The legislative assembly is back to work after crossover. The first bills most chairman of standing committees schedule for hearing are those that should find nearly universal support in committee. These bills need to be acted on and reported to the floor so there is something to do during the daily floor sessions.
More controversial bills will soon be coming on the committee hearing calendars. If you have an interest in some of this legislation keep an eye on the hearing calendar which is posted on the legislative web site. Each of the standing committee chairmen has presented their hearing schedule for the following week by the end of this week. Although it doesn’t give a lot of lead time for those of you who wish to appear in person on a bill it is the only way the system can work. It is difficult to predict the amount of time bills will take to be heard and then acted on. On some of the more controversial pieces of legislation chairman limit the time for testimony.
In all cases they try to provide an equal amount of time for the pros and cons to make their case. If there happen to be more people who want to testify on a particular bill then the time allotted the committees always take written comment. When I was chairman I recommended that potential testifiers at least have an outline of the points they wanted to make. Thus if the committee ran out of time the written submissions could be considered.
Persons who testify in person should be prepared to answer questions from the members of the committee. Lobbyists who most legislators are familiar with are not accorded the same cordiality as members of the public. As professionals they expect to receive tough questions and in some instance a real grilling from the committee members. In all cases the committees expect testimony given to be factual. Nothing hurts a bill more than for the committee to find that the testimony was suspect.
The committee will be more receptive to testimony that can be supported by factual information than it will be by a person’s opinion. Your opinions are relevant, but remember, there are those who may have a different slant on the matter. Opinions are like the wind, they come from many directions and the committee has to decide which has the most force. Thus if you state an opinion do not be surprised if a member of the committee asks questions of you. They are not trying to be confrontational they are trying to clarify your arguments so they can form their own opinion.
Many citizens find that they cannot take the time to travel to Bismarck or get away from work. That doesn’t limit your ability to influence legislation. The North Dakota legislature is one of the most open in the country. We always strived to make as much information as possible available to the public. We also tried to make it as easy as possible to have access to your legislators. You can leave phone messages, write letters, send emails or as has been noted communicate via social media. Most legislators are well aware that communication with their constitutions is a big part of their job.
This is my opinion on a topic that most legislators face. When groups such as AARP, NDEA, or others flooded me with phone messages, emails etc., I paid very little attention. When a legislator gets stacks of communications from all over the state they know it is a coordinated effort by a group trying to influence legislation. Most of that kind of lobbying gets lost in the clutter. Communication from a legislator’s home district gets a lot more attention.
These next weeks are the most important of the session. Most of the wheat has been separated from the chafe. Now is the time public policy will be set for the next two years. From what I have ascertained some of the most important decisions will revolve around tax policy and spending priorities. That is not unusual with the size of the states monetary surplus. What always surprised me was the amount of citizen input we would get on social issues as compared to the monetary policies. If at the end of the session you are dissatisfied with the priorities legislators set spending your money it may be because you didn’t take the opportunity to communicate your thoughts.