Testify! Who gets to address legislators, and how?

‘No gain in making this difficult so citizens don’t have a say.’

Credit: Chris Stewart

Credit: Chris Stewart

Dozens of bills come before Ohio state legislators in every General Assembly session, and somebody out there has an opinion on every one of them. On some issues, hundreds of people have something to say.

They get their chance before legislative committees.

“I tell kids when I go to high schools that committee hearings are where all the work is done,” said state Rep. Kyle Koehler, R-Springfield, chair of the House Agriculture & Conservation Committee. When a bill reaches the House or Senate floor, “it’s all about a few speeches and taking a vote.”

“Very few bills go through the committee process without changing in some way, shape or form,” he said.

Public testimony has been in the spotlight more than usual lately, from controversial and false statements about COVID-19 vaccinations causing magnetism to hours and hours of testimony about legislative and congressional redistricting. That prompted the Dayton Daily News to examine who gets to testify and how influential those statements are.

“Short of meeting with each committee member individually, testifying on a bill is the most effective way to influence the people who will be deciding whether to advance a piece of legislation,” advises Innovation Ohio, a progressive political group.

How does testimony at the Statehouse work?

When a committee plans to meet and consider a bill, notice comes out at least 24 hours in advance, giving people time to submit testimony and/or sign up to speak, said John Fortney, spokesperson for the Ohio Senate Majority Caucus.

“Typically, there are automatically three hearings on a bill that’s scheduled for testimony,” he said. At the first hearing bill sponsors explain the proposal. Proponents speak at a second hearing, opponents and interested parties at the third. More hearings can be scheduled for contentious issues.

“That’s typical, but it doesn’t always work that way,” Koehler said. Some bills with no opposition just get two hearings, for the sponsor and for all testimony, he said.

State Sen. Steve Huffman, R-Tipp City, who chairs the Senate Health Committee, holds testimony to three or five minutes per person on controversial bills, and asks the ranking Democratic member to make sure he’s fair to both sides. He asks committee members to ask questions briefly.

“And then I always — at the end, when we’re about to vote on the bill — give everybody on the committee who wants to a chance to say why they’re voting for or against it,” Huffman said.

State Rep. Scott Lipps, R-Franklin, House Health Committee chair, said he’s never seen a “nefarious” attempt to limit testimony; it’s just unfair to committee members to hold marathon hearings.

“There’s no gain in making this difficult so citizens don’t have a say,” he said.

Credit: Andrew Welsh-Huggins

Credit: Andrew Welsh-Huggins

Do legislators listen?

Getting testimony is often how legislators learn about potential controversies, Fortney said.

“That’s how you learn to make up your mind, based on what the people are testifying about and what they have to say,” he said.

Committees regularly hear from professionals on an issue, people in a district that’s particularly affected by a piece of legislation, or ordinary residents from elsewhere in Ohio with some interest, Fortney said.

“I don’t think there is any special consideration given to one piece of testimony vs. the other,” he said.

People who want to speak should find the relevant committee on the legislature’s website and contact the committee chair’s office, Fortney said. They’ll be asked to fill out a form stating who they are, what bill they’re commenting on, and their position on it.

Verbal and written testimony are given equal weight, he said.

Submitted testimony is uploaded to committee members’ iPads in advance so they can all refer to it, said Thomas Wetmore, lobbyist and legal analyst for the Ohio Municipal League.

“Committee chairmen do have the chance to change the rules or move some things around a little bit,” Lipps said.

Under normal circumstances committees can work with people who want to testify, but that has to be streamlined on contentious issues such asHouse Bill 248, which dealt with COVID-19 vaccination, he said.

“When 248 was hot, we had thousands of pieces of testimony,” Lipps said.

Normally having testimony submitted 24 hours before a hearing is time enough for staff to get it to all committee members, but for HB 248, he had to push that deadline back to 4 p.m. the Friday before the Tuesday hearing. Written notices went out to people who signed up to offer testimony, letting them know staff needed that much time to get it all processed.

“We don’t want anyone to feel like they went to the trouble of submitting testimony, and we didn’t get it uploaded for them,” Lipps said.

When verbal testimony has to be limited, he tries to make sure a varied group gets to speak, he said, and that testimony is not heavily repetitive.

“We’re trying to find different disciplines, and the bill sponsor has some say in who they want to present,” Lipps said. “Just submitting or putting testimony in does not mean you’re going to be selected. How are you going to have 200 people testify in one hearing?”

Credit: Jim Gaines

Credit: Jim Gaines

Who gets to speak and why?

Legislators come from varied backgrounds, so they can all benefit from someone with particular expertise, Koehler said.

“Most of the time we’re learning about something that we haven’t dealt with personally in our own professional lives,” he said.

Speakers before the Senate Health Committee are often members of various Ohio medical associations, representing hospitals, doctors or nurses, Huffman said. For him, it’s important to hear people say how a measure will affect them personally.

“It weighs the most when it’s an individual that has a personal story,” Huffman said.

Technology has made testimony and hearings themselves much easier to access, he said.

“I am very happy in the last General Assembly that we went to (broadcasting) all hearings on the Ohio Channel,” Huffman said. “I think that is big for the people in the state of Ohio.”

If someone is unable to attend a hearing due to a scheduling conflict, they can watch it later, he said.

Some groups such as the Farm Bureau have a representative speaking on almost any bill before the agriculture committee, Koehler said.

“A lot of times they’ll just show up as an interested party and offer what they know on a particular issue,” he said.

Other times it will just be an individual speaking on an issue that affects them personally, such as farmers addressing a recent bill on conservation of ephemeral streams, Koehler said.

“In my ag committee, it might be a conservation group, it might be the Farm Bureau or whatever,” he said. “A lot of times it’s an individual.”

What should speakers know before they go?

When a bill relevant to Ohio Municipal League members comes up, Wetmore contacts them and asks who would like to testify. People write their own testimony and the league approves it before it’s submitted in written form to the committee chairperson, at least 24 hours before a hearing.

“Every committee, every chairman is unique in the way they operate,” Wetmore said.

Sometimes committees will invite specific experts to testify, he said.

He testified personally at a 2018 budget hearing, and the municipal league’s director speaks fairly often on major issues.

Wetmore said he believes legislators take public testimony seriously, though in hearings that drag on for hours people may get “a little drowned out.”

Credit: Jim Noelker

Credit: Jim Noelker

“Some of the members you know like to mess with you a little bit, see if they can ask you a question you can’t answer,” he said.

Wetmore advises potential speakers to do their research thoroughly, anticipate what questions might be asked, and remember to address the committee chair.

“If you’re not familiar with it, it’s probably somewhat hard to get used to,” he said.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness Ohio offers a brochure of tips on legislative advocacy, including testifying before committees.

“The further in advance you schedule your testimony, the better the chances are that you will be afforded time to make your voice heard,” the brochure says.

It asks them to be patient with legislative staff, who are probably handling dozens of such requests at any given time. Staff can’t control when lawmakers schedule hearings. Regular committee meetings are sometimes changed on short notice, meaning people may be asked to testify at a different day or time.

NAMI Ohio urges people to research legislators’ backgrounds and positions to know what approach may appeal to them.

Written testimony doesn’t have the same impact as verbal, but it does become part of the committee’s official record and is more effective than an email, Innovation Ohio says in advice to its members. Written testimony can be as long and detailed as you want, but the spoken part should only take about three minutes because on controversial issues each person’s speaking time may be limited.

Koehler did once have someone show up with 70 pages of testimony — but 60 of those pages were footnotes and credentials.

“I’m glad he didn’t read the whole thing,” Koehler said.

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