Two legislative committee chairmen closed the door on remote public testimony last week, limiting who can participate in the lawmaking process. 

Committee hearings are the only public opportunity to testify or otherwise formally weigh in on proposed legislation. Stakeholders can also call or email lawmakers directly, but such correspondence is not public record. Committee chairs must balance legislative deadlines with ample public input. 

Senate Education Committee Chairman Sen. Charles Scott (R-Casper) and House Minerals, Business and Economic Development Chairman Rep. Donald Burkhart (R-Rawlins) have chosen to strike such a balance in their respective committees by limiting testimony, in most cases, to those who can travel to Cheyenne, in person, often on short notice.

Lawmakers understand in-person testimony better, according to Scott, who also has concerns about the internet expanding testimony to an unmanageable volume and impeding the constitutionally time-limited process. Burkhart said he worries about technical challenges, like getting microphones and cameras working properly, slowing things down. 

At least one non-partisan, good-governance group disagrees.

“There are technical aspects and time management issues that come with including remote testimony,” Jenn Lowe, executive director of the Equality State Policy Center, wrote in a letter to the Management Council on Monday. “But the benefit of greater public participation merits the effort.” In its letter, ESPC requested the council consider requiring committees to make remote testimony available to virtual participants while retaining the chair’s right to set time limits and registration deadlines. 

“With these sideboards in place, allowing virtual testimony will continue to allow for greater public participation and debate,” Lowe wrote. 

Discretion

Committee chairs have a lot of discretion. No Senate or House rules dictate length or quality of public testimony at committee meetings — hence Scott and Burkhart’s authority to rule out remote public testimony. 

Both chairmen, however, said they would be willing to make some exceptions. Burkhart, for example, allowed Kemmerer’s mayor to testify remotely last week when winter weather made the roads impassable. 

“Those are extenuating circumstances and I’m always willing to listen to extenuating circumstances,” Burkhart told WyoFile. Continued exceptions would be made but “within reason,” he said. 

“People get into this approach of ‘I don’t want to go out of my way, but I want my voice heard.’ Well, put some effort into it,” Burkhart said. 

House Minerals, Business and Economic Development Chairman Rep. Donald Burkhart (R-Rawlins) during the 67th Wyoming Legislature. (Megan Lee Johnson/WyoFile)

Public interest in the Legislature has grown, Scott — the longest serving lawmaker in Wyoming history — previously told WyoFile. Some restraint is needed if Wyoming is going to retain its citizen Legislature, Scott said. If lawmakers have to meet more frequently or for longer periods of time, Scott said, the body may have to move to a more full-time, professional setup — a structure that could prevent some from serving. 

“I’d just as soon discourage it,” Scott said. 

Benefits

The Legislature has benefited from additional public testimony made possible by Zoom in recent years, according to Sen. Chris Rothfuss (D-Laramie). At the same time, he doesn’t think the Legislature has the policy quite right.

“I can say that we have had many occasions where professional lobbyists sat in Washington, D.C. and Zoomed in and told us their line and probably billed hourly in doing so,” Rothfuss said. 

Meanwhile, committees don’t always hear from the most directly-impacted stakeholders, Rothfuss said. Take the education committee, for example, which Rothfuss has been a member of since 2011. The committee hears from superintendents and administrators but rarely from teachers, according to Rothfuss.

“Why is that? Because they’re working. They’re teaching the students and the only way they could be here is that they literally took a day off, and the district paid for a sub so that somebody could come here and provide us with testimony as we’re deciding the fate of the schools in the state.” 

Remote participation provides a way for teachers to take a couple of minutes out of their day to testify, Rothfuss said. Meanwhile, other committees may better access expert testimony that isn’t confined to Wyoming, such as the Select Committee on Blockchain, Financial Technology and Digital Innovation Technology.

“I think there’s a lot you can do to balance those interests and make sure that we’re hearing from the people that need to be heard from and maybe limiting the folks that don’t have as much at stake,” Rothfuss said. 

Timing 

Remote testimony has been available, if limited, in Wyoming for years, via remote conference sites like those in Pinedale High School and the Veterans’ Home of Wyoming in Buffalo. 

In 2020, however, the COVID-19 pandemic inadvertently popularized and normalized remote participation. Now, with an internet connection and a Zoom account anyone can testify. The Equality State Policy Center would like legislative leadership to protect that ability with new rules.

“My friends in Star Valley would have to spend considerable time and money traveling to testify before a committee for a few minutes if they were able to leave their job for at least two days,” Lowe wrote.

This year’s window to guarantee remote access is tight, however. The Legislature must adopt any new rules by the close of the fifth day of the session, which falls on Monday. If it doesn’t meet that deadline, Lowe said, she hopes remote participation will become an interim topic. 

“At the end of the day, we want as many people as possible to participate in the legislative process,” Lowe said. “It’s the 21st century, we can’t put the virtual cat back in the bag.”

Maggie Mullen

Maggie Mullen reports on state government and politics. Before joining WyoFile in 2022, she spent five years at Wyoming Public Radio.

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  1. Let’s be clear … these are only two committees, Sen. Scott’s Education Committee in the Senate and Rep. Burkhart’s Minerals, Business and Economic Development Committee. That is just 2 of 20 committees of reference in both chambers. By and large, Committee Chairmen still endorse and allow online testimony. And as Mr. Coles’ pointed out, most limit that testimony to three minutes, and that’s appropriate. The Wyoming session is sprint as it is. So perhaps a little pressure on the two overreaching and bullheaded committee chairmen will bring them into recognizing that citizen input should be treasured and welcome … not thought of as a nuisance or undesirable. Limit it to Wyoming citizens only. Nobody will have heartburn with that.

  2. It is interesting to note that every comment here strongly supports remote participation, yet many of our legislators sit in their nice warm chambers and forget about the reality that citizens face. Our legislators are paid for travel, expenses, a salary, and even receive plenty of meals, gifts, etc. from paid lobbyists.
    However, many of these legislators ignore the difficulties imposed on citizens who want to speak and participate in the government of Wyoming. It takes significant time and money to leave work and travel to Cheyenne. Many times, it is not possible. The latest figures that I could find show that I-80 has been closed at least 34 times each year, and with a high of over 55 times. I-90 with a high of at least 9 times and I-25 with a high of at least 19 times.
    Our legislators also forget that bills are shuffled from one committee to another and the times scheduled are constantly changed.
    I’ve also noticed that when testimony is cut off in physical meetings, it is always after the long-winded lobbyists have had their opportunity to speak.
    For the first time, it is possible to have true citizen participation with remote testimony. I agree there should be rules and it would make sense to limit the time that each person can speak. I’ve taught classes on making 3 minute speeches that “rock”. If a reasonable limit is placed on all speakers starting with the first one, I feel this would be fair. However, to limit or prohibit remote testimony is completely unfair.

  3. Senator Rothfuss has it right. Allow the online testimony of Wyomingite’s … working folks with jobs that have valuable input and experience but can’t always make it to Cheyenne to testify. Out of state lobbyists … many times law firms or national associations, are simply special interest hired guns exploiting multistate aggregation of resources. Make their Wyoming members testify is necessary if they don’t have a Wyoming citizen to represent them. Locking out genuine Wyoming citizens smacks of its own style of elitism and special interest. Wyoming is better than that. P.S. I was one of those out of state lobbyists.

  4. I agree with all the above comments. When I was a teacher and working mom, I would have been docked pay (if it was not a sick day). Working young adults do not necessarily have time or money to travel to Cheyenne. Don’t even get me started on the sick and disabled!

  5. The proposal will ensure that the majority of input these committees receive is from other committee members, paid lobbyists, those being paid to show up, and governmental employees (also paid to be there). Those who won’t be able to will include parents who care for homes and children, disabled folks who have enormous difficulty traveling in Wyoming’s winters, teachers and folks who simply work for a living and can’t take that kind of time off. This is a policy that excludes most hard working citizens of the State.

  6. I don’t know if you have tracked how many days I80 has been closed this winter, but it’s a lot! A couple of years ago I drove to Cheyenne through a snow storm to testify at a legislative committee meeting that started in the late afternoon. When I got there, the chairman announced they were going to work the bill and not take any testimony. I lucked out that I was part of a very large group of Wyomingites who also had risked the weather to appear. Reluctantly the chairman gave in to allow testimony. You could make the drive and still be locked out. ‘Those pesky voters slowing down the process…’

  7. Wow! That’s an entitled decision! Democracy in the Equality State is open to only those who have the luxury of time, transportation and financial means to buy gas, stay in a hotel and take time off of work. Ignorance is bliss—and these legislators are over-dosing on it.

  8. Isn’t interesting that the person who has been in the Legislature for 44 years is worried about a professional legislature? It appears that the Chairmen prefer to have testimony from paid lobbyists than the average Wyomingite, either that or the are blind to the fact that most working people can’t just run down to Cheyenne for a day or two. If a working person can get the time off, they still face the expense of travel and lodging, and they don’t get the nice discount at the hotel that Legislators do. It’s not like they all work on the family ranch and can just run off to Cheyenne whenever they want to.
    The Legislature needs to realize we are no longer living in the 19th century and update their committee policies and procedures to reflect the reality of the 21st century. Unless of course they just prefer not to hear from average Wyoming working folks while the Legislature is sequestered in Cheyenne.

  9. The “citizen legislature” is a pernicious myth – very few people can walk away from their normal employment for one or two months to sit in one corner of the state for little pay, no child care, etc. To use that as a justification for limiting public input after taxpayers have paid for good communications technology in the Capitol renovation is another slap at working Wyomingites. Jenn Lowe is right – for most people in the state, “putting some effort into it” would involve two days off work, gas, motel (increase as needed if roads close) – and maybe more than once if a bill progresses. Not a great way to encourage public participation, and to refuse the obvious and available technology is yet another bad example of the old tourism slogan, “Wyoming Is What America Was.”