In the political arena that seems dominated by strong views, little patience and loud voices, Jack Ross is an anomaly – a man with no opinion.
He has sat in the leadership chair of the Legislative Services Agency at the Indiana General Assembly for five years and marshaled the staff of roughly 80 professionals as they have drafted bills, provided fiscal analysis, and printed the legislation. Most importantly, he has made sure his charges express no opinion.
They not only keep any personal biases and political leanings from their work at the LSA, they also avoid any activity that could be interpreted as favoring one party over the other.
In a world of partisan wrangling, the agency has “jealously guarded” its nonpartisan nature.
“More than anything else, I think the nonpartisanship of this entity has to be maintained,” Ross said. “We cannot compromise a bit or the whole (legislative) process, I think fairly shortly, would become chaotic.”
The foundation for that nonpartisan reputation was laid when the LSA was established in the late 1960s and has been built through the tenures of seven executive directors. At the end of November, Ross will turn over the responsibility of the agency as well as the keys to his office to someone else.
Ross is retiring as the LSA’s executive director, and the four partisan leaders of Indiana’s Senate and House of Representatives are searching for a replacement. Being dispassionate and non-ideological will be the first requirement.
Before the Legislative Services Agency began operating, bills were primarily written by lobbyists and the governor’s office. These authors had their points of view which could be reflected in the proposed legislation.
Speaker of the House Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, knows the history of the Legislature from both his father, who served in the state Senate, and from his work as a legislative staff member prior to being elected to office.
Energy bills were written by utilities, local government bills were written by local government representatives, and tax bills were bent in one direction or another. While many of the individuals drafting these pieces of legislation had good intentions, Bosma said the prior situation underscores the need for a “nonpartisan, non-ideological, Jack Webb just-the-facts-ma’am” approach to writing bills.
Without the agency, House Minority Leader Linda Lawson, believes the General Assembly would stop. The members would not get anything done because they would be uncertain of whom and what they could trust.
“Honestly, the LSA is the backbone of the legislative process,” the Hammond representative said. “They help us in ways you just can’t imagine.”
The agency has several roles in the General Assembly. Along with the bills proposed by legislators, it drafts amendments, conference committee reports and most resolutions. It also writes and updates a fiscal note, indicating what, if any, impact the bill will have on taxpayers and the state budget.
Under Ross, LSA has paid more attention to its fiscal division and improved a database that draws information from a broad array of agencies. Bosma remembered during the debate over property tax caps, the data provided by the agency was frequently updated, very detailed and gave the impact on every political subdivision from townships to schools.
If the Legislature did not have that fiscal information, the members “would have been shooting completely in the dark” when crafting the tax caps, Bosma said.
Crafting a bill
Proposed legislation can arrive at the LSA in many forms – from an idea for changing or creating something to a draft completed by an organization or individual outside the General Assembly. Members of the House and Senate bring their propositions to the agency where they are assigned an attorney who will prepare a written document.
Ultimately, the legislator has the final say on the contents of any bill. The LSA attorneys will point out any potential legal trouble spots in the draft, such as conflicts with other provisions or what may be unconstitutional, but they do not give advice on policy or indicate whether they think the legislation is good or bad.
“I think the Legislature relies on us to draft bills, tell them what the bill does, and the fiscal impact,” Ross said. “They view us as giving an objective description and fiscal analysis. Without us, they could not rely on description or fiscal impact.”
As the bill proceeds through the legislative process, the LSA will keep track of conflicts within the document. When the proposal gets far enough in the process to pass from one chamber to another, the LSA alerts the partisan staffs to any oncoming problem.
Ross credits this cooperation with the partisan staff members with making the resolution of conflict smoother and with reducing the number of technical corrections that need to be made after the conclusion of the Legislative session.
The final bill that lands on the governor’s desk is not always pretty or reads perfectly, Ross said, but when the process comes together, sometimes it is magic.
Before he joined the LSA, Ross had extensive experience with the Indiana Legislature. He was an attorney for the Senate Democrats for 25 sessions.
There, his job was to be partisan and that background gave Bosma pause when Ross applied for the LSA position. However, Bosma got a recommendation from a trusted friend, and he knew that Ross had a reputation for being a problem solver, so the Speaker gave his support to the eventual executive director.
For his part, Ross said his partisan background is constantly on his mind, and he is sensitive that everyone is watching.
“I don’t want there to even be the perception of any partisanship,” he said.
Going through the search process, Lawson admitted she has changed her mind about who would best lead the agency. Initially, she thought the position needed to be filled by someone who was more of a manager, who could bring people together and be assertive without being a bully.
While she still believes managerial skills are necessary, she thinks the best person for the position will be an attorney. The four leaders hope to have the new director in place by the beginning of November but, she said, legislators are already filing bills for the 2013 session and an attorney would have the advantage of understanding the law and being able to get up to speed more quickly.
Ross, a 1973 graduate of the Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law, agreed the job does come with managerial demands, noting the office is filled with well-educated, highly skilled professionals. To his successor, he would say, “You’ve got a good staff. These people know what their job is and know how important it is to be impartial and accurate.”
By the application deadline for the executive director position, Bosma said the number of candidates had reached 52 and includes a mix of LSA personnel, government employees from around the state, and out-of-state professionals.
The new LSA head will have a full agenda overseeing the preparation of bills and fiscal analysis for the 2013 legislative session while deflecting the constant pressure to be partisan and coordinating a full upgrade of the computer hardware and software systems at the statehouse. Looking ahead, Bosma does not foresee the agency diminishing in importance.
“I think as the issues the Legislature is dealing with become more complicated – and they become more complicated daily – the role of the LSA will only become more predominant,” he said. •