NCSL has devoted this week, May 3-7, to celebrating the more than 30,000 staff who work in state legislatures across the nation. Check out our lineup of events, and please share a shoutout or two about your colleagues.
We connected with NCSL’s three staff officers to get the week started. NCSL Staff Chair Martha Wigton is the director of Georgia’s House Budget and Research Office; Staff Vice Chair J.J. Gentry is the counsel for the South Carolina Senate; and Immediate Past Staff Chair Jon Heining is the general counsel with the Texas Legislative Council. Here’s what they had to say.
This is the fourth May in a row that NCSL has recognized legislative staff. What does this week mean to you?
Wigton: It’s nice to pause and take a moment to let people know they are valued. To say that the work you’ve done, though you may not be in front of the cameras, contributes to something important. Staff do so much and make everything run. I appreciate that staff have chosen this as a career. It is a valuable career.
Gentry: It’s great that NCSL appreciates legislative staff, who may not always receive a lot of accolades. It shows that NCSL recognizes legislative staff are just as important as legislators. I value that NCSL does not distinguish between staff and legislators in terms of the dedication to service.
Heining: The cool thing about this week is it’s the celebration of the people who are behind the scenes. There are a lot of hot-button issues right now that make for challenging discussions. Staff Week is a celebration of the people that make it possible to have those discussions.
Who do you want to give a shoutout to this year?
Wigton: I really want to give a huge shoutout to the entire Georgia team. We all worked together to make sure things were seamless for our members and that the public had access to everything we do. We were down a few people because of budget cuts, so everybody chipped in like a real team and it was fabulous to watch. In particular, I want to single out Molly Aziz, our analyst for the Special Committee on Election Integrity. Everyone knows that Georgia was sort of at the forefront of voter security and election reforms for the nation. That attention can cause a lot of pressure for staff. Molly handled it beautifully to ensure that every work product was impeccably done. She represented us to the entire nation in a way I couldn’t have improved on at all. She was exceptional. That’s what our public expects and that’s what they got. Go Molly!
Gentry: I want to make sure we show appreciation for Martha Wigton, because she is, for the first time ever in NCSL’s history (and thanks to the pandemic), serving her term as staff chair for two years. That’s a big deal and she’s done a fantastic job continuing to run things. This has been a trying time, and she not only exceeded the commitment she made to NCSL, she headed up a very serious budget back home in Georgia, not to mention the elections work. Accolades to you, Martha!
Heining: I have deep appreciation for NCSL for making us so successful over this past year. I also want to give a shoutout to the Texas Legislative Council IT shop, which did an amazing job of supporting us and making sure the entire legislative branch could succeed.
The past year has been particularly challenging for legislative staff. What advice or encouragement do you have for your peers across the country?
Wigton: Every year is challenging! Going back to our Founding Fathers, it was extremely challenging to try to craft a democracy that really held to the tenets of the things that we value the most, in terms of the ability for every voice to be heard. Now, we are looking at how that will be crafted for the future, what form it will have, how it will work given new technologies. While it is extremely challenging, it is also really exciting to know you are a part of this opportunity to shape the future. We like our traditions, but we can also create new traditions.
Gentry: My advice is to connect to NCSL. No matter where you are working, at the capitol, at home or both, you can take advantage of the resources from NCSL. You can access it wherever you go. The value of NCSL is both the research and policy information you can access and the connections you make. I can connect with staff in other states if I have questions about their laws.
Heining: Every session, I have a conversation with a staffer who says this is the hardest session that has ever happened. This year is really the hardest session that’s ever happened. And we can look forward to the next session, which will undoubtedly be the hardest session we’ve ever experienced. I’m really excited to see how staff will adjust and overcome whatever challenges they will face in the next hardest session.
What makes you proud about working in a legislature and with your colleagues?
Wigton: Staff embody collaborative work every day, and that makes me proud.
Gentry: I think legislative staff and NCSL have not missed a beat this past year, no matter what has happened. The work is absolutely getting done.
Heining: What makes working for a legislature so exciting is we are a place where solutions actually take place. It has become so difficult for the federal government to pass legislation, so it is left to states to have those discussions and work out issues on behalf of their constituents. We don’t have a choice. That’s why I find the job of working for the legislature to be so compelling. Not to mention my co-workers! Whenever we have someone come in to work with our office, they are floored by the total commitment to teamwork and working with one another that our agency has. We are totally committed to making the legislature look good and completing the mission.
Katie Ziegler is a program director for outreach and communications at NCSL.