The St. Louis Post Dispatch should be lauded for its editorial efforts to shed light on a bad trend in the public hearings of the Missouri General Assembly. In a May 1 signed editorial, “When bills skip hearings, be very, very afraid,” reporter Tony Messenger describes the trend of avoiding hearings, especially in the Missouri House. We concur with the concerns addressed by Mr. Messenger, noting how rare it is we agree with an editorial from the Post. We take this opportunity to add a few comments regarding amendments to standing rules that would greatly improve citizen participation in the legislative process.
The current rule for Committee Hearings provides for “a reasonable opportunity to be heard.” This isn’t good enough. Often, bills that propose to benefit specific groups, through underwriting by all taxpayers, will produce supporting testimony by those hoping to benefit, yet we who bear the costs will not often enough make the effort to oppose; the investment in lost time and effort is greater than the minimal amount of tax savings realized if the bill is defeated. Many times only activists are present to testify on such matters (tax credits for economic development are one such example.) This system is stacked in favor of the special interests. We propose a rule allowing equal total time for both proponents and opponents, no matter how many wish to testify on either side. Those who do not use the full measure of their allotted time should be allowed to yield their remaining time to others.
The current rule requires only one day’s advance public notice of hearings. This isn’t adequate. Such a short time promotes a “rush to judgment” mentality. Although it may provide ample time for the paid lobbyists to prep and appear to testify, this limited timeframe will restrict access to the legislative process by ordinary citizens. More time would make it easier for them to provide in-person testimony. This should be a legislative priority.
The current rule that provides that a person testifying may be called to order for failure to “keep his remarks to the point” should be changed to permit constitutional and similar questions. The Constitution, the expressed will of the people and the highest law of the state, should never be considered “off point.” The Speaker of the House and the President Pro Tempore of the Senate should have in place a system to hear and act quickly upon the objections and concerns by citizens whose testimony has been arbitrarily cut off by committee chairs.
We also suggest that rules be changed to provide that the language of Committee Substitutes be posted at least one week prior to the bill be taken up for a vote and that all bills amended on the floor should not be taken up for a third and final reading for at least three legislative days after the bill is perfected and its perfected language posted.
While no rule or system can ensure that legislators appear at hearings with an open mind, the House and Senate should do everything possible to make the process open to participation by citizens as well as lobbyists. Without adequate notice before committees or the full legislative body take final action, such participation is logistically impossible.