There’s a simple way to predict how much public testimony to expect at the start of a committee meeting, according to Sen. Chris Rothfuss (D-Laramie).
“You look at the room, the room is full. You look online, there are plenty of people,” Rothfuss told WyoFile. If participation promises to be high, Rothfuss said, it’s important for the committee chairperson to set ground rules, such as limiting each speaker’s time, to ensure as many people as possible can testify.
Monday’s Senate Education Committee was one of those instances, Rothfuss said. The room was packed as lawmakers were set to discuss three bills, including Senate File 51 – Fairness in women’s sports act, which would ban transgender girls and women from competing in women’s sports that are sponsored by a public entity such as a high school. Chairman Sen. Charlie Scott (R-Casper) announced one ground rule — priority would be given to in-person testimony.
After about 80 minutes of public comment, Scott cut it off as Sabrina King was talking. King is with the American Civil Liberties Union of Wyoming.
Scott postponed a vote on the bill, and said he was considering not allowing public testimony when the committee took the bill back up. Rothfuss pushed back.
“I hope if we are going to move this bill forward, that will take thorough and robust public testimony,” Rothfuss said.
“I will not tolerate a filibuster on the bill,” Scott responded.
“I don’t think it is [a filibuster]. I think it’s a passion,” Rothfuss said.
When the committee picked the bill back up Wednesday, King finished her testimony. It was the only public comment Scott allowed.
“That was just a warning to people to be brief and to the point,” Scott told WyoFile. “I don’t like cutting off the public participation and debate. But you have to sometimes.”
The meeting was illustrative of a growing trend, some lawmakers say, as hot-button issues draw more public interest to the Capitol. The overwhelming amount of public testimony can eat up hours of time and spur legislators to curtail comments, which leads to complaints that people are robbed of their opportunity to participate.
But lawmakers differ on how to strike a balance between hearing out the public and meeting legislative deadlines.
Time is of the essence during a 20-day budget session as lawmakers race to meet deadlines. Such constraints, Scott said, create tricky limits.
Scott, the longest serving lawmaker in Wyoming history, has seen public interest in the Legislature grow in recent years, he said, echoing an observation made by many lawmakers. Some point to contentious bills, others like Rothfuss give credit to the ease of virtual testimony.
“Which is certainly good from a public access standpoint,” Rothfuss said. “That’s been a real improvement of the Legislature over the past few years.” At the same time, Rothfuss said, it does make it difficult — but not impossible — to manage public testimony.
“If you want to cut off debate, because you don’t have time, that’s OK. You just don’t then pass the bill,” Rothfuss said, adding that it’s better to table such legislation and take it to the interim.
The Senate Education Committee voted 3-2 in favor of SF 51, with Rothfuss and Sen. Affie Ellis (R-Cheyenne) in opposition.
Sen. Tara Nethercott (R-Cheyenne) does not think public participation has increased at the Legislature. However, she said there are certain bills that garner more interest than others. One such bill came before the Senate Judiciary Committee — the committee Nethercott chairs — on Monday.
Senate File 102 – Second amendment protection act would restrict state law enforcement from enforcing federal gun laws. About twice as many supporters of the bill were permitted to speak than those against it. Two ideologically different political groups that both oppose the bill — Wyoming Gun Owners and Wyoming Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America — criticized Nethercott for who was allowed to testify during the meeting.
“I get it, that time for public comment must be limited, but this feels like a calculated attempt to suppress the opposition and a devolution of democracy,” Beth Howard with Moms Demand Action wrote in an email to WyoFile. Several of the organization’s members were waiting on the Zoom call, Howard said, ready to testify.
“It’s not that we didn’t all get to speak, we’re all prepared for that. It’s that none of us got to speak,” Howard said.
One lawmaker also expressed dissatisfaction with the way Nethercott ran the committee meeting.
“Quite frankly, I’m offended because I wanted to speak in committee and it got shut down pretty quick,” Sen. Anthony Bouchard (R-Cheyenne) said on the Senate floor. Sen. Ogden Driskill (R-Devils Tower) called a point of order before asking Bouchard to “stick to the facts.”
“At times like this, when I was teaching social studies, I’d say, ‘just settle down guys,” Sen. Jeff Wasserburger (R-Gillette), who was acting as chairman for the committee of the whole, said.
“There has never been an effort on my part, or do I know of any other chairman in the Wyoming Legislature that tries to reduce or eliminate or manipulate public testimony in any way,” Nethercott told WyoFile. “Nor did I do that, nor have I ever done that, nor do I intend to do that.”
During the meeting, Nethercott noted when the committee was running out of time and asked at least one speaker to limit their comments to one minute. She also asked several members of the public to keep comments germane to SF 51.
When concerned about having enough time for everyone to speak, Nethercott said, she’s previously divided opposing sides to line up and take turns testifying. But with contentious bills, Nethercott said there’s a sensitive dynamic to consider.
“There was quite a bit of tension [in the room] and maybe some discomfort associated with the subject matter. And so [I] didn’t necessarily want to divide the room out in that way,” Nethercott said. “And that’s kind of the chairman’s prerogative, recognizing that there is a much bigger picture than what maybe is appreciated at any given time.”
Committee meetings offer the one in-person opportunity for the public to formally testify on a bill during session. Members of the public can also email or call legislators, or use the online hotline. That service was launched about a decade ago to help residents participate in the legislative process. A lot has changed since then, according to Linda Burt, who has spent about 25 years as a lobbyist in Wyoming for various groups, including the ACLU and Pro-Choice Wyoming.
The Legislative Service Office has greatly improved the Wyoming Legislature’s website, Burt said, and that’s made it much easier for the public to learn about and track legislation. Burt also said she appreciates House and Senate rules that require public notice of a committee meeting by 3 p.m. the day before the meeting.
“This is very much better than the old days [when] we had to wait for a notice to come up on the [LSO] door. And we might be sitting there at 6 o’clock at night waiting,” Burt said.
It is still challenging for people traveling from the far corners of the state, Burt said.
Burt has other, larger concerns about the Legislature and public participation.
“I understand leadership is in a very distinct, difficult position right now in terms of the critics in the Legislature and the hard right that’s making it difficult for leadership. And I think they’re making it difficult to have that sort of more collegial atmosphere,” Burt said.
That deteriorating civility can be seen in committee meetings as legislators challenge those giving testimony, Burt said.
“I think for a lot of people who aren’t used to this, it’s very disquieting to have a legislator, sort of, come back at you with a response that they disagree, and be very aggressive about it,” Burt said.
Burt would prefer to see less of that. She’d also like to see the public shift its focus from hot-button legislation to other pressing matters for the state, she said.
At the discretion of the chair
There are no Senate or House rules regarding length or quality of public testimony at committee meetings; the chair has discretion. Rothfuss isn’t sure a rule change is necessary to account for increased public interest, he said.
“As long as it’s done in a fair and balanced way, things will proceed correctly. What you end up seeing and what concerns the public is when a chair has a clear bias one way or another on the bill, and quite honestly, just doesn’t want to hear the public testimony,” Rothfuss said.
Scott has his own take on adjustments. Part of that is giving preference to “the people that have taken the time to come and be in front of us,” he said.
Scott also said he would support either limiting or dropping virtual public testimony completely.
“It’s a matter of balance, and I got to strike a balance,” Scott said.