Both the Washington State House and Senate have posted remote testimony rules for the upcoming 2021 legislative session. For government transparency advocates, it represents an important step to govern civic involvement as the legislature shifts to a hybrid of physical and online interaction.
“Back in 2013 we had a dream that the legislature would allow citizens to participate in the legislative debate from across the state with remote testimony,” Washington Policy Center Government Reform Director Jason Mercier wrote in an email. “That dream is now a reality across House and Senate committees for the 2021 Legislative Session.”
According to the Senate and House rules, those wishing to testify must sign up one hour before a public hearing and will receive an email with a unique Zoom link to the meeting. Accurate registration is important for TVW to provide onscreen graphics, as well as for legislative record-keeping. Because of that, each person’s Zoom link will be unique for that individual’s testimony only.
The Senate rules note that registering to testify does necessarily not mean a person will be able to speak if there are time constraints or technical issues, and testimony may be limited to one minute per participant. Those who do not comply with the rules can be removed from a meeting by the committee chair, and written testimony is allowed up to 24 hours before a hearing begins.
Those who require special accommodation to testify before a committee can evaluate and exercise a variety of different options through the Legislature’s Americans with Disabilities Act Information center.
Legislative etiquette for testifying includes:
- Introducing yourself and who you represent;
- Which bill you’re testifying about;
- Be brief, avoid overly technical details or repeating previous remarks; and
- Be prepared for questions from committee members, though testifiers are not required to answer.
Washington Coalition For Open Government President Toby Nixon wrote in an email to Lens that the rules “seem reasonable to me. I would think most people who would consider testifying would make that decision well before one hour before the meeting (in non-Covid times, you usually decide days before), although chairs should not be adding bills to the agenda at the last minute!”
He added that “the only part that raised an eyebrow for me is that written testimony ‘will not be used as part of testimony summary materials on the bill report’. I would have preferred equal consideration to live testimony, but at least all the written testimony will be available to all legislators who want to review it.”
Still others, such as Sen. Doug Ericksen (R-42), believe the remote session will severely restrict public access to lawmakers and as a result may allow radical proposals to pass, including a low carbon fuel standard which has been pushed numerous times in past sessions though has been unsuccessful to date. Ericksen is the sponsor of SR 8400, which would limit the legislature to dealing only with COVID-19 and the biennial budgets.
“We need to play fair with the people of Washington,” Ericksen wrote in a statement. “If we’re going to restrain the public, the Legislature needs to restrain itself. Taking advantage of this situation to pass a radical agenda that wouldn’t stand a chance in ordinary times is just plain wrong.”
The legislative session begins Jan. 11.