Before a bill can make its way to Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk, it first has to be referred to a committee. There, members will hear testimony from various people vying to either kill the bill or encourage the panel to approve it, moving it one step closer to the governor.
This week, veteran Texas lobbyist Blake Rocap, legislative counsel with NARAL Pro-Choice Texas, explains one of the most direct ways to talk to lawmakers face to face: testifying before a committee. Read on for tips from Rocap on how to make the most of your two or three minutes. This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
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What advice would you give someone planning to testify at the Texas Capitol?
Blake Rocap: A lot of people are very nervous about testifying because it can be an intimidating situation. I would say that those feelings are normal, but there’s no reason to feel nervous or intimidated. For the most part, the lawmakers and the committee members want to hear and engage with public testimony — even if they disagree with you. It’s your Legislature as a Texan, and you have as much right to be there and talk to them about the bills that are in the committee as everyone else.
If it’s a bill or issue that you have a personal experience with and you can point to a personal story about the bill that is directly related to the part of the law the bill changes, that is very helpful. Every bill is going to either add to the current law or take something away. If you have a personal experience with how the current law is, then you can speak directly to the changes being made. It’s important to be specific about why the changes a certain bill [proposes] are a good idea or a bad idea.
No one should ever feel that they don’t belong or shouldn’t testify. It’s everybody’s first time to testify at some point.
What should citizens prioritize when testifying before a committee?
BR: You should not waste any time with a long introduction. It’s important to be as brief as possible and get to the point — which is, say your name, what your position is on the bill (you’re either testifying for the bill, against the bill or on the bill) and then say why. And try to draw a direct line to exactly what the bill does and your reasons why.
It should be an easy statement like, “I’m against the bill because it does ‘X.’ Previously the law allows ‘Y’ and if we changed it to ‘X,’ this is how my business will be harmed.”
Whatever you see as the bad or good result, make that a concise if-then statement.
How do you sign up to testify at a hearing?
BR: In the House, there are electronic kiosks. You have to type your name in, find the committee you want to testify in, then find the bills, mark whether you’re for or against them and whether you want to testify or not. You can also register a position on the bill without saying anything.
[The kiosks] are in the hallways of the Capitol extension. However, you can also register to testify if you’re on the public Capitol wifi from any electronic device. There’s a link that will take you to the registration page, but you have to be physically at the Capitol on their wifi.
In the Senate, they’re using witness cards, which means going to the hearing while it’s happening and getting a card from the clerk and writing your name on it.
How can people speak up if they can't make it to the Capitol during session?
BR: You can obviously engage with your own representative by calling or writing letters. All the representatives and senators have district offices that are not in Austin, but in the towns they represent. You can always write letters, call any lawmaker or call any committee.
(You can always find contact information for your representative in The Texas Tribune’s elected officials directory.)
Anything else citizens should know about testifying?
BR: Those two or three minutes that you get to testify go by fast, so you should definitely have notes — even if you know what you’re going to say. I often type up my thoughts and have notes, even if I don’t refer to them, because you may get asked questions [by the committee].
Not all of the questions will be unfriendly, so take a minute to think about what the question is. Just because a question is being asked, that doesn’t mean the committee members disagree with you. They could be trying to help you make your point.
If you’re able to attend the hearing, pay attention to the other people who testify on the bill that you’re interested in. Try not to waste your time repeating what they say. Sometimes it can be effective to say, “I agree with this person who said ‘X’ because ‘Y.’” That helps amplify your message because the committee can see there are a lot of people who feel the exact same way. The more specific you can be, the better.
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