July | August 2017

Exploring Parallel Universes in State Government

by David Byerman
If you’ve ever watched the television show “Fringe,” you’re familiar with the concept of the multiverse—parallel universes that branch off from our own, based on the decisions each of us makes every day. These parallel universes have subtle differences. In “Fringe,” a parallel universe is explored where blimps regularly carry passengers on long-distance air travel, JFK was never assassinated and Martin Luther King Jr. is commemorated on the $20 bill. It’s like our universe, only … different.
Prologue | My Parallel Universe Is Located in Frankfort, Ky.
As secretary of the Senate in Nevada for nearly five years, I oversaw operations of the Nevada Senate, with 85 session employees and a biennial budget of $21.5 million. After nearly five years with the Nevada Senate, I recently accepted a new challenge to serve as director of the Kentucky Legislative Research Commission. I now oversee operations of the Kentucky Legislature, with nearly 400 full-time employees and an annual budget of $39.6 million. The basic dynamic facing both states is similar: Legislators have been elected to do a difficult job, and the staff plays a vital role in facilitating the smooth operations of the legislature.
Since I arrived on the job in early October, I’ve learned a few key lessons on how to translate my legislative experience in Nevada to my new surroundings in Kentucky:
TIP 1 | Respect the Evolution of the Legislative Process.
Every state has evolved legislative processes to address unique challenges. Justice Louis D. Brandeis’ well-known metaphor of the states as “laboratories” for policy experiments is backed up by a veritable petri dish of legislative evolution, as each state has created legislative processes that reflect the idiosyncrasies of that state. In 99 senates and houses across the country, legislatures have evolved in different directions. For example, in Nevada, the vast distance between the state capital and 70 percent of the state’s population—430 miles between Las Vegas and Carson City—led to the implementation of live remote testimony on nearly all bills, made possible by fiber-optic connection. In Kentucky, where residents may be 300 miles away but the population is more evenly distributed across 40,000 square miles, no such video testimony is possible or even deemed necessary. Neither approach is superior; both approaches simply reflect the geography of the state. Embrace your new challenge but do so in a spirit of humility. Say “I don’t know” a lot. Ask questions. Don’t assume that processes in one state are followed in another. The generalities of our state legislatures are similar, but the specifics can be maddeningly different.
TIP 2 | Networking is a Vital Tool.
We’ve all had those “aha” moments when we’ve been talking to a colleague in another state and suddenly realize fundamental differences in the legislative process. Organizations like The Council of State Governments and its regional affiliates serve as an essential link that binds us all. It was less than one week into my tenure with the Kentucky Legislative Research Commission when Marty Garrity, my counterpart in Arkansas, reached out to welcome me. I had to laugh because this was the second consecutive time that a colleague from Arkansas had been the first to welcome me: Ann Cornwell, the secretary of the Arkansas Senate, mentored me from my earliest days with the Nevada Senate. We work in a select fraternity, and the relationships we build with our colleagues from across the country are so important to our professional development. The relationships we build through The Council of State Governments can be an invaluable resource as you explore options in other states. Make phone calls, send emails and tweets … get the inside scoop on your new home before you arrive. Doing this advance work will give you a leg up on asking good questions from day one.
TIP 3 | The People Who Staff State Legislatures are Passionate, Committed and Skilled.
For all of the differences I’ve observed between Nevada and Kentucky, one fundamental truth unites them both. People who work for state legislatures are insightful and committed, and they love their jobs. Most are nonpartisan, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t invested in the successful execution of the legislative process. Our workforces self-select for those who know that the most impactful debates in our governments occur not in the famous buildings in Washington, D.C., but in less famous state capitols in places like Carson City and Frankfort. Legislative staffs work behind the scenes, and this work is often stressful and involves long hours. But if not for that long, difficult work, the bedrock of our democracy would crumble. Your employees are your best resource. Lean on them to orient you. Schedule “get acquainted” meetings with employees representing as many different aspects of your workforce as possible. Unleash their imaginations to move beyond “this is the way we’ve always done it” to a mindset of “we must be the change we want to see.”
Blimps don’t transport people here in Frankfort, and President Andrew Jackson still appears on my $20 bill. But I still feel sometimes that I exist in a parallel universe. I have to un-learn what I knew in Nevada and re-learn it here in Kentucky. The rhythms of the Capitol feel different … but similar. The legislative calendar may take some unexpected twists, but the drive to sine die will surely feel familiar. At the end of the day, whether in Carson City, Frankfort or in your state capital, our challenges are all the same. And those challenges are to be embraced and undertaken with pride.

About the Author

David Byerman is the director of the Kentucky Legislative Research Commission.