In Oklahoma, legislators supposedly do the vast majority of their examination of bills during committee meetings. Theoretically, this is where bills are thoroughly vetted and refined before they are sent before the larger body. There are just a few problems with this in practice.
First, as noted in previous 1889 blogs and a report published earlier this year by Oklahoma Watch, bills are often passed out of committee after mere minutes with little discussion or consideration. Second, neither body (House or Senate) allows public testimony on bills in committee. Instead, they have apparently assumed that only the people with the time to meet with legislators individually in their offices – lobbyists – are worth listening to. According to Oklahoma Watch, not a single committee chair responded to requests to testify at a committee meeting, or their request for comment on a potential rule change to allow testimony. Can one seriously claim to thoroughly vet proposed legislation while refusing to allow testimony from the public? Is listening almost exclusively to messages from paid lobbyists the best way to determine policy?
Because state legislators set policies for the entire state, the decisions they make in committee hearings can have lasting ramifications on everyone. That being the case, the public – especially those who would be directly affected by a proposed policy – deserve to have their voices heard. However, according to the Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) page on the Oklahoma House website, the legislature simply doesn’t have the time. “Opportunities for giving testimony are actually infrequent and at the discretion of the Committee Chair or the bill’s sponsor. Normally, there is just not time…”
This is a common refrain when the topic of public testimony is broached in Oklahoma. In March, Oklahoma Watch published a report on public testimony in the legislature. In the report, former Senator A.J. Griffin stated that it would be quite a heavy lift for Oklahoma’s “part-time” legislature to incorporate public testimony into the already short legislative session. As 1889 has written previously, this is a poor excuse. Oklahoma’s legislature is defined by the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) as is a hybrid legislature – neither full-time nor part-time– it falls somewhere in between. The states of Texas, Arizona, Colorado, Virginia, and Washington also have hybrid legislatures. Every single one of these states provides for open public testimony in their committee hearings. Even New Mexico, which has a true part-time legislature, has a robust culture of allowing citizen testimony in committee hearings.
In fact, not only do these states allow public testimony – they invite it. Each of these states makes it relatively easy to find information regarding how to participate in the process. On the website for the Texas House, there is a video demonstrating every step required to sign-up via the kiosks found at the capitol. Arizona has kiosks as well as an online portal. The Colorado legislative site has a tab titled “Public Testimony Options,” that provides detailed instructions on how to testify in person, remotely, or via written statement. Virginia has a page entitled “Citizen involvement” that details every way a citizen can get involved in the process. An entirely separate page entitled “How to Testify on a Bill” is dedicated to testimony. Washington has a page entitled “Participating in the Process” that allows you to sign-up to testify remotely or in-person, submit written testimony, or simply have your position noted on the record. The same cannot be said for our state. I could not locate anything on the Senate Website, and the small bit of information on the House website was accompanied by the quote claiming lack of time.
To add insult to injury, Oklahoma legislators are paid considerably more than legislators in all but one of the states mentioned. Legislators in Oklahoma are paid $47,500 per year, while legislators in Texas are paid $7,200, Arizona $24,000, Colorado $40,242, Virginia approximately $18,000, and in Washington $56,881. (Legislators in New Mexico do not have a salary; instead, they are paid a per diem for days in session.) However, using the cost-of-living adjuster provided by the Missouri Economic Research and Information Center, Oklahoma legislator salary becomes $53,611, while Washington legislator salary falls to $50,471. In other words, Oklahoma legislators are effectively paid more than legislators in every state mentioned.
So, not only do the legislatures of other states mentioned operate under similar (sometimes stricter) time constraints, they are also paid less (sometimes considerably). And yet, they still prioritize citizen involvement in committee hearings while our legislature continues to ignore the voices of the public. It’s as if the legislature cares more about passing bills than they do about good governance. This is unacceptable. We did not elect our legislators to run a bill mill, we elected them to govern. The citizens of Oklahoma deserve better.
The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of 1889 Institute.