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Legislative Hallways, Committee Rooms Become Classrooms for College Interns

By Richard WilsonKyForward correspondent

Each weekday morning, Keana Crockett begins a 114-mile daily roundtrip to Frankfort from her Bardstown home to participate in the kind of classes unavailable to her at St. Catharine College where she’s a senior.

And Juliana Moore and China Riddle aren’t sitting in their usual Eastern Kentucky University and Alice Lloyd College classes this semester soaking up knowledge and seeking the kind of grades they hope will help them get into law school.

Instead, this semester’s classrooms are the hallways, committee rooms and other environs of the Kentucky General Assembly, where all three coeds are full-time legislative interns. Working for either individual legislators or legislative staff members, they and about two dozen other interns from the state’s public and private colleges have front row seats to watch the Kentucky legislature at work. While their duties range from the mundane to the necessary, legislators and staff supervisors for the Legislative Research Commission (LRC) acknowledge that interns have played a significant role in 60-day legislative sessions for some time.

“It’s amazing what they can do for us. They save me a lot of time,” says Rep. Linda Belcher, a Shepherdsville Democrat with whom Crockett is interning.

Rep. Jim Wayne, another lawmaker who’s had several interns, agrees. Wayne, a Louisville Democrat, adds that interns serve another purpose too.

“(They) help me get a perspective on what I’m doing. When you have to explain to someone who’s totally new to the process what’s going on, it helps you think through what’s going on in ways that you might take for granted otherwise,” Wayne adds.

John Snyder, chief staff administrator for the House and Senate transportation committees, also touts interns.

“They’re a tremendous help. They’re an extra pair of hands to do just about anything. They’re all really, really bright (and) they all have real talent,” Snyder adds.

Currently Kentucky has two programs for which students compete for slots that bring them to Frankfort full-time during a 60-day regular legislative session. One is administered by the LRC, with its interns working with LRC staff, and the other, where students work for individual lawmakers, is coordinated by the Association of Independent Kentucky Colleges and Universities (AIKCU).

The programs share more similarities than differences. Interns in both programs are chosen primarily on their interest in public affairs, academic records and personal interviews. Once chosen, interns go through orientation classes. With the legislative session’s beginning, the students work at least 30 hours per week and participate in two seminars on state government. The seminars essentially focus on public policy development, legislative process, legal writing and Kentucky government and politics. Interns also receive stipends ranging from $2,250 to $4,000 and qualify for a full semester of academic credit from their home institutions.

(While the LRC program is offered only in even-numbered years when the legislature meets in regular session, AIKCU also offers a separate internship during alternate years with students working in executive branch agencies.)

“We consider internships as just a logical educational extension of the classroom,” said Dr. Gary Cox, president of AIKCU, and himself both a former state government intern and Morehead State University political science professor. The AIKCU and LRC programs are both aimed at giving interns a close-up view of public service as a career option.

Interns’ duties vary but range from acting as couriers to research to handling contacts with lawmakers’ constituents. Some LRC interns are even assigned tasks of drafting legislative resolutions, and infrequently, even legislation. Some lawmakers also frequently allow their interns to sit in on private meetings with constituents, other legislators and LRC staff.

Most interns interviewed recently said they did not know exactly what to expect in Frankfort. Some feared their duties might be little more than just busywork.

“I thought we would just kind of observe and do a few things, kind of office duties, and then the (seminars),” EKU’s Moore said. But Moore, a McKee senior who’s interning with the legislature’s budget committees, added that she’s been surprised. “I didn’t anticipate I would get to do so much hands-on working with bills, and actually the meat of it.”

“I like for (interns) to have as realistic an experience as possible with us,” said LRC staffer Pam Thomas, Moore’s supervisor.

Unlike some supervisors, or in LRC jargon committee staff administrators (CSAs), Thomas said she’s even let Moore do the initial draft of some simpler bills. “A lot of CSAs don’t do that. They don’t give their interns access to the bill drafting system, but I feel that they should be given that experience, and I always check their work and make sure they’ve done it right,” Thomas added.

The LRC is the legislature’s administrative arm and its staffers do nearly all of the research behind proposed legislation. The agency’s nonpartisanship is a standard to which interns must adhere, a necessity unnecessary for the AIKCU interns. Some LRC interns, at least initially, expect their semester may provide an opportunity to become advocates for issues of interest to them. But advocacy is something that they come to understand isn’t permitted, interns and LRC staffers acknowledge.

“Many of them come here wanting to do policy . . . make changes. They want to have input,” adds Judy Fritz, staff chief for two legislative committees. “The way I kind of describe it to them is ‘It’s like a play. We (LRC staff) help build the set and we help make the costumes and we hand out the programs and do the lighting. And when the play starts it’s their (legislators) stage. And when it’s over, we go in and we turn out the lights. We’re never on stage . . . ‘” added Fritz.

Several interns say they’ve learned other unexpected lessons in Frankfort. Tyler Johnson, another EKU intern, said he was unaware that so many people were involved in making a legislative session function.

“It takes a lot more people to get what’s being done than I realized,” said Johnson, a London senior. “On the public side of things you see the legislator and the bills they sponsor and try to get passed. “But then you get to the LRC and you see that there are tons of people behind the scenes working to make it happen,” Johnson added.

Several interns said they have also developed more respect, or tolerance, for opposing views on controversial issues. They’re more ready to understand that issues can have more than one persuasive side.

Crockett, the St. Catharine’s senior management and human relations major, says her internship has helped her grow professionally. “This is an awesome experience. I’m learning how to carry myself professionally. It’s not like sitting in a classroom (and hearing about human relations). I’m doing it,” she says.

Riddle (left), the Alice Lloyd junior from Virgie, is convinced her internship with Sen. Ray Jones, a Pikeville Democrat and attorney, is helping prep her for law school. “This has just prepared me tremendously with so much knowledge about state government that I had no idea about, that I didn’t understand at all,” Riddle said.

Motives vary for seeking the legislative internships, but networking, or contact building, is usually among them.

“You do make so many connections. I’ve been here for (nearly six) weeks now and I’ve met so many different people, and I’m already seeing if I can get a job here,” said Crockett.

If she succeeds, Crockett won’t be the first intern to parlay a Frankfort semester into a public sector job. Former interns include State Sen. Tim Shaughnessy, Franklin Circuit Judge Phillip Shepherd, Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) member Mike Duncan and Carol Palmore, a top official in four different state administrations. Palmore first came to Frankfort in 1970 as a college intern, an experience she says changed her life.

“The extremely positive experiences I had as an intern were the deciding factors in my career choice in public service,” Palmore, an attorney, said.

Richard Wilson is a retired Courier-Journal reporter and bureau chief and has been coordinator of the AIKCU Frankfort Intern Program since 1999.

Photos from LRC Public Information