Thursday, February 19, 2009

Testifying at the State Legislature

Decisions by Governor Rell and the State Legislature have enormous impacts on Middletown, a fact that is brought to the fore during the current budgetary discussions. Impelled by curiousity about the actual functioning of the State Legislature, I traveled to Hartford on Tuesday to observe our legislature in action.

Energy and Technology Committee Public Hearing

I was particularly curious about the process for providing testimony to the legislators during a public hearing, and I decided to testify on a topic of interest to me, namely Legislative act 5995, An act concerning the freedom to dry. As reported on Monday, the Energy and Technology Committee held hearings on this act on Tuesday.

Since I had never even set foot in any State Government building, let alone actually addressed legislators, I phoned Martin Mador, the Legislative and Political Chair of the CT Sierra Club, for advice and guidance. After a long sigh which made it abundantly clear that I had no idea what I was in for, he explained the process for speaking in a public hearing of the Energy and Technology Committee.
  1. 11:00AM: Go to committee room, in person, to sign up to speak.
  2. Deliver 50 copies of testimony to committee staff for distribution to legislators.
  3. 1PM until the end of the hearing (perhaps 4 or 5PM, depending): Be in the hearing room, to not miss name being called. With experience, one can guess when your name will be called, but still best to be available.
  4. Keep remarks to 3 minutes, STRICTLY ENFORCED!
Now, I don't know about your boss, but mine does not encourage me to hang at the State Capitol for the entire day. I had a very limited window of the afternoon in which I could be away from work. Fortunately, Martin came to my rescue. He said he would slip my name onto the sign-up sheet, and see if the chair would allow me to testify between 2:30 and 3:30.

When I arrived at the Legislative Office Building (LOB), I entered into a hearing room that was packed with people. The legislators sit around a circular desk/podium facing each other across a large circle (see photo). Matt Lesser was present at the hearing (the photo shows his back), James O'Rourke (also on the committee) was not present while I was there. At one side of the circle is a desk where testimony is given.

Several different bills were being discussed in this public hearing, ranging from heating oil regulation to broad band access to the clothesline bill that brought me out. I heard testimony from industry representatives (aka lobbyists) and from directors of State agencies regarding heating oil and broad band.

Martin's machinations worked, and Rep. Vickie Nardello, chair of the commitee, called my name about 45 minutes after I arrived. I sat at the desk facing Nardello and urged committee members to support the Freedom to Dry Act, listing the benefits that clotheslines bring to the Middletown community. After my testimony, the ranking Republican on the committee, Sean Williams, engaged me in a long back and forth. He argued, as have some comments on my earlier piece on this, that this act would take away the freedom of people to live in an area devoid of clotheslines. My response was simply that the legislature would have to balance the loss of an absolute right to a clotheslines-free life against the increased costs (in pollution, power plant construction, and/or expense of pollution mitigation) that such a life shifts to the entire community.

However, after this extensive discussion, Williams came to what I think really troubled him about my testimony. With a puzzled expression, he asked, "Why are you here? Are you part of any group or are you here as an individual?" I think he could not fathom why and how a regular citizen would come to Hartford to testify to his committee (about CLOTHESLINES!). I told him, "I am passionate about clotheslines"; after much laughter (I wasn't trying to be funny, I really do love laundry drying in the breeze, ask anybody), the Chair assured me that nobody had ever said this in that room before. I assured Rep. Williams that I had followed the legislation and was there as an individual. He looked unconvinced, I bet he is still trying to figure out my 'angle'.

The Appropriations Committee Public Hearing

During the course of the afternoon, I learned that the Appropriations Committee would be holding a hearing that evening about the impact of the Governor's proposed budget on funding for the Arts and for the Environment, and also on the impact of her proposed elimination and mergers of State agencies. With my children away at their Vermont Oma's (no school this week), and no municipal meetings of note to attend, what was I to do? I returned to the LOB at 6:30 for the Appropriations Committee public hearing.

Fortunately, at the Appropriations Committee hearing, I ran into Middletown's own indomitable Katchen Coley, who was there to testify on behalf of the plants. She filled me in on the procedures for speaking at an Appropriations Committee Public Hearing.
  1. 9AM: Go to the Committee office and enter a lottery to see if and when you will be allowed to speak.
  2. Drop off 50 copies of testimony to Committee staff.
  3. 4PM: Examine the sheets of paper outside the hearing room to see what order you will be speaking.
  4. 6:30PM to whenever: wait to be called to speak.
  5. Keep remarks to 3 minutes, STRICTLY ENFORCED!
This night, because there were so many people who wanted to speak, they had split the Committee in half, so that 50 speakers (the odd-numbered lottery numbers) could address part of the Committee at the same time as another 50 speakers (evens) addressed the other part of the Committee.

The speakers to the Committee ranged from citizens whose lives, or those of their children, were turned around by arts experiences that were funded by the State, to agency directors who were concerned about the effects of consolidation on environmental protection, to executive directors of conservation groups (for example the CT Farmland Trust). The stories of past success that they relayed were heartwarming, and the possibility that the funding for future successes would be cut was clearly of great concern to both legislators and the speakers. The amount of anxiety over these programs was disproportionate to the actual amount of money given to these programs, which account for a relatively tiny portion of the State's budget.

Citizen input into the legislature

I set out to explore the workings of our state government, and although one day cannot reveal all the secrets, I returned to Middletown with a better understanding of part of the legislative process. The most startling thing for me was how much more difficult it is to speak at a public hearing in Hartford than it is in Middletown. At municipal meetings in Middletown, any member of the public can speak at a moment's notice and for virtually unlimited time during scheduled public hearings. Contrast that with the State Government, where one needs to either take two separate trips to the Capitol, or spend the entire day there, and is STRICTLY limited to 3 minutes.

Nearly as startling was the fact that the public hearings were packed with people, that most of the speakers were articulate and informed about the issues, and were able to say a lot in 3 minutes. At the Appropriations Committee hearing, many of the speakers were well-spoken members of the public, there for the first time. However, many of the speakers clearly were quite experienced in speaking to legislators, and accustomed to lobbying on behalf of a cause (for example environmental protection or heating oil laws).

The time commitment that is required just to get on the list of approved speakers is daunting for anybody who is not full-time at the legislature building (without the assistance of Martin Mador, there is no conceivable way that my testimony would have made it into the Energy and Technology Public Hearing). In addition, the scheduling and announcement of public hearings are typically only available 3 days before a hearing. Clearly, these conditions make it much easier for lobbyists and state employees to participate in public hearings than for volunteer community activists interested in one particular issue. Anyone interested in testifying at a public hearing would be well-advised to enlist the help of a sympathetic full-time lobbyist.

Finally, I was startled by how little focus the legislators seemed to have on the public hearings. At any given time, whether there was a speaker or not, legislators would get up and wander out of the room. Even when present, most legislators appeared to be multi-tasking between listening to the speaker and working on their computer. Most disturbingly, only a small minority of the legislators on the Appropriations committee even bothered to come at all. Representative Gail Hamm, of Middletown, who serves on Appropriations, was not in attendance on Tuesday evening.


Anonymous said...

This was a fascinating story fishmuscle.

I wonder what would happen to the lobbyists if the system for testifying was opened up somehow. What would happen to political contributions, since of course lobbyists are the foundation of that system as well.

One correction is that the major Middletown commissions have a five minute speaking limit (at least the board of education and I think maybe the council too). I think it was mostly because a few gadflys used to dominate the microphone at every meeting. Anyone remember Sid Libby?

Anonymous said...

thank you for being the voice some of us could not be!- madamnirvana

ps if you ever need a protester just let me know what i need to chain myself to, i'll bring my own chains.

Catherine Johnson said...

It benefits everyone to speak succinctly. The 3 minute convention is not to control people but instead to allow as many people to speak as possible. It is my understanding even the US Supreme Court has time limits: only 12 minutes to introduce a case which may have been taken a decade to assemble.

Regarding Middletown, anyone can speak for as long as they want. The convention is this: everyone gets a chance to speak for 5 minutes, after which, if you wish to speak again, you may. If you are speaking for a number of people representing a similar viewpoint, you may have more time, as you are using others' 5 minutes. However, once you start getting repetitive, you run the risk of the chair urging you to finish up.

As many of you know, it is my most fervent wish to increase citizen participation in Middletown civic affairs. It would be nice to offer practice sessions to introduce people how to speak at the different types of commissions. I would be delighted to partner with someone on this, just give me a ring.

Web Dunce said...

Your article is very informative and accurate. As someone who knows the ins and outs of testifying I feel your pain. The whole process is too long and at best minimally effective. It's designed for lobbyists. You are better off getting 5 friends in your district to personally write letters to the legislator with a specific topic or grievance, or make appointments to speak with the legislators one-on-one. Testifying can be useful if you're bringing a group with you and the issue has a broader focus (i.e. after school funding), but even then it's hit or miss. By the end of the day everyone is tired and folks aren't paying much attention. These hearings can sometimes go on until 11 or 12 at night.

David Bauer said...

Congratulations on cracking the mystery of the LOB. Doesn't it feel like your testimony is more regarded than at a local Council meeting?

You do have to be a Pro to do this with any regularity. The rules get even tougher for an "individual" at the high profile hearings.

Anonymous said...

I also had this fascinating experience, as three of us from Wesleyan Hills testified Wed. Feb. 18th at a hearing of the Planning & Development Committee, in support of Rep. Matt Lesser's proposed bill No. 5533: An Act Concerning Local Appeals of Decisions of Traffic Authorities. Because of the way our onstreet parking on Long Hill Road was taken from us, we are very much in support of modifying the total authority of Middletown's Traffic Authority, which has no oversight or guidelines when making decisions that affect hundreds of people. Such absolute authority is inherently arbitrary, and can lead to misuse and abuse of power as well as selective enforcement of applicable statutes. We believe that an appeals process might have streamlined our efforts, and we thank Matt Lesser for inviting us to testify in support of his bill to enable municipalities to provide such a process.