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Bills Civic Engagement COVID-19 Legislature

Testifying in the Time of COVID

You might see an announcement that the legislature has expanded options for testimony and comment due to COVID and think, “Oh good, I can testify over video.” You would be wrong. Despite all the technological advancements that have been adopted during the pandemic, you still cannot testify with video conferencing tools. The revisions to policies for 2021 are detailed (rather confusingly) here: https://nebraskalegislature.gov/committees/public-input.php.

Your options for testimony to be included in the record include showing up to the hearing room during the actual hearing or two different options for submitting testimony to be included in the record. Of these three methods, the two existing methods have been changed slightly and one new method has been added. In addition, there is a third completely new option that allows you to submit comments, but that one is misleading because comments submitted with the online tool do not get included in the public record. I’m going to save that one for the end of this article because, in my view, it is a different category than testimony. 

In-person Testimony

Probably the most effective way of testifying at the legislature is the good old fashioned way of physically appearing before the committee and orally presenting your views. If you are particularly passionate about a topic, orally presenting your testimony allows that passion to show in a way written testimony can’t. If you are extraordinarily knowledgeable about the topic, presenting in-person allows you to answer questions from the committee members. Sometimes, the Q&A part of your testimony can be very effective and convincing, so I don’t want to discount this added value of in-person testimony, compared to written testimony. On the other hand, you might get asked awkward and inappropriate questions like “Why are you angry at God?” so written testimony prevents moments such as that.

In even the best of times, there are obvious drawbacks to in-person testimony that particularly disadvantage citizens without wealth and status, such as needing to work or care for children. Most notably though, the continued disregard for the science about masks demonstrated by many members of our legislature and citizens within the state makes prolonged in-person meetings a very real risk for exposure to the virus. If you do testify in person, be sure to check that your mask fits well and is made of materials known to provide excellent protection. With some possible exceptions, those testifying in favor of the bill go first, followed by those testifying against the bill, and finally, those testifying as neutral. You can leave as soon as you have finished testifying. With that information in mind, you can estimate how long you will need to be in the room to determine your tolerance for exposure risk.

Emailing the Committee before the Hearing 

A valuable method of providing testimony that will be included in the record is emailing the committee. This is called “Position Letter” on the Public Hearings site of the legislature. For the most part, this works the same as before, with two notable changes. Previously, you emailed the chair of the committee, but now you email an address that is assigned to the committee itself. The email addresses for each committee are listed here: https://nebraskalegislature.gov/committees/committee-emails.php. Importantly, the deadline for emailing testimony has changed. You now must send your email by noon the last working day before the committee hearing. (Before, you had until 5:00 p.m.)

As always, you have to include the number of the bill (e.g. LB 532); your name and physical address; whether you are for, against, or neutral on the bill; and a statement that you want your letter included in the public hearing record. On the day of the hearing, after all the in-person testimony, the committee will read out loud all the names of people who submitted these letters, and that will be included in the transcript of the hearing. 

“Written Testimony in Lieu of In-Person Testimony”

If you are a person for whom following extremely nit-picky instructions gives you anxiety, I do not recommend this plan. The specific rules seem unnecessarily convoluted, but the basic summary is that you only have a one-hour window between 8:30 a.m. and 9:30 a.m. to physically bring 12 printed copies of your letter to the specific room in the Capitol where the hearing will be. You cannot include additional handouts, and you can only bring your own testimony. You need to sign a testimony record form when you drop it off. It can only be two pages single spaced or four pages double spaced.

As I understand it, the main difference between the impact of this method and the emailed Position Letter is that with this method, your name will be listed in the formal committee hearing record as having testified, with a note that it was provided in writing. Oddly enough, if you mess up on some aspect of the instructions for this type of testimony, it will be treated like the emailed position letters. To me personally, it seems like all the hassle of testifying in person without significant advantages beyond the emailed testimony. Plus, even walking to the hearing room and going through the process of signing the paper introduces some exposure risks, although far less than sitting through the entire hearing.

Submission of Online Comments

The trickiest part of understanding all these changes is that, while the three methods I’ve described so far in this roundup result in getting your views included in the public hearing record, the online comments don’t. One advantage to the comments is that they are available to all senators and staff throughout the entire session. The online comment tool is useful in its own right but should not be considered a replacement for submitting views for the record through the other three methods. You can access the online comment tool on the page of the bill itself. This saves you the trouble of looking up the correct destination, among other conveniences. But do not let these conveniences come at the cost of having your views excluded from the record of the committee hearing.

I called and confirmed that you are allowed to submit comments in this tool in addition to using one of the other three methods for the same bill. There may be a situation where senators outside the committee will read the comments but not the hearing record. As far as I know, this comment tool will be available for submitting comments after the hearing, so this would be a good place for you to shares your views once a bill has made it out of committee and is heading to the floor. This also gives you a chance to submit your views on a bill that slipped under your radar before its committee hearing.

Making Effective Use of the Options

The email option (i.e. “Position Letter”) seems to be the best balance of ease and effectiveness among these four options. Most people reading this have likely emailed the committee chair before a hearing in previous sessions and can accommodate the changes to deadline and destination. Make sure your friends and collaborators in the state know about the adjustments. Given the noon deadline instead of 5 p.m., that means we must be even more on top of the hearing schedule and getting the word out. If you run a page, for example, you’ll probably need to let your followers know about the bill earlier than you used to. Keep a watch on Seeing Red Nebraska for important bills and be ready to move fast to write your own position letter. You can submit comments through the page of the bill at any time in the session. If you didn’t submit your views to the public record before the hearing or want to influence the floor vote, the comment tool is a new and potentially valuable way to make your views accessible to any senators or staff who choose to review the submission.