We all know someone who is so focused on a single area that they lose sight of the big picture. Paula Pabón Smith isn’t one of those people.
That’s a huge benefit to her work as senior counsel for governmental affairs for the Kentucky Farm Bureau Mutual Insurance Company. As a “legislative agent,” Smith primarily interacts with the legislative branch in Kentucky, but she has extensive experience working in all three government branches: judicial, legislative, and executive.
The cogs and gears of government have fascinated her for decades. “People can be intimidated by the democratic process—how laws are passed, how elections work, for example. But I’ve always been interested in it,” says Smith, who was elected to student council in high school and went on to study political science.
Smith, who has siblings, was the first in her immediate family to go to college. Her Panamanian father became a tradesman after nine years in the military, and her mother was first and foremost a homemaker but worked retail jobs to help put Smith and her siblings through Catholic high school. Smith earned scholarships to attend the University of Louisville and as an undergrad, she represented the College of Arts and Science in the university’s student senate. During law school, she served as a senate representative.
She began her legal career as a staff attorney with the Kentucky Court of Appeals in 1994. “It was a great starting job,” she says, “because it exposed me to the entire judicial process. I screened all appellate motions from the entire state, worked with the judges, and offered advice on appellate processes and procedures.”
Then she spent nearly five years as in-house legal counsel for the Kentucky Legislative Ethics Commission. Smith notes that although many states maintain peer ethics procedures for its legislature, Kentucky was one of the first to codify ethics regulations. “I advised the members of the commission that reviewed and enforced all aspects of the newly enacted ethics laws, and that exposed me to the legislative process,” she says.
Smith added her executive branch experience as a prosecuting attorney for the Kentucky Board of Nursing. “Much of my work involved consumer protection,” she explains. “We regulated all nursing licenses, conducted administrative hearings on discipline charges, but also worked to reinstate nurses that had been discharged for substance abuse or other professional practice reasons.”
Since 2008, Smith has served the Kentucky Farm Bureau Mutual Insurance Company as a legislative agent—aka “lobbyist”—at the state capitol. “The term ‘legislative agent’ was introduced when the ethics law was passed,” she explains. While the term “lobbyist” can conjure images of people that pressure legislators on behalf of their clients, Smith’s function is quite different.
“I represent the company in Frankfort during the legislative sessions,” she says, “mainly to help educate lawmakers about bills that could impact the company and other matters that might impact the property/casualty insurance industry as a whole—not just the Farm Bureau. I’m also there on behalf of Kentucky Farm Bureau’s 1.3 million-plus policyholders. Farm Bureau is unique in that our policyholders are members. So, I’m also looking out for the interests of our members—Kentucky insurance customers.”
When a session is over, Smith reviews new laws, and then works internally with the company’s various business groups to implement those laws. “We might see changes in our operating procedures, or new regulations that require additional reporting to our state regulator. For example, recent laws addressing corporate governance have become a big topic across the industry, as well,” Smith says.
Her position has been focused on reforming insurance laws to mitigate various forms of fraud. In 2012, she fought for legislation to curb “storm-chasers”—dishonest roofers that swarm after major storms and rip off distraught homeowners. In 2015, her target was healthcare providers that actively pursued and solicited auto accident victims.
But her biggest victory came in 2021, with the passage of a massive vehicle-towing reform bill. “Unscrupulous towing and storage services were repeatedly overcharging while providing no transparency,” she says. “With the passage of this bill, it is anticipated that it will help reduce the incidence of fraud and lower claims cost payments for towing and storage fees.”
Her cross-pollinated career path serves her well. “There is a lot of overlap between law and government, especially in the governmental affairs arena,” Smith says. “So, it’s beneficial to understand various perspectives. It helps me explain and distinguish the various sides of an issue better. And, because I understand the process, I’ve learned you have to ‘read what’s not there’ in proposed bills and anticipate future challenges.”
Smith collaborates with her four-attorney team with a strong focus on teamwork—a perspective that formed early in her career. “I’m fortunate to have always worked in a team setting, whether governmental or in-house. And I’ve learned that building relationships is essential,” she says. “When you’re able to work well with others, you’re more successful.”
She notes that she regularly consults with subject-matter experts on her team. “Especially in my legislative agent role,” she adds. “I can’t go to Frankfort relying only on my own knowledge and expertise.”
Former House Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill famously said, “All politics is local.” Smith agrees with that sentiment. “If you want to get involved in government, start by talking with your local legislators,” she explains. “Get to know them and their positions and start building relationships. They’ll serve you well after.
“And always keep your mind open to any opportunity you find,” she adds. “It can help you to hone skills, and to find what you’re really good at.”
Across Insurance Lines
Paula Pabón Smith has served on the board of the Kentucky Association of Manufacturers for the past three years. The organization promotes advocacy; workforce development, education, and training; and cost-saving benefits for members.
She sees participation in professional associations as another way to engage with the community, while continuing to build relationships and develop other perspectives.
It can also foster more collaboration. “Many people think that, because I represent Kentucky Farm Bureau Insurance, I’m averse to meeting with other insurance company representatives. Not so,” Smith says. “We may be competitors, but we also work together to improve the industry as a whole.”
“APCIA congratulates Paula on this well-deserved, special recognition. Throughout her career, Paula has brought the insurance industry and legislators together in support of a strong insurance market in Kentucky. Her work has benefited Kentucky consumers, and we are proud to be a partner in her efforts.” –Ron Jackson, vice president of state government relations for the American Property Casualty Insurance Association