Earlier this month, Debbie Irvine took over as executive director of the Texas Legislative Council, which assists lawmakers with technology, research, document production and bill drafting. Now in her 36th year with the council, Irvine is the veteran of 17 legislative sessions. In particular, she played a key role in legislative redistricting during the 1981 and 1991 sessions, before moving to head the research division for 15 years. She became temporary executive director in August, and the council's appointed governing board made the title permanent on Nov. 15 after an impasse on other potential candidates.
A self-described “introvert,” Irvine now heads an agency that plays an integral policy role at a Capitol filled with extroverts — and her first session at the helm could be difficult, with lawmakers required to redraw state and federal political boundaries, a politically sensitive and thorny process. At the same time, they must find a way to balance the biennial budget while facing a significant revenue shortfall.
Irvine sat down with the Tribune recently to discuss her new job, her tenure with the agency and how technology has changed its work. An edited transcript follows:
Audio: Debbie Irvine
TT: Is this a job that you wanted?
Irvine: I see myself as more of a person who keeps things running. In the way that the council has always been organized, I would have been a more obvious choice for an assistant director position. I'm an introvert, and so the interaction with people across the street is a little bit ... I can do it. I did it for redistricting, but it's not my favorite role. I didn't apply for the executive director's job when they posted it originally, and they had their finalist candidates and couldn't agree, and were sort of at an impasse. They approached me and asked me if I would do it, at least on a temporary basis. They really want to get something resolved and get the council going on a stable footing before a session that's going to be really, really difficult with the budget crisis and redistricting. They decided, if I was willing to stay longer, to make it a permanent position.
TT: You mentioned that this upcoming session would be "really, really difficult." How do you think this session will compare to the 17 others you've worked through?
Irvine: Every session is unique because it's a combination of the issues they have to deal with and the personalities of the people who were elected office. A lot of things are not under anybody's control. It's obvious that it's going to be difficult any time we have a budget crisis and they have to figure how to save money. Texas has always been a fiscally conservative state. There's not a lot of fat in the budget, ever. Redistricting is difficult for different reasons. It's a distraction. There's the political dynamic. There's just no easy way to do it and make everybody happy. And having both of those things happen at the same time seems like it will be a complicating issue. How the makeup of the House and the Senate plays into that is anybody's guess.
TT: How do you see redistricting issue playing out? Is it possible to have maps drawn and everybody agree by June 2011, when, by law, the regular legislative session ends?
Irvine: We went back and looked at the history. I don't think they've ever passed a congressional redistricting plan in a regular session.
TT: How has technology made what this office does different?
Irvine: It allows us to do more work faster. When I came to the council, all of legal and research were drafting on typewriters, and they weren't even self-correcting typewriters. That obviously made things a whole lot slower.
TT: You have 385 permanent employees and about 140 temporary employees for the session. What's this time like for your employees just getting ready for the session? Does it keep you up nights?
Irvine: It's a lot of work, but a lot of people — like document production — have been hiring "sessional" staff for as long as I've been around. They have a system. It's like an assembly line for hiring people.
TT: What will be different this session in terms of your operation? Will there be new features on the websites? Is there anything changing?
Irvine: Things are always changing. In the interim, we always have projects: "How we change our processes? How can we change our computer systems? How can we improve our websites to make lawmakers' lives easier and our lives easier?" There's always a bit of, "How can we do it better this time?"
TT: Is there any chance of the Real Player video format being updated to improve the quality?
Irvine: That's something that we're looking into. We're always looking at ways to continually improve things. Everything is so interconnected that the tricky thing is figuring out how we're going to implement a new capability into the system without it disrupting.
TT: Is this a tough job, not only logistically with so much work to do in a short time but also politically? How much does politics concern you, or are you aware of it?
Irvine: I've been at the council so long that confidentially and nonpartisanship is as natural as breathing. That's the gospel preached to you from the first day you come to work. We don't get drawn into the political side of things. Obviously we have good people who are good citizens, and they vote and have opinions on things, but when they walk in the office door, they are apolitical.