Analysis: More Voices on State Business, and Perhaps, More Headaches

Allowing more people to register their opinions on issues before state legislators is technologically easy. But is it really something legislators want to do?

A hearing on Senate Bill 1 is shown on July 8, 2013.
A hearing on Senate Bill 1 is shown on July 8, 2013.  Todd Wiseman

Opinions about legislation often show up in state records whether Texans testify or not. Many sign up as witnesses and register their support or opposition, and then they don’t testify at legislative committee hearings.

But they have to come to Austin to register.

Getting people to show up in Austin to demonstrate is not impossible. For instance, two huge factions showed up with pre-printed T-shirts two summers ago to demonstrate for and against legislation on new abortion regulations. But that was so unique that it — along with a certain Democratic senator’s filibuster —made national news.

Less explosive bits of legislation don’t motivate crowds like that, but it would be fairly simple to let Texans weigh in electronically. Maybe that’s a good idea, maybe not. More people would have a voice, but it would also be easy to manufacture a fake groundswell to spook the state’s decision-makers.

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“I don’t want to say participation shouldn’t be encouraged — it should be encouraged,” says state Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, who lives 574 miles from the state capital. “But is that something you want to allow?”

Registering without testifying has a couple of purposes, allowing people — professionals and nonprofessionals alike — an opportunity to make their positions known. It allows lawmakers to see how the various interests line up before they vote on legislation. And — this is a bit cynical, but that doesn’t make it false — it’s a way for lobbyists to tell the people paying their salaries that they did, in fact, show up when a particular bill was under consideration, and to do it without wasting the time of the lawmakers whose favor they seek.

Anybody who does this must be present at the Texas Capitol when they sign up as witnesses, the better to show that they are who they say they are. That also keeps out the amateurs — everyday Texans who might have opinions about bills but who don’t have the motivation or time to trek to the Capitol from across town or across the state to register their views.

Why would anyone register and then not testify? Because talking is often unnecessary. If five witnesses line up to say the same thing, it’s a waste of time to hear all five; better to hear from one and then get the others to nod in agreement. But even the silent ones have to be on site to register to get their views into the official record. Besides, by the time the committees are hearing a bill, lobbyists and others have been working for weeks or months.

“If the first time you’re explaining your opinion is at a committee meeting, you’re way behind the curve,” says Steven Polunsky, a transportation researcher and consultant who, as a Senate committee clerk, pioneered the use of technology to try to connect people outside the Capitol with the people inside by putting amendments and other documents online in real time and using remote testimony from experts and others who couldn’t get to Austin. He sees a way to expand remote testimony from people who can’t get to Austin, but also points out some pitfalls.

Texas is not an initiative-and-referendum state that allows voters to decide major issues in place of legislators, after all: Lawmakers cast their votes without much regard for what they have heard from witnesses in committee hearings. And opening the registration to anyone with Wi-Fi could bring non-Texans into the process, he says: “Once you go Internet, you get the world involved.”

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Some lawmakers think the witness lists attached to bills are important indicators of support or opposition. Legislators filed 6,276 bills during this year’s regular session, ultimately passing 1,323 of them (those numbers were compiled by the Texas House Research Organization). In a 140-day session, it is impossible for anyone to know what each bill contains. So they look for clues as it comes time to vote. What do their constituents and colleagues say? Who is in favor and who is against? What do the experts say?

The witness lists count, if only a little bit. Otherwise, the smart kids — the lobbyists who mind every detail related to their concerns — wouldn’t bother to register when they do not plan to testify. It’s obviously important to somebody somewhere to see where they stand.

State Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, started this conversation — or his staff did, by trying to register positive witnesses who were not in the Capitol as supporters of his bill. They got caught, which is why we know about it, and while their transgressions did not rise to the level of crime, they apparently broke the rules of the Texas House.

We’ll be hearing about this again as the rules are tweaked in advance of the next legislative session in January 2017. And that creates an opening for questions about why people can’t show their colors without coming to the seat of government. Sure, there are issues to resolve — such as proving someone is who they say they are, that they’re from Texas and that they’re not being paid for their participation.

It could easily backfire if it’s not set up right — what with all of the tricksters, rascals and social hackers in politics. But it could work, too, and it might accidentally get some new people interested in government.

“You need to think through all the way to the end,” Polunsky cautions, “so that people feel not just that they had their say, but that they were listened to.”

That one doesn’t sound like a problem you can fix with technology.