The public’s voice in the time of coronavirus
As the social and economic pressures brought on by COVID-19 grow, the cracks in many of our time-honored systems are starting to show. One of the most vivid examples of this are the prosaic-sounding -– but vitally important -– rules and regulations for how citizens engage with government and how legislators respond.
Government should be as transparent, and as accessible, as possible. Right now, our system of holding public hearings is arcane, inefficient and often alienates the very people we seek to serve. And too often – for complicated procedural reasons – good bills die without legislators having to go on record with a position. This was clear to us as freshmen legislators, despite having gone through just one full cycle of bill screenings, public hearings, and in-chamber voting sessions before public safety concerns forced the shut-down of the Capitol and the Legislative Office Building.
Voting regulations are in the Connecticut Constitution, and changing them permanently requires a referendum. According to the National Council on State Legislatures, because of Covid, states across the country scrambled to find “procedural initiatives to facilitate legislative business, within the constitutional, statutory and rules-based constraints of the legislative process.” Simply put: how can government seek public input and conduct business without running afoul of the Constitution, which currently requires people’s physical presence?
There are at least three important lessons to be gleaned from these accommodations.
Lesson No. 1: Change how we conduct public hearings.
A few hearings – notably those on HB6004, An Act Concerning Police Accountability, and three other bills we took up in special session concerning health and absentee balloting – migrated to virtual platforms such as Zoom. The up-side of this is that many people were able to participate who normally might not have been able to trek to the Legislative Office Building to testify in person because of transportation issues, physical disability, child- or eldercare or work schedules.
We’re hoping that committee chairs – the powerful people who make rules about how their committees are run – will learn from this time. We’re asking them to rethink how these public hearings are conducted.
Before the pandemic, common practice was to give state officials, such as commissioners of various agencies, fellow legislators, and constitutional officers the privilege of going first. While ordinary citizens are given a strict three-minute time limit for their testimony, this limit is waived for officials. The result? It is common for officials to talk and field questions for an hour or more. Ordinary citizens, who have gotten to the building early in the morning to sign up to testify, can spend an entire day waiting for their turn at the mic. Time and again, we’ve seen droves of citizens leave angry, frustrated and discouraged because they never got to speak. Unlike those of us who plan to stay all night if necessary because it’s our job as legislators, the citizens need to leave to attend to any number of demands and responsibilities. The result is that we, as lawmakers, miss out on their very important voice.
Because of the pandemic, the voice of the citizenry could have become a casualty of an inherently flawed system of government. As proven by the public hearings held virtually, there are alternatives.
Lesson No. 2: Question the procedures for how legislators vote.
Here in Connecticut, our General Assembly leadership enacted, on a bipartisan basis, House Resolution 101, which states: “During a declaration of a public health or civil preparedness emergency, every member present in the State Capitol or Legislative Office Building and logged into the House of Representatives electronic voting system shall be considered present for the purpose of determining whether a quorum is present.” Meaning, I.T. professionals came to the rescue and devised a system that allowed us to be sequestered in our offices, but still technically present in the building in order to vote.
We would argue that this practice of remote voting should become a permanent option; several states are looking at this alternative to traditional in-seat voting requirements. It’s clear this pandemic isn’t going away any time soon, and we may be in the same boat come January, when the 2021 Legislative Session convenes.
Lesson 3: Hold one another accountable.
Before the pandemic closed the LOB and the Capitol, the General Assembly took action on bills confirming judges, authorizing bonding, and other near unanimous procedural duties. Voting is the most important power that any legislator has, and not exercising that power leaves everyone feeling as if too much business was left undone. To be sure, as legislators we pivoted quickly to turn our attention to constituent needs – everything from delivering PPEs to contacting with the Department of Labor on behalf of constituents needing Unemployment Compensation.
But what of the unfinished public policy business? Sometimes, a bill passes by a narrow bipartisan margin. Other times, it fails or passes along strict party lines. Either way, too many worthy bills are left “on the cutting room floor” because we run out of time. (There is a legal end date and time called “sine die” which literally translates as “without day” and means there is no way to work beyond it.)
We posit that it’s integral to the process for the public to know where legislators stand on all the issues – even the ones that don’t get called for a vote. While we’re re-thinking how we conduct business, we must also remember why we do it.
The General Assembly needs a more transparent process so we are held more deeply accountable to the standards, needs, and expectations of the voters. Controversial votes spur community conversation, foster understanding, and ultimately create legislation that affects everyone in the state.
The coronavirus epidemic will eventually end. The clock will run out on the infection rate, a vaccination will be created, and slowly, slowly, the most important aspects of life as we knew it will return. Let’s make sure that when it does, we fix these cracks in how we do the public’s business, because the clock should never run out on civic engagement or legislative accountability.
Christine Palm represents the 36th District (Chester, Deep River, Essex and Haddam); Quentin Phipps represents the 100th District (Middletown); and Jillian Gilchrest represents the 18th District (West Hartford). All are running for re-election to a second term.
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