At Nebraska legislative hearings, just who gets to be heard?

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Mar 03

Don Schuller just wanted to give his five-minute speech and go.
The farmer and retired civil engineering technician from Wymore drove to Lincoln and spent seven hours hoping to testify against Gov. Pete Ricketts’ proposed income tax cuts during a public hearing last month, only to be turned away by the Legislature’s Revenue Committee for lack of time.

“I feel like I’m a reasonable person,” Schuller said Thursday. “I’m not all that acquainted with how the hearings work, because this is the first time I’ve attended. But I didn’t like how it was handled.”

Nebraska is one of the few states that guarantees a public hearing for each of the hundreds of bills lawmakers introduce every year. The longstanding tradition is intended to foster transparency and accountability in government.

But it causes some headaches, too.

Scheduling the hearings is an inexact science: No one can predict just how many people will want to speak or how many questions senators will ask. Testimony can stretch late into the evening, dashing plans of laypeople and lawmakers alike.

And because there isn’t enough time in the legislative session to discuss each bill on a different day, hearings usually cover three bills or more.

Sen. Jim Smith of Papillion, chairman of the Revenue Committee, said he limited testimony on the governor’s income tax bill to make time for a related measure scheduled for the same day.

“Is it appropriate to have those folks go until 11 o’clock or midnight, or is it best to try to limit and structure the testimony in such a way that you try to get as much of an opinion on both sides of the issue into the record as possible?” he asked.

Many people who were interested in the later proposal, the governor’s plan for reforming agricultural property valuation, were farmers and ranchers who drove to Lincoln from far-flung parts of the state, Smith said. And scheduling the two bills for different days wouldn’t have been fair to people who were interested in both.

“We also had a very active committee that chose to take up a considerable amount of that time.”

One-fifth of discussion on that bill was dominated by a single committee member asking questions, he said.

Committee chairmen usually limit individual speakers to three or five minutes, with exceptions for testimony from subject-matter experts and public officials, including the senator who introduced the bill. Committee members can extend a person’s speaking time by asking questions.

In extreme cases, committees can limit overall testimony to a set amount of time for each side.

That happened at least twice this year, once in Smith’s committee and again Wednesday in the Health and Human Services Committee, during a hearing on a bill that would change occupational licensing for cosmetologists, audiologists, nail technicians, massage therapists and barbers.

That rare morning hearing was ended promptly at noon because of events to mark Nebraska’s 150th year of statehood.

Dozens of people who opposed the bill were unable to testify. Its sponsor, Omaha Sen. Merv Riepe, is the committee chairman and decided to end the hearing at noon — a decision announced in advance through a news release but not included on the agenda.

Omaha Sen. Sara Howard, a committee member, disagreed with the scheduling decision and brought it up on the legislative floor Thursday morning.

“There is no celebration so big that it should keep us from doing the work that George Norris (father of Nebraska’s unicameral Legislature) dreamed of, and that Nebraskans deserve,” Howard said.

Committees typically know in advance when a bill will be controversial, and take that into consideration when scheduling the hearing.

Sen. Laura Ebke of Crete should know. 

She’s chairwoman of the Judiciary Committee, which deals with notoriously contentious topics such as medical marijuana and gay rights, and tends to draw testimony that is extensive, passionate and often redundant. 

“I feel very seriously that if people want to come and talk, they have a right to come and talk,” Ebke said. “It would have to be a truly dire situation for me to shut them down.”

Legislative rules give committee chairmen wide latitude in establishing ground rules.

Lobbyists and other regulars at legislative hearings know those rules in advance and plan around them, but outsiders often don’t.

The rules can also change at the last minute, usually to accommodate an unexpected number of speakers.

Most committee chairmen make a point to announce the rules at the start of each hearing.

Walt Radcliffe, a longtime Capitol lobbyist, said this isn’t the first year people have been turned away when they expected to testify on bills.

Different committee chairmen handle it with different levels of tact, he said, but all lawmakers should respect that public hearings are for the public, not for senators to have a “soliloquy.”

“It’s the only time, really, that they interact face-to-face in a sanctioned, public forum.”
Source: Norfolk Daily News