May 7, 2002
LEGISLATIVE PUBLIC HEARINGS
By: Mary M. Janicki, Assistant Director
You asked for information on what other states do to improve the public's access at public hearings they hold on proposed legislation. You asked for rules and practices in place elsewhere that promote a more “public-friendly” atmosphere at hearings.
The information in this report is based on materials provided by the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) and telephone interviews with staff from Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, and Rhode Island. The comments and suggestions regarding implementation of these proposals come from those conversations with legislative staff in other states that have had experience with these procedures and with Brenda Erickson, program principal in the Legislative Management Section at NCSL.
While some characteristics of legislative public hearings are surprisingly similar across the country, certain techniques and new technology adopted in a few states encourage and facilitate public input and efficient hearings.
The number of committees and subcommittees on which a member serves and the overall committee hearing schedule affect legislators' attendance and the overall smooth operation of committee functions. Keeping individual members' assignments to a minimum and establishing an alternating meeting schedule helps legislators avoid scheduling conflicts.
Committee chairmen probably have the most discretion, within the confines of the chamber's rules, to create a public hearing environment that makes members of the public feel welcome and facilitates their input. The chairmen's management skills can effectively solicit public opinion on all sides of an issue during a reasonable period of time. Allowing only a few representatives to present supporting and opposing positions or allowing everyone to speak for a minimal time period prevents individuals from having to sit through hearings that go on for extraordinary lengths of time. Encouraging written testimony accomplishes the same thing. A simple aspect of a more public-friendly hearing is the attention to promptness. Whether legislative sessions, meetings, and hearings start on time is part of a legislature's culture and often depends on the committee chairmen and chamber leadership.
About 10 states are taking advantage of electronic technology to expand committee hearings and meetings beyond the Capitol building complex. Through teleconferencing and videoconferencing members can:
1. take advantage of expert witnesses from around the state or country who are not available to appear and testify at the Capitol and
2. continue to conduct business while minimizing their own trips to the capital.
Holding hearings around the state, typically during the interim, provides outreach opportunities that bring legislators to other areas of the state and give citizens living a distance from the capital the chance to testify before the members. Minnesota and Utah actually conduct “mini-sessions” around the state to bring the legislature to the people.
With respect to off-site and electronic hearings, legislators must adhere to the state's open meetings requirements, verify the input they receive through nontraditional means, and avoid abuses and the perception of excessive travel and junkets.
Legislatures are using the Internet to publish information, post legislative documents, and provide notice to benefit the public. They also use it to solicit information from citizens, including testimony on bills, though they must be careful about verifying its source.
Research also shows barriers to public input that are not a problem here in Connecticut. For example, a public hearing on every bill is not required under legislative rules in New Jersey, so members of the public may not have that vehicle for expressing their opinions on a particular piece of legislation. Facilities at the State House in Rhode Island do not accommodate large crowds at public hearings, requiring citizens to stand outside hearing rooms that are filled.
Number and Member Assignments
The number of standing committees should be manageable with clear delineations of their jurisdictions, even workloads, and a reasonable system for scheduling and space utilization, according to NCSL. In most states, each chamber has its own standing policy committees. Only Connecticut, Maine, and Massachusetts use joint committees, which provide efficiencies in reviewing, hearing, and acting on bills.
While subcommittees produce in-depth work on a proposal or issue and give members more opportunities to chair a committee or focus on a specific area, their use can exacerbate scheduling problems that members already face.
State legislatures typically classify committees into two or three groups that meet on alternating days. Members are assigned to committees in different groups to avoid committee meeting and hearing conflicts. Meeting times are assigned to each group and committees cannot deviate from the assigned slots. Arkansas, Florida, and Virginia condense committee activity into a single week or weekend. Members of the public know when committee hearings will occur and can consolidate trips to the capital. In some states with subcommittees, rules allow them to meet only in the time slot when a parent committee can meet.
In every state legislature, committee chairmen control the conduct of public hearings. Orientation and training give chairmen the skills to keep business moving, promote fairness, and allow an opportunity to testify for every person or every position on a proposal. As reported by NCSL's Brenda Erickson, at particularly crowded hearings in some states, chairmen have the option to limit speakers' testimony (all speakers, including lobbyists) and are strict about keeping to the limit. The chairmen may ask the supporting and opposing sides to organize and determine a spokesperson for each. As an alternative to that technique, they may give everyone who wishes to speak a minute or two to testify. Individuals are encouraged to submit written testimony and assured that it will be incorporated in the record and distributed to committee members. Individuals may be asked to defer speaking unless they have something new to add. Some chairmen allow the public to testify first or those who traveled from a distance or who have special needs or scheduling conflicts (before other legislators, elected officials, and agency personnel).
ELECTRONIC COMMITTEE MEETINGS AND HEARINGS
In November 1999, NCSL conducted a survey to solicit information on legislatures where committees hold meetings and hearings using some type of electronic format, such as teleconference, videoconference, or interactive Internet connections. Of the 99 legislative chambers in the country, 47 responded and the 12 listed below indicated that they hold electronic meetings or hearings.
South Carolina Senate
Montana Senate and House
Nevada Senate and Assembly
North Dakota Senate and House
Committee chairmen and members must be especially careful to comply with freedom of information requirements when planning meetings using teleconferencing or videoconferencing. They must follow minimum open meeting provisions for the meeting or hearing to be legal. Because the location deviates from the usual, committees may choose to give longer or additional notice outside the capital. The committee may require written testimony to be notarized to verify the presenter's authenticity.
Open meetings laws in Minnesota, North Dakota, and Virginia have been amended to cover meetings held using electronic communications.
The Kentucky General Assembly conducted a pilot program in the early 1990's to study the cost-effectiveness and feasibility of using teleconferencing and videoconferencing for interim committee meetings and session chamber activities. Since then, the legislature has used teleconferencing or videoconferencing as a tool during the interim, but not during the regular session. About three to five times a year, a committee will convene in the capitol and take expert testimony from witnesses elsewhere in the state or country.
Two or three times a year, a committee may meet during the interim when its members are in two different locations. “Videoconferencing and the Kentucky General Assembly,” a report of the Subcommittee on Teleconferencing/Interim Joint Committee on State Government issued in November 1999, notes that legislators and staff should be properly trained and all statutory requirements of the Open Meetings and Open Records laws must be observed.
A room equipped with state-of-the-art technology for such meetings is available in the capitol complex and six or seven regional videoconferencing sites are available around the state, typically at state colleges and universities.
In terms of other accommodations to the public, Robert Sherman, director of the Legislative Research Commission, notes that, while there are no formal guidelines, committee chairmen use their discretion at hearings in obliging the public, particularly individuals with special needs. People who have time constraints can inform committee staff, and the chairmen may adjust the hearing schedule as necessary.
Since 1991, the Legislative Counsel Bureau has provided an in-house teleconferencing system for legislative committees. Professional media personnel set up meetings for the legislature as well as for state agency meetings. Four video teleconferencing units are available in the state, two in Carson City and two in Las Vegas. When teleconferencing was first introduced, an “Attendance and Savings Report” documented cost savings, showing that between December 1991 and February 1994, 11,701 people attended 182 meetings at a savings of $451,943.
A legislative committee must comply with the state's open meeting law and legislators are allowed to vote via teleconferencing with all votes recorded in the minutes.
LOCATION OF MEETINGS
Holding meetings around the state encourages public participation, as stated in NCSL's Assessment of the Arkansas General Assembly (March 2001). When NCSL staff conducted a comprehensive study under a contract with the Arkansas General Assembly, it concluded that legislative meetings and public hearings held outside the capital:
○ Accommodate citizens who are unable to travel to the Capitol
○ Allows them to speak to legislators, testify at public hearings, or simply observe the process
○ Gives members the opportunity to visit various parts of the state and meet with local officials.
Most often, hearings outside the capital take place during the interim within the biennium, which in some states is a long period of time. Depending on the subject of the hearing, it might be very helpful to legislators to travel to the area of the state most affected. To encourage the practice, committees could have a budget to use for out-of-town hearings. Hearings can be scheduled to follow pre-file bill deadlines, giving legislators the benefit of public input and eliminating the need for duplicate hearings during the regular session. The practice ought to compliment the rules and the legislative process in order to contribute to the development of legislation. Coordination is necessary. And the legislature must be cautious about abuse, especially in an election year when the practice could be used as a campaign vehicle, according to NCSL.
Minnesota and Utah conduct mini-sessions at a selected site around the state. Although all committees are encouraged to hold meetings or hearings during a mini-session that lasts for about one month, the session may focus on a single issue of particular interest in the area.
States are making creative use of the Internet to solicit views from the public in addition to committees' public hearings. Individuals can view a committee's website to learn about committee activity and its bills. Committees can use email lists to broadcast meeting or hearing notices. Citizens can leave comments or submit written testimony. With official testimony, some method of verification is necessary to guarantee its authenticity. Individuals can pre-register their email address.
Hearings are held during the day, always at the State House. An accommodation is sometimes made on a particularly sensitive or major issue by holding a joint hearing with the respective committees of each chamber; otherwise House and Senate committees hold separate public hearings, requiring interested parties to attend two hearings on the same issue.
The new Senate building is equipped with electronic boards on every floor that show the bills each committee is hearing. Those following multiple issues can track upcoming bills.
Public hearings outside the capital are rare. In fact, hearings in the evenings in Concord have been discontinued since a policy closing the Legislative Office Building at night was recently instituted. Legislators testify first at hearings. Streaming audio broadcasts on the Internet of floor sessions are available, but there are no video broadcasts of legislative proceedings in New Hampshire.
Public hearings are not required for all bills in New Jersey. In fact, not all bills are referred to a committee; a bill can go directly to the floor. Of the 150 bills that are referred to a committee, the committee considers 30 to 40 in a meeting, and only a few of those have a public hearing. Constitutional amendments must have a public hearing. On-line notices of bills the legislature is considering inform members of the public that they can submit testimony by e-mail that will become part of the record on the bill that legislators have access to.
A committee member or the chairman can request a public hearing at an off-site location and hold it with the permission of the chamber's presiding officer. But these are the exception. Audio broadcasts of all committee meetings are available on the Internet. Proceedings in the chambers are available on both audio and video broadcasts.
Staff in the Legislative Council Research Office in Rhode Island report that public hearings are usually held in Providence during normal business hours. Members of the public must sign in to testify and there are no time restrictions on them. The committee makes accommodations for and provides assistance to the handicapped. An interpreter is available for the hearing impaired.
The legislature is considering construction of a new legislative office building. Hearing rooms in existing facilities are small and members of the public must sometimes stand outside the room. Hearings are often late in starting.
Committee members in Virginia can use beepers like those used in restaurants so they can be notified about when a bill is coming up before another committee. Committee staff “buzz” the member five minutes before his bill comes up so he can get to the hearing to give his testimony.