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Analysis: Citizen Feedback, Without the Road Trip to Austin

After a committee confrontation and a state police investigation, there's still a question about allowing people who aren't in the Capitol to register their support or opposition to legislation: Why not?

State Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, being escorted out of a House Transportation Committee hearing chaired by Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, on April 30, 2015.

A legislative argument over witnesses — whether it was out of bounds for a lawmaker to sign up supporters of a bill even though those supporters had not set foot in Austin — raises another question. With all of the cheap technology available today, why do people have to travel to the Capitol to make themselves heard?

Is that for the convenience of the legislators, or is it designed to cut down on interference from regular folks who — unlike lobbyists and other native wildlife at the Capitol — are not always on hand and willing to get those lawmakers every little thing they need?

This is inspired, of course, by a lawmaker’s unsuccessful attempt to register absent witnesses in favor of legislation last April. According to the Texas Department of Public Safety, aides to state Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, registered 29 people in favor of his proposal to ban red light cameras as it was being heard by a legislative committee. Those people were not in Austin, as it turns out.

Under House rules, people who want to take part in legislative hearings have to be in the room with the committee and are registered on nearby electronic tablets provided for that. Stickland’s lawyers contest that, by the way; they contend the people who were signed up in favor of the bill were indeed in favor of it, knew their names were being shown that way and weren’t breaking any rules or laws.

Travis County prosecutors looked at it and passed, saying they didn’t see the makings of a criminal case here. That prospect had been raised by state Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, as he kicked Stickland out of his committee hearing last April and accused the Republican of breaking the law.

Stickland said he was vindicated because there will be no prosecution. But the House General Investigating Committee isn’t through with this case, and it’s clear that, at the very least, this stretched the rules in a way that has never been allowed.

In the end, it’s more important to the people in the Legislature than to the rest of us. They’ll fiddle with their rules and traditions and huff and puff about the affair like schoolkids after a fight on the playground, and that will be that.

But what if that wasn’t the end of it? Texans can go to the Capitol for committee hearings, sign up to talk about legislation, or sign up just to say they are in favor or opposed to a bill but don’t wish to testify. That’s simple stuff for lobbyists and for the Austin-based groups that frequent the Capitol. But it’s a pain in the keister for others around the state who have to make a road trip of it, devoting time and expense.

“I don’t know what is so important about being in Austin, especially if you’re not interested in offering testimony,” Stickland said this week. “We talk about transparency and we talk about ‘Why don’t more people vote?’ We make it so hard to get involved with your government.”

From time to time, legislators will make special arrangements — usually to accommodate experts whose testimony they seek — to connect people outside the Capitol to people inside. Pickett himself did it at that committee meeting back in April, calling one of the absent witnesses and holding the phone up to a microphone so everyone could hear what was going on.

Pickett accidentally provided a proof of concept by soliciting testimony during a House committee in the Capitol from someone who was sitting at home. It wasn’t testimony on Stickland’s legislation; it was evidence that someone had registered a supporter for that bill who wasn’t in the Capitol.

For remote testimony to work on a regular basis, the state would need a secure system in place. Lawmakers would want to make sure witnesses were who they claimed to be, for instance. And it would be subject to lobby games: It’s not hard to get enough callers to create the appearance of a groundswell. On the other hand, that’s not any different from bringing demonstrators in buses from Dallas or San Antonio or wherever, which happens every session. 

Maybe more people would participate. Maybe it would create some kind of representation by couch potatoes too unmotivated to come to Austin. You can’t find out without trying.

By the way, Aaron Harris — the Texan Pickett called during the hearing that night in April? He didn’t sign up himself, but his intentions were properly recorded: He was for the ban on red-light cameras. 

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State government 84th Legislative Session Joe Pickett Texas House of Representatives Texas Legislature