Critical Preparation

The Chevy Chaser, Lexington

Rep. Susan Westrom, 79th District Lexington KY

You can arrange a day to shadow me [in Frankfort] by calling Jennifer Lyons at my Frankfort office (502-564-8100, Extension 826). –Rep. Westrom

I recently returned from a trip to Washington, D.C., where I attended a conference for new committee officers of the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL).  NCSL is a nonpartisan, professional organization for the thousands of state legislators across the country.  The purpose of the organization is to strengthen America’s legislators and their staff, promote ethics in government, and to help lawmakers confront and solve the critical issues of our time.

NCSL operates much like our General Assembly, with elected leaders and two bodies;  the Assembly on State Issues and the Assembly on Federal Issues.  I am currently the vice chair of the Legislative Effectiveness and State Government Committee, one of fifteen standing committees that meet three times a year.  These meetings provide an exchange of information, allowing legislators and staff to learn from the experiences of other states in shaping public policy, experiment with new laws, and manage the legislative institutions.  NCSL policy positions and lobbying efforts in Washington, D.C. are shaped by the policies adopted by the committees, which are carried to Capitol Hill to our federal representatives.

The Legislative Effectiveness and State Government Committee deals with themes such as separation of powers and institutional preservation, legislative skill building, connecting to citizens, and legislative ethics.  Chairs and vice chairs are recommended by the NCSL president or by an NCSL staff person.  Normally, appointees have been active with a specific committee for over a year before being appointed.  However, I was recommended after I sat in on this particular committee and actively participated in the dialogue during the Fall Forum in D.C.  Evidently, the staff person decided I would be a contributing and effective officer for the committee.  A request for my appointment was then sent to House Leadership in Frankfort.  My responsibilities include developing topic briefings, identifying subjects for plenary programs at the NCSL conferences, leading work on policy statements, reports, and opinion papers, presiding over meetings, and overseeing NCSL lobbying efforts in Washington.  At some point I may be asked to present testimony before congressional hearings.

Also at this meeting, a representative of the White House Domestic Policy Council highlighted top priorities of the hurricane relief efforts and its impact on states.  Much time was spent defining the federal government’s fiscal obligation to host states who have taken in large numbers of victims.  As you know, financial support is needed for housing, education, employment, health care, and everything else related to rebuilding of thousands of lives. Margaret Spellings, Secretary of the United States Department of Education, addressed our group about their priorities, including “No Child Left Behind.”  I can assure you that both of these speakers encouraged open dialogue, and responded to the very direct questions posed by legislators and staff throughout the country.

A great deal of time was spent as a group discussing the range of critical issues that are faced by individual states and often effected universally.  The number one topic was Hurricane Katrina and the fact that the southern states were likely just as unprepared for a disaster as all of the states.  It is time to review our own disaster and evacuation strategies.  We discussed the impact on energy resources, job placements throughout the country, processing unemployment benefits for victims who have moved to other states, emergency funding for relocated Medicaid recipients, job protection for volunteers who leave their position to assist in the recovery efforts, and other aspects of the effect that the hurricane has had and will continue to have on all Americans.  We also discussed defining the powers of state officials when disaster strikes, the obvious communication breakdown Katrina created, and how states are dealing with natural gas prices and gouging at the pumps.

Some topics our legislatures will be dealing with in the 2006 Sessions include unfunded federal mandates given to states by No Child Left Behind, cost of homeland security, global warming, electronic waste, wellness and preventive health care, health insurance for small businesses, gambling, better tracking of sex offenders, the nationwide shortage of nurses and highly qualified teachers, federal cuts to mental health treatment, affordable prescription drugs, grandparents raising grandchildren, identity theft and computer privacy issues, and the Supreme Court Ruling on Eminent Domain.  These are just some of the many that have already been named as topics for next year.

This is the time of year legislators begin to prepare their legislative priorities for the upcoming session.  The decisions we make at the state level can only be done well with citizen input.  Next month I will share what legislation I have prefiled and hope that you will become actively involved in this process.  I will also continue my shadowing program for anyone who wishes to spend a day with me in Frankfort during the 2006 Regular Session.  I am one of only a few legislators who open the door to interested citizens to give them a bird’s-eye view of the complicated processes that take place during any given day.  You can arrange a day to shadow me by calling Jennifer Lyons at my Frankfort office (502-564-8100, Extension 826).  There are more details on my web site at www.susanwestrom.com.  My Lexington office number is 859-266-7581, and my e-mail address is [email protected]  It is an honor to serve you in Frankfort.