Legislative leaders put time into session preparations - WTRF 7 News Sports Weather - Wheeling Steubenville

Legislative leaders put time into session preparations

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Just like a teacher goes into the classroom early to prepare things for the school year, House Speaker Rick Thompson and Senate President Jeff Kessler are busy this month, doing things most people take for granted.

But the committee members, offices and even parking spaces don't assign themselves.

Behind the Scenes

The housekeeping can be tedious, but both chambers' leaders say the preparations make for a smooth legislative session once it starts.

For Thompson, his plans all start with committee assignments.

"Sometimes, what committee they're on or the position they hold will reflect where they need to be placed," he said. "The second floor near Judiciary, Finance, Education or in the East Wing ... it all depends on those different things.

"Putting the House together from the committee structure to the offices — that takes a lot of time, and often it creates like a domino effect."

Any time 134 people are called together to do anything, organization becomes of the utmost importance. But what may be the most urgent for those 134 lawmakers is how to get in the door.

"The first thing we need Jan. 9, for new members and returning members, is where to park their cars," Thompson said. "We have assigned parking during session, and a lot of it is based on different aspects.

"We have members who have been here for a long time, who are getting closer to the door; we have people who have disabilities, so we need to make accommodations for them; and we want to make sure for the lady members of the House that they have lots of light and easy access, for safety reasons."

Thompson said if one member is in the wrong parking spot, it has a ripple effect.

Seniority Rules

As for Kessler, he starts with office assignments, which are tied to committee assignments in his chamber as well.

He will have eight new members in the Senate this session, and he said he tries to balance seniority with committee assignments.

"Some of it's based on positions they hold, as to the offices they end up in; some of it is usually more junior or newer additions have the smaller offices with the longer walk to the floor," Kessler said. "We take all those things into consideration … and you try to make everybody as happy as you can make everyone."

Kessler said a lot of insight often comes from staff members and secretaries.

"Sometimes, frankly, the secretaries will say, ‘Boy, I'd really like to move into this office,' or ask to share a room with someone else because they really work well together," he said.

Kessler, who spent four sessions as chairman of the Judiciary committee, said the office designated for the judiciary chairman is actually quite small and simple, despite being a major committee with a large complex of cubicles surrounding the chairman's office.

So does he miss that space?

"I'm focused on doing work, no matter where I'm located," he laughed. "My wife accuses me all the time of driving up and down the river to the Capitol for 17 years and not even realizing if there's a Mail Pouch barn along the way."

Kessler said after offices are assigned, he works on the Senate floor seating chart.

Both Kessler and Thompson said they send forms out to all their members shortly after the elections are over, asking for members' preferences as to committee assignments.

"Everybody wants the plum positions, and there are only so many to fill," Kessler said. "I always try to match up folks with committee assignments within their interests, because we always find people do their best work doing the things they're interested in."

Kessler said assigning committee memberships can often boil down to member's hometowns so the committees stay geographically balanced.

"It's a balancing act, trying to keep everyone as happy as you can," he said. "It's like your kids, you love them all, maybe a little differently, but you try to appreciate their talents, wherever they may lie."

Physical and Mental Preparation

Thompson said he carefully makes assignments with help from the majority whip and minority leader.

"I talk to all the members before I make those assignments," Thompson said. "One change may create 10 additional changes that you need to make.

"I've charted it out here on big charts here in the office, and hopefully I just have to do it once."

Thompson said the physical parts of the House chamber, such as the nameplates and the electronic voting system, require the floor assignments come together sooner rather than later.

Thompson, who has been the House speaker since 2007, said another step in laying the groundwork for the regular session is helping to orient all the new members. And there will be plenty of them this year -- 24 to be exact.

Thompson said during the January interim committee meetings, training will take place to go over the rules and procedures, as well as where to physically locate anything they may need.

"There's about 20 different ways to get anywhere in this Capitol, so it takes a while to learn those different ways and all the different steps," he said.

And he'll attend mock floor sessions so new members can get used to using their microphones, waiting to be recognized and also start the habit of referring to other members not by their names, but by their districts.

It's all part of the rules.

Late Start This Year

And one procedure that's a part of the Constitution is the late start to this year's session.

Thompson explained that every four years, coinciding with the election of the governor, the Legislature adjourns for 30 days to give the governor an extra 30 days to prepare his agenda and State of the State address.

"For us, it gives us more time to look through the interim bills and the committee assignments," Thompson said. "The primary goal is to set up the House so it's the best it possibly can be."

Kessler said the extra time is good for the Senate clerk's staff to do the housekeeping that readies the offices, such as boxing up members' belongings and pulling nails from the walls, just like moving into a new apartment.

And the little details, such as ordering stationery with new room assignments and phone numbers can't be overlooked either, he said.

"Having the extra month in this regard will be good," Kessler said. "We'll be able to hit the ground running.

"Sometimes turnover is good because you get fresh ideas and fresh faces that are eager and add new ideas. It's democracy at its finest."

But, Thompson said there is a downside to the later session, and it's a feeling most school children know all too well.

"With the extra 30 days toward the end of the session, it starts getting pretty out there," he said. "People are out mowing their grass, and we're stuck in here late working on bills."