BY: TAYLOR BENNETT, POLICY COORDINATOR, THE HUB
This week, public hearings have taken the spotlight. Here’s what you need to know about how and when a public hearing is called and how to participate in this method of letting your Legislators know what you think.
Public hearings are a part of the legislative process that allow groups of citizens to communicate their interests to Legislators. The Legislature follows specific rules regarding how they must respond to requests for public hearings.
During the Legislative Session, public hearings are convened most often by the House of Delegates about particular bills. They can be requested by a Legislator or a member of the public.
Reasons why you might request a public hearing:
- The bill in question would impact a large group of people who would like to speak out for or against the bill
- To demonstrate widespread public support for or against a bill
- To educate more than one legislator about the impact of a bill at the same time
Public hearings are generally held by the committee where a bill has been referenced. The best time to request a public hearing is after the bill has been referred to a committee, but before the bill has made it on the agenda.
In order to request a public hearing on a bill, you need to contact the secretary or the chair of the committee in which the bill will be discussed. They will most often honor a request to hold a public hearing, but they may not always be required to do so. A hearing can be scheduled for anytime after one is requested and is generally scheduled during business hours.
Hearings are generally held at the Capitol building, but may be held at another location, particularly if the legislation would have a more profound impact on people living in a particular region.
During a public hearing, members of the public are encouraged to share how a bill will impact them. Those wishing to speak will be asked to add their name to a list of speakers. Each person will be given a small time slot to share their point of view. In order to participate effectively in a public hearing you should:
- Know your stuff. You’ll have to make your case in a short amount of time, usually 1-3 minutes.
- Coordinate with fellow speakers. If there are lots of reasons why a bill should or shouldn’t pass, each speaker might consider highlighting one of them.
- Make it personal. Make sure to tell Legislators how this bill would impact you and folks like you.
To find out whether a public hearing has been scheduled, call the office of the Clerk of the House or Senate. They will be able to tell you when a hearing is scheduled for and where it will be held. This week, several Legislators have made the effort to attend public hearings located outside of Charleston in the evenings, giving members of the public more opportunity to speak up.
Public hearings are a method that’s often used to allow for public participation in the legislative process, but there can be some significant challenges presented by using hearings as the primary method for listening to public opinion.
- Hearings can be scheduled immediately after they are requested. This week, that quick turnaround has made it difficult for people who cannot take off work or afford to travel to Charleston to participate.
- Likewise, generally scheduling public hearings during business hours often prohibits working families from attending.
- Legislators don’t always attend public hearings. In the case that they aren’t able to make it, members of the public share their stories in the hopes that they are later communicated to legislators so that they can be taken into account.
- Members of the public are only allowed to speak in 1- 3 minute increments, depending on how long the hearing will go for and how many people have signed up to speak. It can be quite difficult to share the entire story about the effects of a bill in such a short amount of time.
- Members of the public may not be sure how to participate in the system. (Hopefully, we’re helping to fix this challenge right now.)
Each of these challenges can impact the effectiveness of this method of public engagement. This doesn’t mean that citizens shouldn’t participate in public hearings, we need to. And, we also need to be asking critical questions about how to make the process of providing public opinion to legislators more effective.
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