As legislative leaders debate when to re-open the State Capitol building to the public, the General Assembly, as a whole, must do a better job allowing for public participation. There are several reforms which can dramatically improve civic engagement and increase transparency, accountability, and competition coming out of the last year of coronavirus.
The first “reform” isn’t even a true reform, it’s a common sense principle: don’t exclude the public from governing. During this “Zoom” session of the legislature, leadership has imposed a 24-hour time limit on public hearings. While it is understandable that the members of the legislature have additional responsibilities besides public hearings, it is the most public facing aspect of their job.
I would recommend that the rules are amended in the future to expand public hearings from 24 hours to 36 hours. Leadership should also negotiate a question/answer process for legislators: maybe three questions per member, with an option for written follow ups if there are supplemental/additional questions. Keeping the three-minute limit, with a courtesy 15 seconds for wrap up, is appropriate for those testifying. The major change as it relates to the format of hearings should be instituting panels for major groups or organizations. Allow for leaders/experts which groups testify similar to how the appropriations committee runs higher education day hearings.
Second, leadership must abolish the 3 p.m. day before the arbitrary registration time frame to sign up to testify. This does not foster good relations with the public. Good political leaders would encourage the public to engage, not turn them away!
Leadership should be making it easier for the public to sign up to testify at hearings; and not hiding behind an ‘insider’ document like the daily bulletin. I would be willing to bet that a majority of the public has rarely visited the CGA website, never mind reading through the daily bulletin. The leaders should have a link on the main website directly to a page where the public can easily sign up. Preserving the electronic method of allowing the public to sign up to testify is a massive step forward.
Gov. Ned Lamont, during the 2018 election cycle, committed to make government more accessible for the public. The governor should submit a bill to the general assembly, which would be referred to the legislative management committee, to establish a task force that would evaluate other state legislatures in an effort to strike a balanced approach to citizen participation in government as we come out of the COVID-19 pandemic and head into the 2022 legislative session.
Lastly, when the Capitol and Legislative Office Building reopen, leadership should keep the option available for members of the public to have an option to testify via Zoom. Similar to how the higher education committee has a practice of alternating between students and the public, we should alternate between zoom and in-person. This will actually save time at hearings because while a ‘Zoomer’ is testifying the in-person witness can be coming to the hearing table. Leadership should also rethink how to allocate time at public hearings in regards to reservation of the first hour for elected officials. There should be uniform guidelines clearly established.
Even as we head into a gubernatorial election season, let’s not let partisan politics infiltrate administration under the golden dome. Working together in a collaborative, bi-partisan (non-partisan) manner can we move to modernize and further open our state government — for the people of the Constitution state.
John Board lives in New Britain.