SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Legislature has a new process to hear public testimony during committee hearings being held virtually because of COVID-19, but would-be participants will have to make a request to speak at least 12 hours in advance.
“There does need to be a little bit of planning for the person providing comment,” said Senate chief of staff Mark Thomas, particularly for early morning hearings. “I’d like it to be less, but part of the problem is we have meetings that begin at 8 a.m.”
He said legislative staff needs time “to compile the names and get them to the chair and then work through how many people will provide comment,” as well as deal with security concerns about sharing access to the online meetings.
The process replaces an email link added to proposed bills during last month’s first virtual special legislative sessions that did not include committee hearings because of technical issues. The link was intended to allow the public to directly contact lawmakers.
“It was just confusing. It didn’t make sense. Clearly, constituents weren’t exactly clear what it was doing,” Thomas said of the email link, which had also raised concerns about transparency since few lawmakers opt to post the emails they receive online.
The change comes as a series of appropriations subcommittee meetings are scheduled over several days next week to consider slashing as much as $2 billion from the $20 billion state budget set to take effect July 1 because of the economic impact of the pandemic.
“Obviously, there are a lot of people who are interested in the budget right now,” Thomas said. “There are some drastic changes happening to the budget. There are some adjustments, to say the least, that that Legislature is going to have to do.”
He said the new process was actually in place for legislative meetings held last week, but no one signed up to speak. Additional budget subcommittee meetings are expected to be scheduled the last week of May, with a special session expected to be called for June 18 and 19.
Although the meetings are being conducted with videoconferencing software, they can only be monitored via audio at the Legislature’s website. Those selected to comment will be notified about 30 minutes before the meeting and, once they click on the link shared, ushered into a silent virtual “lobby” to wait their turn to speak.
The new rules for public comment at electronic meetings warns against disruptive behavior and spells out that “submitting a request form does not guarantee that you will be able to provide remote comment” because the time allotted is at the discretion of the committee chairmen.
Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, co-chairman of the public education appropriations subcommittee, said he “hadn’t even thought about it” when asked if he planned to take public comment through the new system. “I am sure they will tell us not to cut their specific program. We may have to create an online and written comment process.”
Advocates are waiting to see how the virtual public comment process goes.
“I think it’s a huge improvement over the first iteration of the public comment process,” said Chase Thomas, executive director of the left-leaning Alliance for a Better Utah. “I commend the Legislature and the staff for working on processes that closely align with how things are normally done.”
But Thomas said he is concerned that the 12-hour lag will give lobbyists and special interest groups who follow the legislative process more closely an advantage over members of the public. He suggests the window to sign up to testify should be shortened until just before the start of a hearing.
Utah Eagle Forum President Gayle Ruzicka hadn’t seen the new process and after reviewing it, questioned what happens if changes are made to an agenda or an item being discussed after it’s too late to make a request to speak. She also said it’s not clear how members of the public will be chosen to speak.
A longtime fixture at the Legislature, Ruzicka said she’s often gone to committee hearings without intending to testify until something she’s heard changes her mind. Now, though, she won’t be able to simply raise her hand when a committee chairman asks if there’s any public comment.
“Just as soon as it doesn’t need to be electronic anymore, we have to get back to being in-person,” Ruzicka said, adding that remote meetings are “not what open government is about. ... There’s something about being in the rooms together for the accountability that’s really important.”
Mark Thomas said lawmakers want to return to holding meetings at the Capitol as soon as it’s safe.
“We do hope again that this is temporary,” he said. “We hope at the earliest possible time that we’re back to our normal routine of doing these in person. It’s not anything that I’ve heard people say, ‘Well, let’s get comfy because we like this so much we’re going to keep doing it this way.’ In fact, the exact opposite.”