The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

April 28, 2013

Missouri Southern’s Capitol Intern Program offers inside look at political process

By Eli Yokley
Globe Staff Writer

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — For six Missouri Southern State University students, a typical day begins at 8 a.m. sharp, some 200 miles away from the campus in Joplin.

They are part of Southern’s Capitol Intern Program, which places each student in a lawmaker’s office to learn the ins and outs of the legislative and political processes.

Keegan Tinney, a junior majoring in pre-law, works in the office of Sen. Ron Richard, R-Joplin.

“I never fully understood how long it is for legislation to become laws,” he said. “It is not just a simple ‘I have an idea for a bill and you get it done.’”

Richard, who formerly served as speaker of the House, is now the No. 2 man in the Senate — majority floor leader. His office directs the flow and topics of debate in the upper chamber.

“He is a very influential man and it is great to come to his office every day and serve with him,” Tinney said.

Richard, after a busy week in Jefferson City, said he feels the intern program offers MSSU students a way to learn about the legislative process, especially those bills that directly affect Southwest Missouri.

“They know what I’m doing for the region, and they have some buy-in,” he said.

Tinney is the only MSSU intern working in the upper chamber. Across the building, five others — Tristan Routledge, Laurna Alembaugh, Cory Garr, Johnny Boyer and Brenna Barksdale — work for area members in the House of Representatives.

Barksdale, a senior majoring in education, said she hopes the experience will help her in the classroom someday.

“I want to teach government in high school. I figured coming to be a part of the process would help me understand how it works and help better teach the process,” she said.

Barksdale works in the office of state Rep. Tom Flanigan, R-Carthage, as well as state Rep. Sue Allen, R-Town and Country. The two legislators share an office suite, but in an unconventional way. Instead of keeping their desks in their own offices, the two — senior in the House’s budgeting process — share a work space in one room and have turned the other into a conference room.

“From day one, we sat her (Barksdale) down and said, ‘You’re working, you’re part of the process,’ and she has been,” Flanigan said.

Flanigan said Barksdale takes on many duties that free up his legislative assistant, Sean Grove (a former MSSU legislative intern). Barksdale manages the legislator’s schedule, greets constituents and takes visiting school groups on tours, allowing Grove to spend more time researching the budget and writing language.

Joanna Derfelt, assistant professor of political science at MSSU, leads the nearly 10-year-old Capitol Intern Program. She said it has attracted a lot of interest from lawmakers, even from those outside the area.

“We had 25 requests that I couldn’t even consider from legislators outside of the districts who want us because they have heard we have good interns,” she said. The school looks to local lawmakers first, but does give interns to representatives from outside the area. Boyer, for example, works for state Rep. Michael Butler, D-St. Louis.

The program is funded by the university, which rents a house for the six students in Jefferson City. The group effectively lives and works together. The students can receive up to eight hours of class credit from the program and are required to complete at least 12 hours each semester, which Derfelt believes has further encouraged the school’s support of the program.

In the evenings after work, the interns will sometimes go to receptions hosted by special interest groups where they can snag a free meal, or others will go home and work on school assignments. As the semester winds down — increasing both the school workload and the legislative workload — Tinney said it is nice to stop and remember where he is working from time to time.

“It’s pretty cool to come to the Capitol every day. It’s one of the things I didn’t think I’d appreciate in being here, but I do appreciate the building and the history of it,” he said. “It is a great opportunity.”