Local Government 115 – Public Participation in Ohio’s Governing Process

By Mike Barhorst

Barhorst

Not unlike trying to influence local elected officials, addressing state legislators can be done in person, by telephone, by letter or email, and by offering in-person testimony about a specific piece of legislation.  Remember that if you contact an elected official in person, you may be one of several in-person contacts in a short period of time.  While the legislator will not intend to forget the subject of your conversation, a state representative is representing approximately 100,000 people;  a state senator about 300,000!  It may serve you well to put your concerns and suggestions in writing, even if you have spoken to the individual in person.

If you contact their office by phone (the numbers are readily available on the web), you will most likely speak to a legislative aide rather than the legislator.  The aide will certainly pass your input along to the legislator, and your input is taken seriously.

When you call, introduce yourself by name and identify yourself as a constituent.  Provide your address and telephone number if it is requested (this is especially important if they are going to get back in touch with you with information you may have requested).  If you are calling about a specific piece of legislation, identify it by name and bill number.

If your legislator has supported your cause(s) in the past, show your appreciation.   Briefly explain your position and how you would like your legislator to vote.   Remember to always be courteous and respectful.  If information is requested, take care to provide it as quickly as possible (remember, another of the many people who the legislator represents may also be trying to call.)

I would encourage you to keep track of your legislator’s actions and follow up with a letter expressing thanks or disappointment.   Feedback is just as important as your advocacy for a specific action.

Letters and email communication are not dissimilar.  You will undoubtedly be writing about a specific piece of legislation, called a bill.  Make certain to identify it by name and the number that has been assigned to the bill.   Briefly explain your position and how you would like your legislator to vote.   If the legislation is something that you do not currently support but would with some minor changes, make certain to mention that an amendment could be offered that would earn your support (as well as how your proposed amendment might be worded.)

Finally, you have the right, as do all citizens, to offer proponent or opponent testimony on behalf of any bill being considered in the Ohio General Assembly.  Your opportunity to testify for or against a piece of legislation comes during a committee hearing.  Every bill introduced is assigned to a committee.  The leadership will decide which bills actually receive hearings, and which ones will never see the light of day.

The committees of both the Ohio House of Representatives and the Ohio Senate meet in the Capitol.  Committee meetings are public, and even if the door to the hearing room is closed, you can enter while the hearing is in progress.

Lists of the legislative committees, committee members, and the days and places committees meet are available online (www.legislature.ohio.gov).   Most current versions of bills are also available online.  However, if the bill has recently been amended, the online version may not include the most recent amendments.

If you intend to travel to Columbus, be aware that the rules for offering testimony have recently changed.  If you intend to offer testimony, it is required that a written copy of your intended remarks is submitted online at least 24 hours in advance.  You will be assigned a time to speak, but because those offering testimony are frequently asked questions by the legislators, meetings often begin late because members are on multiple committees and the previous meeting(s) may not have ended at the time expected.  You may find yourself sitting in the hearing room for hours before you finally are able to address the committee.

However, that having been said, you will need to find out when and where testimony on your bill will be heard.  Be on time for the hearing.  Usually, once a hearing is closed on a particular bill, no further testimony is heard.

You should endeavor to be present at the start of the hearing.  All persons present usually get a chance to speak, but sometimes because of large turnouts it is not possible to give everyone the opportunity to address the committee.

When you arrive, sign the witness sheet.  Depending upon the committee, you may be asked for additional information, including whether you intend to give proponent or opponent testimony.  Frequently, a day is set aside for proponent testimony and another for opponent testimony.  However, that is not always the case.

You should follow the custom of beginning your remarks by addressing the chair and committee members, giving your name and address, and why you are there.  For example: “Chairman Bush and members of the Finance Committee, my name is John Q. Public from Sidney, Ohio.  I’m in favor of or against this bill because, etc.”

Be brief.  Only repeat what others have said if it is pertinent to your argument.   Avoid being too technical.  Avoid using acronyms or technical references unless you first explain what they mean.

Try not to be nervous or worried about making an error.  The committee members want to hear what you have to say.  You should expect some questions and comments from committee members.  These questions are not designed to embarrass the person offering testimony, but to provide additional information.

You should avoid clapping, cheering, booing, or any other kind of demonstration.  Those who violate this admonition will likely be removed from the hearing room and could be subject to arrest.

While some committees may vote after a hearing, others wait to do so after further hearings.   All committee action is public,  so you can stay and listen to the committee members debate and its vote even though the public comment portion of the hearing is over.

Occasionally after hearings are held, the bill is “pigeonholed”, but usually it advances to the floor for a vote.  If the bill passes the body of origin, it must then pass the other (i.e., if a bill begins in the House of Representatives, it then must go through committee hearings in the Senate and be voted upon by the Senate committee before going to the floor of the Senate for a vote.)  Once the bill passes both houses, it goes to the Governor’s Office for his signature or veto.

Lawmaking has been described as a messy process.  German Chancellor Otto von Bismark once remarked that “Laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them being made.“  It is important to note that in the 131st General Assembly (2015-2016), there were 1005 bills introduced.  Only 187 became law.