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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”