No Comment: In Oklahoma’s Legislature, Public Rarely Given Chance To Weigh In
It took one minute and 55 seconds for an Oklahoma House legislative committee to give the green light to a bill that would make it easier for teachers to carry guns in classrooms.
For a bill that would give legal protections for drivers who flee a protest, lawmakers spent just over six minutes before advancing it out of committee.
Another hot-button issue — deciding whether the Legislature should have powers to review and potentially challenge federal laws and regulations — was forwarded to the House floor after two and half minutes.
Although times vary, quick committee hearings and votes are not unusual at the State Capitol, where legislative committees decide which bills die and which reach the next step in the legislative process.
Unlike several other states, Oklahoma does not require — and rarely offers — the public a chance to comment before bills reach a final vote. Committee chairs may invite people to testify. In most cases, that doesn’t happen.
As a result, many bills fly through the committee process with scant public discussion and little to no direct input from regular citizens.
As other states have used the COVID-19 pandemic to make it easier for the public to comment on bills, Oklahoma lawmakers have largely ignored calls to give the public an official way to weigh in on legislation.
Oklahoma Watch contacted the offices of all 44 standing committee chairs in the House or Senate, all of whom are Republicans due to GOP majorities in both houses, to see if they would allow public comments during the meetings they lead or would support a rule change to require or encourage public comments before bills make it to a floor vote.
Despite multiple attempts over more than two weeks to seek their answers, not a single lawmaker responded.
The leaders of the House and Senate, Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka, and Senate Pro Tempore Greg Treat, similarly declined to comment.
Andy Moore, executive director of the nonprofit and nonpartisan Let’s Fix This advocacy group, supports increasing the public’s role in the bill-making process since he argues it would make better legislation and create a more robust debate on the issues.
But just as state lawmakers have exempted themselves from the state’s open meeting and public records act, he said it doesn’t appear there’s a will for more public inclusion.
“I think time and time again we’ve seen that our state legislators have no interest in making their lives any more difficult,” he said. “I’m not saying It’s easy, but anytime there’s an opportunity for them to do something and open up the process, they don’t.”
What Other States Are Doing
Every state legislature, including Oklahoma, opens legislative committee meetings to the public.
But it varies from state to state whether the public can just sit and watch, as is most often the case in Oklahoma, or allowed to speak or send official testimony before a vote occurs.
Although current figures are unavailable, a 1997 National Conference of State Legislatures study found at least nine states required a bill to have a public hearing before it could potentially become law.
And a new report from the same group found that Oklahoma is one of just 12 states that don’t at least give the public an official way to speak or send written testimony remotely.
Several states, meanwhile, have a long tradition of allowing public comments.
In Arizona, for example, lawmakers used to require citizens wanting to speak to register first at a physical kiosk located in their state capitol. Now, Arizona offers an online request to speak feature, where the public can view committee agendas and then sign up to speak or offer written remarks that are entered in the public record.
Several other states, such as Wyoming, almost always take in-person public comments while also providing an online hotline or messaging system that will forward written comments to the entire Legislature or a specific committee.
Chris Merrill heads a Wyoming nonprofit called the Equality State Policy Center, which lobbies the Legislature on social justice and labor issues. He said he wouldn’t want to imagine how much more difficult it would be for him and others to reach lawmakers without his state’s public comment process.
He said developing personal relationships is still the most useful way to reach legislators. But Merrill said there really isn’t a replacement for speaking to an entire panel of lawmakers, some of whom may not be as receptive to the one-on-one discussions.
He added that he’s seen many bills tabled or amended only after lawmakers heard from voices that they otherwise probably wouldn’t hear from.
“In Wyoming, at least, the public comment is one of the key ingredients to improving legislation and improving policies,” Merrill said. “It’s really integral to the whole process.”
Watching From the Sidelines
After moving to Oklahoma and obtaining her U.S. citizenship about a decade ago, Kay Malan, who is originally from Australia, started to pay more attention to American and Oklahoma politics.
Malan ended up choosing gun control as one of her passions and became a volunteer and advocate with Moms Demand Action.
Sitting in her home in Tulsa, she spends hours monitoring legislative debates, writing lawmakers and helping organize rallies or advocacy days at the Capitol.
But she has been left to only watch and hope those efforts paid off when bills she’s tracking reach the committee stage.
Malan said her frustration reached a new high when the Senate Committee on Public Safety in mid-February allowed the leader of a gun-rights group to explain and advocate for a bill. But no other non-elected officials were given the chance to speak.
“The situation is just stacked against the people,” she said. “As they’re debating all these bills, have they spoken to the people who have experienced abortions or gun violence? And the answer is no.”
Sen. Julia Kirt, D-Oklahoma City, agreed that there are flaws in Oklahoma’s legislative process.
Aside from the practical benefits of being able to improve legislation after hearing from the public, she said the closed-door nature behind the bill development process in Oklahoma ends up eroding public trust in the Legislature.
“Constituents question how we make our decisions and who benefits from those decisions,” she said. “Proponents may get input into the process, but opponents or those who may be impacted may not be part of the conversation.”
Looking at the Pros and Cons
After leaving the Oklahoma Senate and moving to the private sector as director of government affairs for Paycom, A.J. Griffin said she’s been able to see the pros and cons of allowing public comments by watching and participating in legislative hearings in other states.
Although she said states that allow public comment certainly seem to offer extra transparency, she said it can lead to grandstanding and long debates that would be a significant time and cost burden for Oklahoma’s part-time Legislature.
Griffin said she wouldn’t recommend Oklahoma following the “ample” public comment process in California, for instance, since she’s seen debates and public hearings there that can run for hours.
She said although California may be able to manage this since they have a full-time Legislature that is staffed to handle that amount of work, it would be a different story here.
“If we tried to do that while still working from just the first week of February to the end of May, that would be a real heavy lift,” she said.
Moore and others have argued that the solution then should be to limit the number of bills that lawmakers can file so they can give the appropriate attention to the ones that come before them.
But lawmakers have shown no signs of pulling back on the volume of bills.
Griffin, however, said Oklahoma lawmakers could at least review how they handle public comments and discussion on bills between sessions when there isn’t much demanding time pressure.
She said, unlike in some other states, interim studies here tend to resemble “presentations” that are steered almost exclusive by the study’s author (since they choose who can speak or not) instead of having a real discussion on the topic while hearing from multiple points of view.
“We do have areas of transparency we can certainly improve and most of those include slowing the process down a bit and taking a bit more time to listen,” she said. “We make good policies by having real conversations.”