Helpful Tips for Providing Public Testimony

There are 99 state legislative chambers among the fifty United States, two in each except Nebraska, which has a one-chamber state legislature. In 23 of those 99 chambers, there exists a requirement that all bills that are referred to a committee receive a public hearing. The Colorado House and Senate are two of those 23 chambers.

Colorado voters implemented that requirement when they approved the GAVEL Amendment to the state constitution during the November 1988 general election. The requirement became effective in January 1989 and has continued since that time. Today, Colorado is among only eight states in which such a requirement exists for both legislative chambers. In Nebraska and six other states, the requirement applies to only one chamber.

Here in Colorado, bill hearings are public meetings and anyone who wishes to attend may do so. In addition, anyone who wishes to offer testimony, for or against a bill, may do so. Unlike Congress, our federal legislature, people who wish to testify at a bill hearing need not be invited, summoned, or subpoenaed; just sign up and wait for the committee chairperson to call your name.

Committee hearings at the Colorado Capitol take place in rooms that are designated for such meetings. It can be helpful to consider those committee hearing rooms to be like courtrooms in the Judicial Branch. Similar to the authority of a judge in a courtroom, the chairperson of a legislative committee has significant authority in a committee hearing room when that committee is convened. 

A Guide to Public Hearings is available at the General Assembly website, which provides helpful information about attending and participating in a public hearing at the Colorado Capitol. In addition, instructions for providing remote testimony, submitting written testimony, testifying in person, and how to listen online are provided here.

If you attend a committee hearing at the Colorado Capitol, then you should find sign-up sheets in the committee room, generally near the public entrance. Please note that sign-up sheets are bill specific. In order to testify on a specific bill, be sure to fill out the requested information on the sign-up sheet for the correct bill. Also, keep in mind that you would be signing up to comment at a public meeting. Thus, the information that you provide on the sign-up sheet and during testimony would be public.

As a committee hearing progresses, keep in mind that audience participation is generally not permitted. If the committee chairperson asks for a show of hands or some other response from the audience, then that would be acceptable. Otherwise, please refer to the Guide to Public Hearings and plan your participation accordingly.

Testimony Tip #1: When testifying, speak to the Committee Chair and no one else.

During a legislative committee hearing, you’ll see members of that committee raise their hands to be recognized by the chairman. When called upon by the chair, a member will respond, “Thank you, Mr. Chair” or “Thank you, Madam Chair”. The member will then make a statement or ask a question to the chair. Members are required by rule to direct their questions and comments to the chair. During committee hearings, witnesses are expected to do the same. Like attorneys and witnesses addressing a judge in a courtroom, discussion in a legislative committee hearing room should only be directed to and through the chair. It can be easy to start a conversation with another committee member, but that should only occur if/when the chair has agreed to allow that member to dialog with a witness. Otherwise, each time a member asks a question, the witness should wait for the chair to recognize him/her, thank the chair, and then direct his/her answer to the chair, not to the member who asked the question. That can be awkward and might seem impolite to those who are inexperienced with the process, but it is required. The committee chair decides who is recognized during a hearing, when, and for what reason. In addition to maintaining order, that control also helps those listening online to understand who is speaking during a hearing.

Testimony Tip #2: The member who controls the gavel is always referred to as “Chair”.

Occasionally, a committee chair may need to leave the room or present a bill to his/her committee. When that occurs, the chair will hand the gavel to another member of that committee. Generally, the vice chair of a committee would receive the gavel, but the chair may designate any member of that committee to serve as chair while he/she is out of the room or presenting a bill to that committee. When that occurs, then that other member should be addressed as “Mr. Chair” or “Madam Chair” as appropriate. At no time should the person who is in control of the gavel be referred to as acting chair, interim chair, vice-chair, or any other title.

Testimony Tip #3: Be concise.

When testifying for or against a bill at the Colorado Capitol, be aware that a committee chairperson can set a time limit. If there are few people who want to testify, then the chair might not set a time limit. When large numbers of people sign up to testify, it is more likely that the chair will set a time limit. Keep in mind that the committee chairperson has the authority to make that decision. It cannot be appealed to any higher authority. Like a judge in a courtroom, it is his/her decision to make. A three-minute time limit is common, but a committee chair could grant more or less time. It might help to practicing your testimony in order to develop a three-minute presentation.

Testimony Tip #4: Refer to the Bill.

When Senators and Representatives debate bills at the Colorado General Assembly, legislative rules require them to speak “to the bill.”  Colorado legislative rules do not allow for actual “filibuster” where a member might read from a book or tell stories unrelated to the bill that is under consideration. When the Colorado House or Senate conduct Second Reading debate, the member who chairs the Committee of the Whole has authority to determine what is “to the bill” and what is not. During a committee hearing, the committee chair has that authority, and it applies to members of the General Assembly and to the public. An easy way to connect your comments to the bill being considered would be to refer to a Page Number and Line Number in the bill that relates to your support or opposition to the bill. 

Testimony Tip #4: Amendments should be drafted before a committee hearing.

If, during testimony, you intend to suggest or request that an amendment be made to a bill, then consider having that amendment drafted at least one legislative day prior to the committee hearing. It is rarely effective to verbally recommend an amendment to a committee while offering testimony. It is more effective to have printed copies of each amendment available before a hearing. During a committee hearing, only members of that committee are allowed to move an amendment. In order to offer such a motion, a member should have copies in hand so that each member of the committee may receive one. Amendments to bills are drafted by the Office of Legislative Legal Services (“OLLS”) at the Capitol, which is the same legislative agency that drafts bills. Any member of a committee or chamber may request an amendment be drafted for any bill that will be considered by that committee or chamber. Thus, thousands of amendments are drafted during an annual general session. In order to get your amendment(s) drafted, you should contact a member of the committee one or more legislative days in advance of the hearing. If a member agrees to have your amendment(s) drafted, then confirm with that member whether he/she intends to move each of those amendments. If not, then talk with one or more other members of that committee to see if any member would be willing to move your amendment(s). Please note that OLLS cannot draft an amendment without the approval of a member.

Testimony Tip #5: Relax.

Keep in mind that witnesses are not placed under oath when testifying for or against a bill that is being considered by a committee of reference of the Colorado General Assembly. Unlike a courtroom, there should be no cross examination of your testimony. Use the opportunity to express your perspective on the bill, answer any questions from the committee to the best of your ability, and be thankful that you live in a state where the state constitution requires that your voice be heard. It can also be helpful to keep in mind that the bill in question will either pass or fail based on the support or opposition of at least a simple majority of members of that committee. There is no measure of how strongly each member supports or opposes a bill, it’s simply a matter of whether each member votes “Yes” or “No”.

Testimony Tip #6: Don’t be offended if one or more members leave the committee room.

In 1988, the people of Colorado limited the general session law-making authority of their state legislature to no more than 120 days each year. There is no option to extend beyond 120 legislative days. In Colorado, each bill that is introduced during a general session should either pass or fail during those 120 days. Thus, once a general session begins, members of the Colorado General Assembly do not necessarily control their schedules. When a member leaves a committee hearing room to present a bill to a different committee, it is not a sign of poor scheduling or an inconsiderate attitude. It is simply a matter of there being a finite amount of time and a requirement that every bill receive a hearing, both of which are required by the state constitution.

Testimony Tip #7: Don’t be offended if a committee hearing lasts hours or all night long.

As with Tip #6 above, when a committee hearing lasts for many hours or even all night long, it isn’t necessarily a sign of poor scheduling or an inconsiderate attitude by one or more legislators. Just as with members having to be in two places at the same time, long committee hearings are a result of the same two constitutional requirements: every bill must receive a hearing during a finite number of legislative days. In states where a committee chair can decide whether a given bill receives a hearing, such long hearings would be far less common. Likewise, bill hearings lasting through the night would be far less common in a state where the governor and/or legislature can extend session time.

** The information provided herein is intended for general educational purposes only and is not legal advice. If you have questions of a legal nature, please consult with an attorney.

** Civics Corner content was written with the help of former Senate Majority Leader Chris Holbert.

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