According to a recent Oklahoman article, when asked about the prospect of having open public testimony in the Oklahoma Legislature, former State Senator A.J. Griffin argued that allowing “ample,” open public testimony in Oklahoma would result in “grandstanding and long debates that would be a significant time and cost burden for Oklahoma’s part-time Legislature.” According to Griffin, allowing open public testimony “would be a real heavy lift.” However, we argue that operating a part-time legislature is not only not an excuse for denying Oklahomans the chance to testify, but is one of the most compelling arguments to allow it.
Part-time legislatures across the country value the voice of the people and are willing to take the time necessary to hear them, weigh both sides of an argument, and then act with a fuller understanding of a bill’s implications. Additionally, as we have previously written, legislators are not, and should not expect to be, an expert for every bill on which they vote. Without the time, resources, and staff necessary to cast an informed vote, public testimony can serve as a critical part of the legislative process, educating part-time legislators and giving them access to the aggregate wisdom of the crowd – the general public.
In addition to allowing individuals with a variety of experiences and knowledge to contribute to a decisionmaker’s knowledge, public testimony in committee results in greater efficiency. During a committee hearing, interested parties have access to the time and attention of multiple committee members simultaneously, as opposed to visiting each member individually. Current practice greatly favors professional lobbyists representing narrow interests over regular citizens.
To see how other legislatures incorporate public testimony into the legislative process, consider the practices of two neighboring, part-time legislatures: New Mexico and Texas.
New Mexico’s legislative sessions are fast and furious. The legislature meets for 30 calendar days in even years and 60 calendar days in odd years. Despite these sessions’ brevity, a committee chair will open the floor for public comment in almost every committee meeting on virtually every bill.
The “Roundhouse,” the moniker for the cylindrical capitol building, is frequently and proudly referred to as the people’s house – a role that is taken seriously. People have easy, hassle-free access to not only the building but the legislative process as well. During a committee hearing, public testimony is open. Following a presentation by a bill’s sponsor and expert witnesses, the committee chair opens the floor for attendees to testify. There is no formal process for this – no sign-in sheet, no kiosk, and no pre-requisite invitation. At the appropriate time, members of the public raise their hands, stand when recognized, identify themselves, state their position, and present their arguments. Absent extenuating circumstances (such as a long agenda, a large number of people interested in speaking on a bill, or a multitude of people from one organization), everyone that wants to talk is allowed to do so, without many limitations. Under extenuating circumstances, the committee chair can exercise the prerogative to ask organizations to select one or more spokespeople or limit testimony to a couple minutes per speaker. Nevertheless, even when limited, public testimony was heard.
Texas’ legislature meets in regular session for about five months (140 days) beginning in January every two (odd-numbered) years with a bill-filing deadline in March. Starting slowly, committees generally only begin meeting in February. It is a committee chair’s discretion whether to do so, but general practice is to open committee hearings to public testimony where anyone can testify. One must sign up to testify, and on so doing, agree on oath to tell the truth. Where paper forms were once readily available for this purpose, Texas now has an electronic sign-up system. A chair might insist that spoken testimony be offered extemporaneously and written statements simply be submitted rather than read as testimony. Every individual, who they represent, and their position on the bill, is included on a list that all members of the relevant house receive when the bill is considered by the full body. Interim studies involve multiple hearings and written reports by standing committees. Texas legislators, if they remain in office 12 years or more, receive generous pensions, but are paid only $7,200 per year while in office.
Between the authors of this article, there are 35 years of experience working directly with legislatures in several states, including New Mexico and Texas. We recognize that allowing public testimony requires sacrifice (for legislators, staff, and the public). Legislators may have to spend more time in committee meetings. Meetings may frequently extend past 5:00 p.m. In both New Mexico and Texas, toward the end of a session, it’s not unusual for a committee meeting or a floor session to spill over into the early hours of the following morning.
While there are certainly personal costs associated with hearing public testimony, there is also a policy cost from excluding it. Both authors have seen the real impact that public testimony can have.
Over the years, we have seen legislators ask bill sponsors and expert witnesses more-informed and penetrating questions based on issues unexpectedly raised during public testimony. We have seen members’ votes change based on compelling public testimony. Does this happen on every bill? No. But it does happen – and not infrequently.
Allowing public testimony need not be the equivalent of a public filibuster. Testimony could be open but limited in duration at the discretion of the chair. Testimony could show the existence of opposition and inspire thought-provoking, follow-up questions. By keeping appropriate records, this information could be made available not only to committee members but also to other members as they take final action on the chamber floor. The result is the potential for well-informed votes and better public policy.
Constituents have entrusted elected officials with the power to represent them, to act in their best interest. With that trust comes several duties inherent in this fiduciary relationship. It can be difficult, exhausting, and tedious. It requires temporary sacrifices of private interests, such as career, family, friends, and recreation. However, it is the price to pay for informed policy. It is what legislators are elected to do – to act with care and exercise due diligence in passing laws.
The legislative process in Oklahoma is flawed. It was flawed under former Democratic leadership and this flaw continues under Republican leadership. The lack of public testimony is a bipartisan problem that demands reform from across the political spectrum. Policy has a tangible impact on the lives of people throughout the state. Oklahoma cannot afford for the legislature to neglect its duties of care and diligence in investigating bills. For the sake of public policy, the Oklahoma legislature needs to include open, public testimony.
Brad Galbraith is Land Use Fellow at 1889 Institute. He can be reached at [email protected].
Byron Schlomach is Director of the 1889 Institute and can be reached at [email protected].
The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the official position of 1889 Institute.