Citizen Complaints Denied Opportunity to Testify in Nebraska Legislature
This story was originally published in the Nebraska Examiner.
LINCOLN. Citizens recently filled the conference rooms and hallways of the State Capitol to testify on thorny issues regarding guns, government funding for private schools, abortion, and LGBTQ rights.
At least a dozen people who waited up to six hours in line were denied that opportunity because legislative committee chairs set a six-hour time limit for testifying.
One senator invited those who were prevented from speaking to come to his office after many hours of hearing to give their opinion.
The issue has led to complaints about the way the Legislature is structuring hearings, many of which are dragging on overnight as increasingly controversial “culture wars” bills are introduced and more people want to testify about the various proposals.
“Now there are a lot of young people who are interacting with the Legislative Assembly for the first time because their voices were not heard and they were actually denied,” said Cindy Maxwell-Oostdik, a non-partisan who ran in the election. Legislature in 2022.
The Nebraska legislature is unique in that it requires a public hearing on every bill that is introduced. But there are no rules for such hearings.
In the past, there were rarely more than one or two hearings in the evening, but more and more afternoon hearings, which usually start at 1:30 p.m., now continue into the late evening – until 9:00 p.m. or later.
Some senators blamed the country’s political divisions and culture wars for this.
Former committee chairs
Three former MPs who chaired the committees spoke of various strategies for holding hearings with large numbers of people willing to testify.
But everyone said that it is important that each side of the issue has the opportunity to present their point of view.
Former Senator Steve Lathrop of Omaha said he has an “alliance rule”.
“If someone came all the way from the Alliance, they would have the opportunity to speak out,” Lathrop said.
Red light, green light
The Judiciary Committee, which traditionally receives most of the bills submitted to it, receives so many bills that former Senator Kermit Brashear imposed a time limit on individual speakers nearly two decades ago.
The restraint is enforced by a lighting system of green, yellow, and finally a red “stop light” to accommodate more witnesses.
The lightweight system, which normally limits readings to three minutes, is now used by nearly all legislative committees.
“This is a challenge,” he added. “It was important to me to give everyone a chance to speak.”
Former Senator Galen Hadley of Kearney said he had the same priorities: let everyone have a chance to testify because they could travel across the state to do so.
“If you limit supporters and opponents to three hours, you turn off some people who want to talk,” Hadley said.
The senator said he would limit each witness to three to five minutes each, which he considered fair.
Former Senator David Landis of Lincoln, who served from 1989 to 2007, said he doesn’t recall ever having a six-hour hearing in the legislature, as is more common today.
But he had a unique way of arranging such sessions—he asked those who wanted to testify to raise their hands, and then told supporters and opponents how long he calculated it would take for both sides to present their position.
“I asked, ‘Is this fair?’ Landis said, and if both parties agree, he will ask each of them to organize their own witnesses to present their position without repeating arguments.
“It was very rare to get two hours of testimony from both sides,” he said. “There were no problems like I read about in the newspaper today.”
Legislative hearings, according to Landis, are organized like a trial, where supporters first present their arguments and then opponents. According to him, it is important for each side to hear the arguments of the other side.
Education, healthcare and social services in the center
State Senators Dave Moorman of Glenville and Ben Hansen of Blair chair committees on education, health and social services that have recently come under fire for hearings about abortion and Nebraska’s transgender people.
Moorman said he knew some people were unhappy with the way he handled some of the Education Committee hearings, but felt that given the number of invited witnesses and others willing to speak, three hours per side was sufficient.
“I thought it worked pretty well,” Moorman said. “Unfortunately, some people were unable to speak.”
“After you get past the first three hours, you start to repeat yourself,” Moorman said. “You have to draw the line somewhere.”
People who are present at the hearing but do not testify, either due to lack of time or because they do not want to speak, may sign the sheet to note their position.
Hansen, like Moorman and former senators interviewed, said he prioritizes giving “adequate and fair time” to all sides of the issue.
“I think as long as you allocate enough time and structure it appropriately and be fair, and then make sure everyone has open communication about how things are going to work, I think that’s the most fair way.” Hansen said.
Moorman noted that some state senators go to Lincoln. To avoid driving home in the middle of the night and then back to Lincoln a couple of hours later, it’s important to end the hearing in a decent time.
Moorman said he consulted with Capitol security ahead of some of the hearings that drew the largest crowds, and security officials recommended clearing the room of opponents when supporters testified, and vice versa.
A video feed of the hearing was provided in a crowded room, so each side could hear what the other side was saying. He added that the newly passed rule allowing testimony to be sent by email provided another way for voters to express their views.
Hansen said hearings that evoke heightened emotion, such as those about abortion and LGBTQ issues, understand some of the bystanders’ reactions. However, he said it was “completely inappropriate” that some reacted by openly swearing or yelling at committee members and running out of the room.
State Senator Justin Wayne, who chairs the Judiciary Committee and sits on the Education Committee, met with witnesses who were unable to testify at an education hearing on a bill that would restrict who can use school restrooms and play on sports teams based on sex. .
Wayne said it’s “pretty easy” for him and he doesn’t have any “hard principles” in his actions: some people drive five or six hours to testify, “and the least I can do is give them three minutes to speak. “.
While many activists or lobbyists testify, Wayne said that for him it’s about “the one”, that of Chadron, similar to Lathrop’s “Alliance Rule”.
Wayne added that the technology allows people to testify online, but that doesn’t matter.
“After all, if someone shows up, they need to be heard,” Wayne said.
Maxwell-Oostdik, who noted the disappointment of the young people who were turned down, added that she appreciates that Wayne took the time to meet with the people of Nebraska in person, but is disappointed that it was necessary at all.
According to Maxwell-Ostdik, the implications of limiting testimony can go beyond mere participation. Over time, limiting who gets heard could lead to worse laws, more people leaving the state, and negative effects on the state’s economy, she said.
“The Least I Can Do”
In the judiciary, Wayne structures his hearings for higher-profile bills, so one hour each is given to supporters, then opponents, then neutral witnesses, and then repeats this cycle to completion. Here’s how he handled a revived attempt by state senator Tom Brewer to force people to carry concealed weapons without permission.
The Legislative Assembly, as an institution, should not extend session after midnight, which would be the new day of the Legislature, but Wayne said no one could tell him how to run his committee.
“So if we are there until 2 am, then hell, we are there until 2 am,” he said.
“I just fundamentally believe that I don’t know who is showing up. I don’t know their way of life,” Wayne said. “But if they took the time to come and be heard, that’s the least I can do.”
The Nebraska Examiner is part of Newsroom States, a network of newsrooms supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. The Nebraska Examiner maintains editorial independence. For questions, please contact editor Keith Folsom: [email protected] Follow Nebraska Examiner on Facebook and Twitter.