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RELACS Report | Summer 2020

July 13, 2020

Letter from the Chair

Hello, RELACS members!

On behalf of the RELACS executive committee—Fred Messerer, vice chair; Anne Sappenfield, immediate past chair; and directors Matthew Coke, Mark Cutrona, Erica Warren, Rachael Weiss, Matt Gehring, Betsy Howerton, Michael Queensland and Brett Ferguson—I hope this newsletter finds you and your families healthy. We had hoped to see many of you at upcoming meetings this year, but as you know many have been postponed due to COVID-19 social distancing mandates and related factors.

NCSL has already announced that it is postponing the 2020 Legislative Summit that was scheduled for Aug. 10-13 in Indianapolis. The organization plans to return to the city in 2023.

After careful review, the RELACS executive committee made some tough decisions. We discussed the challenges that the RELACS officers have had this year in serving the association. Usually, the chair and vice chair travel to NCSL Legislative Staff Coordinating Committee meetings to represent RELACS, and our annual business meeting has always been held at the Legislative Summit. However, all of these physical meetings have been cancelled for the year. We feel it is important to maintain the continuity of the association until we can meet in person again. Because of these factors, we decided to delay the RELACS annual election and business meeting until 2021. Members of the executive committee will remain in their positions until we can meet next year at the NCSL Legislative Summit in Chicago.

As many of you know, RELACS had planned to participate in the Staff Hub 2020 in Atlanta, Ga. Due to the COVID-19 crisis, Staff Hub ATL 2020 has been postponed to 2022. The officers of the six participating professional staff associations, and the Georgia Host Committee, have worked together for many months to put together a framework for planning the meeting and developing a robust program. They are excited to be able to hold this seminar at a future date and to bring NCSL’s professional staff associations together again in planning a meeting for legislative staff, by legislative staff.

The RELACS executive committee felt it was important to examine the contract for the 2021 RELACS meeting as legislative budgets next year may not allow for travel. We decided to postpone the 2021 RELACS Professional Development Seminar, scheduled for October in Minneapolis, Minn., to Sept. 18-22, 2023. We are grateful to the Minnesota host committee for helping us delay the meeting.

In the meantime, our 2020 goal is to bring you numerous professional development opportunities via various virtual platforms that enable innovative presentation capabilities and opportunities for live discussion and collaboration.

Beginning in July, we will present a series of virtual events that includes three webinars and several discussions via Zoom. The discussions will cover topics such as constitutional issues related to remote sessions; legislative oversight of emergency powers; electronic tools for editors; redesigning written reports for online viewing; and reading and evaluating research. Please check our calendar of virtual events for more information.

Despite the postponement of in-person meetings, as your chair, I will endeavor to provide you with programming for the coming year that is timely, informative and representative of the challenges we all face during this unprecedented time.

Jamie Shanks
Legislative Attorney
Tennessee General Assembly

Upcoming RELACS and NCSL Meetings

The Research, Editorial, Legal and Committee Staff (RELACS) professional association invites you to a series of three professional development meetings. All legislative staff are welcome to attend.

Sept. 1 | Let’s Zoom

3 p.m. ET/ 2 p.m. CT/ 1 p.m. MT/ Noon PT

Take a crash course in Zoom. Learn to navigate basic and advanced Zoom operations to better facilitate remote meetings in 2020 and beyond. Learn tips and tricks to make your next meeting a success. Learn the settings that will enhance security, how to share your screen and use PowerPoint, run a Zoom poll, and run breakout rooms for your participants. Bring your questions and leave with a better understanding about how to effectively use the platform. 

Speaker | Kae M. Warnock, policy specialist, Legislative Staff Services, NCSL

To register please email RELACS (This meeting is open to legislators and legislative staff only.)

Sept. 11 | Emergency Powers and Legislative Oversight

3 p.m. ET/ 2 p.m. CT/ 1 p.m. MT/ Noon PT

Most governors issued emergency declarations this year regarding COVID-19. In many states, the laws regarding executive emergency powers were put in place when state constitutions were first drafted. Until the pandemic reached the United States, however, these executive powers had not been tested rigorously. What questions should legislatures be asking about these laws? Does a legislature have authority to intervene in a public health crisis as quickly and completely as it may want or need to? This session will examine existing emergency powers and efforts by lawmakers to exercise legislative oversight.

Moderator | Tom Bottern, director, Senate Counsel, Research and Fiscal Analysis, Minnesota


  • Raúl E. Burciaga, director, Legislative Council Service, New Mexico
  • Julie Pelegrin, deputy director, Office of Legislative Legal Services, Colorado
  • Claire Ness, counsel, Legislative Council, North Dakota
  • Emily Thompson, code revisor, Legislative Council, North Dakota
  • Vonette J. Richter, legal division director, Legislative Council, North Dakota
  • Andrea Brauer, staff attorney, Legislative Council, Wisconsin

To register please email RELACS (This meeting is open to legislators and legislative staff only.)

Sept. 30 | Virtual Events: Engagement Is Key

3 p.m. ET/ 2 p.m. CT/ 1 p.m. MT/ Noon PT

In the COVID-19 era, much of our work has moved online. Most of our legislative business, from meetings to presentations to constituent interactions, exists in the virtual world. This reality requires a new way of thinking about participant engagement. You’ll gain a set of online best practices designed to increase the impact and efficacy of your online interactions.

Speaker | Curt Stedron, director of legislative training, NCSL

To register please email RELACS (This meeting is open to legislators and legislative staff only.)

Other NCSL Virtual Events

NCSL is holding additional virtual meetings in September. Please visit these pages for more information.

Sept. 1 | Political Digital Ads: Disclosure, Free Speech and Legislation | 2 p.m. ET/ 1 p.m. CT/Noon MT/11 a.m. PT

Learn about the current state of digital campaign ads, including how global entities such as Facebook, Twitter and Google are adapting to different states' requirements. The speakers will present different perspectives on ensuring free speech while maintaining transparency.

Sept. 3 | Where Money and Free Speech Intersect | 2 p.m. ET/ 1 p.m. CT/Noon MT/11 a.m. PT

With technological advancements, an evolving legal landscape and changing political tactics, how are states ensuring transparency at the same time they’re protecting free speech? Learn about state efforts to regulate money in politics and when those efforts bump into free speech.

Sept. 15-17 | NCSL Base Camp 2020

This event is a three-day experience providing unique opportunities to engage with national thought leaders, ask burning questions and walk away with new ideas, covering every angle of state policy. For more information, visit NCSL Base Camp 2020.

RELACS is Proud to Announce the 2020 recipents of the Legislative Staff Achievement Awards

Tanya Lieberman, chief consultant, California Assembly Committee on Education

The Research, Editorial, Legal and Committee Staff (RELACS) association is proud to select Tanya Lieberman to receive the Legislative Staff Achievement Award for her outstanding contribution to the Committee on Education, the California Legislature and the field of K-12 education. Tanya has served on the Committee for five years, assuming the role of chief consultant in 2018.

Tanya’s work bringing together researchers, practitioners and policy makers to improve each groups work is a testament to her professionalism, competence and integrity. Tanya creates connections between these groups and creates an environment for her staff to do the same. Tanya identified a need to improve the policy proposals from member offices. Her multi-pronged approach included ways to support junior staff via mentoring, committee open houses, time with committee consultants, best practices workshops and ways to officially recognize outstanding staff work. These initiatives have proven highly successful and have been adopted by other committees in the legislature.

Tanya was asked by the Office of the Speaker of the Assembly to serve in a leadership capacity in the development of overall professional staff development throughout the Assembly. Her leadership among committee chief’s is apparent in her advocacy for initiatives to improve professional learning, communications and the policy process within the State Assembly. From completing committee analyses on a range of education topics to her commitment to take on several fellows from the California Science Fellows Program and deep expertise in the areas of special education and English Language Learners, Tanya’s commitment to quality work, professionalism and other’s learning and professional development is unparalleled.

Tanya contributes to the work of NCSL as ECS co-chair of the Legislative Education Staff Network where she not only shares California’s experience and lessons, but also brings fresh innovative ideas back to the Assembly as evidenced by the development of new rubrics and onboarding techniques to more effectively recruit, interview and onboard new staff.

Mark Andrews, policy analyst, Office of Legislative Research and General Counsel, Utah Legislature

The Research, Editorial, Legal and Committee Staff (RELACS) association proudly selects Mark Andrews to receive the Legislative Staff Achievement Award for his professionalism, competence, integrity and commitment to public service. During his more than 30 years of service to the Utah Legislature, Mark has served as a policy analyst most of those years staffing the health and human services subject area.

Mark is the go-to for both subject area expertise in health and human services and improving the legislative process.  Mark was a key staffer in coordinating public hearings on the politically sensitive topics of medical cannabis and Medicaid expansion. He constantly seeks to improve the legislative processes by making information available to members and always asking how legislative staff can support the democratic process. He has provided rigorous, neutral and nonpartisan information and options for consideration when lawmakers are tacking complex legislation related to health care price transparency and pharmacy benefit managers, and so much more.

Mark’s professionalism, integrity and commitment to serve the legislature and its constituents make him a model for his peers. His openness to new ideas and eagerness to learn keeps him continuously looking for means of improvement personally, as a team and the legislative institution. During the chaos of the COVID-19 response, Mark’s methodical approach to problem solving has been meaningful and appreciated by his team. Not only is Mark dedicated to the Utah Legislature and his team but also to NCSL as evidenced by his long-time participation in the former Legislative Health Staff Network and continued participation in RELACS.

The Year Ahead

By Fred Messerer, Principal Deputy Legislative Counsel, California and Vice Chair, RELACS

I’m here to tell you that 2021 will be the year! I’m calling it right now. Why am I so confident about 2021? It’s because of all of you.

I know what you’re thinking—we all said the same thing about 2020, then the world happened! Thinking back to our 2019 PDS in Santa Fe, I knew 2020 was going to be incredible. Our PDS had a huge attendance and amazing presentations, thanks to Kae Warnock and her NCSL team. Raúl Burciaga and the staff of the New Mexico Legislative Council Service were so accommodating as host state. I went to Santa Fe with some good friends, like my co-worker Richard Mafrica, who had been out of the office battling a prolonged illness and had only recently come back to work. I met some new friends, like our chair, Jamie Shanks of Tennessee. I even met some longtime, online friends for the first time in person, like the Wisconsin crew of Wendy Jackson and Anne Sappenfield. And we’d be ending 2020 with the Super PDS in Atlanta!

On the eve of 2020, I felt that the coming year was going to be the best I’d ever had in my quarter century of practicing law.

But 2020 would have other ideas. On the eve of COVID-19, our co-worker and friend Richard lost his battle. He was 34 years old. Richard left behind a wonderful spouse, a loving family and colleagues who would forever have a hole in their hearts. Two weeks later, my office would shift to remote work. Then the economy crashed, friends and family were exposed to and died from COVID-19, there was the killing of George Floyd and others, state budgets were slashed, people couldn’t get timely access to unemployment benefits and social services, and wildfires raged in the West.

Admittedly, my spirits have been low most of the year. I spent many an online meeting with my team of bill-drafting attorneys here in California putting on a brave face.

Then NCSL Base Camp 2020 happened.

Reconnecting with the RELACS community was what I needed. Chatting with all of you during presentations made me more engaged than I’ve been in months. Seeing Tanya Lieberman of my home state and Mark Andrews of Utah being awarded the Legislative Staff Achievement Awards made my day. I even had Jon Heining of Texas explain the “sweet tea line” to me during a Western states networking session. I had no idea it was a thing and that Texas was still part of the West!

What happened next I did not expect. I listened to Jessica Buchanan share her ordeal as a hostage of Somali pirates. I openly wept at my keyboard. For one of the few times in my adult life, I was at a complete loss for words. I thought about how 2020 had impacted my life, and I realized that this year for me has been nothing compared to what Jessica Buchanan endured. She ended her presentation with this simple truth: “Change is an invitation for collaboration.”

After the presentation was over, I smiled. A deep smile. For there is no group of people I’d rather collaborate with than the RELACS community! And when I took a second look back at our 2019 PDS and what made the eve of 2020 so special, it was my connection to all of you.

Right then and there, I made my peace with 2020. I spent the rest of the day after the end of Base Camp reconnecting with friends I hadn’t seen in a while, like Jerry Howe of Utah, who has taught me more about being a gracious legislative manager than anyone else. I owe him a lot. Thank you, Jerry!

So, to my RELACS family, I’m here to tell you all that 2021 will be the year. I’m confident there is nothing we can’t do in 2021. I’m motivated for tomorrow. 2021 starts today! I owe this to all of you. Thank you!

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