected voice in Washington. There is a danger that if we move too far in one direction that we will lose this important tool. If we become wrapped up in hot button, emotional issues we will undoubtedly loose our effectiveness on Capitol Hill.

SL: Your son recently was deployed to Afghanistan. Does having a son in the military have an effect on how you see your role as a legislator?

Senator Balfour:  In many respects, I understand what military families across our nation are dealing with on a daily basis. I believe it is important to support those in our communities who feel the unfortunate effects of war. I can see more clearly the struggles that a young mother who is left home with three children experiences as her husband is sent off to war. I look carefully for ways that states can help these families.

During the 2008 legislative session in Georgia, I introduced SB 451, the “Protecting Georgia’s Investment Act,” which made it illegal for Georgia to invest in any companies that invested in Iran. As the Iranian government uses the profits from its oil industry to fund bombs and weapons that kill our soldiers, I wanted to send a clear message that Georgia stands behind our troops.

It is only due to my son’s position that I became fully aware of this issue. His courage and sacrifice gives me a deeper appreciation for each of our nation’s soldiers and the ways that states can do their part to help their mission.