Public Hearings

Before any bill can become law in New Hampshire, it has to withstand a dose of public scrutiny, in the form of a hearing to which absolutely everyone is invited. Today's episode is about the power, as well as the shortcomings, of public hearings. 


NOTE: This transcript was generated using an automated transcription service, and may contain typographical errors.

Caroline Dillon: [00:00:00] I got there half an hour early. I got there at 830 so I just skipped school and figured that was more important.

 Ben Henry: [00:00:10] This is Caroline Dillon a senior at Spalding High School. She skipped class to make her mark on New Hampshire politics at a public hearing.

Caroline Dillon: [00:00:20] So we went into the room which was small because the Senate committee was only five people call to order first hearing in the days of.

[00:00:33] So they have their kind of like u shaped desk where they're all sitting and then there's one facing them and then there's a couple rows of chairs behind that and everybody sits in those rows of chairs.

 Ben Henry: [00:00:44] This was the House Education and Workforce Development Committee. That voice you heard was the chair of the committee Jay Kahn.

 Caroline Dillon: [00:00:51] There is a roster where you sign in and you say like what Bill you're there for if you're in favor of it or against it and whether or not you're speaking Caroline wrote her name on the roster and took a seat and she waited for her turn to talk.

 Ben Henry: [00:01:04] She's normally a shy person. Public speaking isn't really her thing. But this was her moment.

 Archival: [00:01:19] I'd like to ask is Caroline Dillon here and wishing to speak.

 Ben Henry: [00:01:22] Hello and welcome to Civics 101 New Hampshire. I'm Ben Henry. Today on the show public hearings. Before any bill can become law in New Hampshire it has to have at least one public hearing where anyone can show up and talk to their lawmakers face to face. You can tell them what you think about the bill. A lot of people myself included have never testified at a public hearing. It's kind of confusing to figure out when they happen and where they happen and how to participate. So to demystify the whole thing we're going to tag along with Caroline and see how she did it.

 [00:01:55] Because here's the thing. Lawmakers listen to your feedback. Not every time but sometimes hearings are kind of the best way to have a political impact in New Hampshire that nobody knows about.

 Anna Brown: [00:02:07] Not to be harsh but like honestly way bigger impact than voting sorry. As an individual not like going out and campaigning for someone or like whatever but like you and your opinion getting through hearings man hundred percent public hearing.

 [00:02:21] That's Anna Brown. She and her colleague Jacqueline Benson are joining us once again as our favorite two political wonks. Anna and Jackie welcome back Civics 101. Nice to be here. These two work at Citizens count a web site full of nonpartisan info about New Hampshire politics.

 Anna Brown: [00:02:38] Every bill that goes through New Hampshire House and Senate has to get a public hearing a public hearing is a time when the committee that is first assigned to the bill every committee has a specialization. They'll schedule a time and literally anybody literally anybody can show up at this time sign in and tell the legislators on the committee their opinion. It's called testifying which sounds very scary but all you're doing is you're just sitting at a little table in front of about you know 20 people if you're in the house and giving your opinion and they can ask questions if they have questions. Usually they don't ask many questions and then that's it. And your testimony is part of the official record and it's going to be included in all of the bill files for that forever.

 Ben Henry: [00:03:25] For Caroline. On that day she skipped school. She had prepared a couple of pages of stuff she wanted to say. You get three minutes to talk at a public hearing. That's it. This all started as a school project that involved researching a political issue.

 Caroline Dillon: [00:03:38] And I was just doing a Google search like women's issues today like have women achieved equality. And I came across the term period poverty and I was like oh what's that. So I researched it and you know it's lack of access to feminine hygiene products. And you associate that with third world countries and that type of thing. But the more research I did I realized it's like it's happening in America at an alarming rate and you know girls stay home from school.

 [00:04:08] They use socks or newspaper or ewuse products and you know risk for infection skyrockets. And I just thought that was horrible.

 Ben Henry: [00:04:18] It was not just happening in America. It was happening in her state in her school. She decided she had to do something about it at a summer program. She learned how to draft a bill.

 Caroline Dillon: [00:04:27] You know an act relative to blah blah blah it's a pretty short bill. So Senate bill 142 will put feminine hygiene products in all public high school and middle school bathrooms free of charge to the students.

 Ben Henry: [00:04:43] And she gave that bill to a senator who has worked on women's issues in the past. Martha Hennessey And long story short here she is sitting in a government building waiting to speak up. Every public hearing starts with the sponsor of the bill. The sponsor is a legislator who acts kind of like the personal champion of the bill. In this case Senator Hennesy who represents District 5.

 Archival: [00:05:07] Senator Martha Hennessey

 Ben Henry: [00:05:09] No relation to the cognac by the way.

 Archival: [00:05:11] I am bringing for you today. The Senate bill 142. I do want to tell you a little bit about how it got here.

 Ben Henry: [00:05:19] And Hennessy did what the sponsor usually does at this point. She explained what's in the bill and why she supports it. She also talked about Caroline who had emailed her last summer.

 Caroline Dillon: [00:05:30] Caroline introduced me to what is called period poverty which is very much like what it sounds like.

 Ben Henry: [00:05:37] After that Caroline was up.

 Caroline Dillon: [00:05:39] The committee calls like the first person on the roster. And so that was me and I got up and you sit down at the desk and most important thing to remember. You have to say who you are and where you are from.

 [00:05:51] You can't just start talking which seemed weird.

 Archival: [00:05:56] Please identify yourself. My name is Caroline Dillon. I'm from Rochester New Hampshire.

 Ben Henry: [00:06:00] Before the hearing, Caroline put some thought into how she wanted to address the committee what her strategy was.

 Caroline Dillon: [00:06:06] I'm in high school right now. You know a lot of obviously most of the people. On the Senate committee are in high school or have been in high school for a while. So I think a lot of times when you're in that sort of position it can happen that you're a little out of touch. So I was trying to really bring the perspective from high school girls. You know my friends people that I've met and really show them how difficult it is for people to go through that and make them understand from like the emotional standpoint why it's really important to us.

 Ben Henry: [00:06:39] This isn't the only way to participate in the hearing. You don't actually have to say anything. There is a sign in sheet at every public hearing where you put your name down and whether or not you support the bill.

 Jacquline Benson: [00:06:49] We were just talking to some reps this morning. They look at that they look at how many names how many people showed up and took the time come and actually like sign in on the sheet and say where they stood on this bill.

 Ben Henry: [00:06:59] Public hearings happen pretty early on in the life of a bill. So committee members might not have made up their mind yet. If you sway committee members they have a ton of influence over whether or not a bill will pass. Other legislators listen to their opinion on the bill.

 Jacquline Benson: [00:07:13] And I think it's important to mention here that like not all states do this right. Not all states give every bill a public hearing. In some states like the leadership of that state's legislature will kind of decide which bills are actually going to get to the point of having a hearing in which aren't or the committee chairs can exercise discretion over what bills get a hearing what don't. In New Hampshire doesn't matter if it's got one sponsor and is just completely off the wall it will get a public hearing which means people who have an opinion about that bill will have an opportunity to come in there and be like Listen I know this this ban on chicken trespassing sounds like it's really not a big deal but if you see with these chickens are doing to my yard you would understand how important this is.

 Ben Henry: [00:07:58] Given that we have hundreds of bills every legislative session you can imagine that some of those hearings for them are pretty sparsely attended.

 Anna Brown: [00:08:06] I've been at hearings where it's like three people one of which is the sponsor of the bill and then like two other people that'll happen a lot on a lot of bills. However this is a really hot button issue like right to work marijuana legalization any gun laws. I was actually at a hearing related to mandatory car insurance that went for like two and a half hours. I've seen hundreds of people show up for the marijuana legalization hearing. I was out last week was close to filling representatives Hall which is like 400 seats.

 Ben Henry: [00:08:41] On the day that Caroline gave her testimony. That same committee held four other hearing.

 Archival: [00:08:46] [Audio from hearings]

 Ben Henry: [00:09:11] During a hearing legislators on the committee can't speak for or against a bill. They are there to listen and to ask questions. The questioning happens right after you testify.

 Archival: [00:09:22] Thank you for your time and I hope you'll vote in favor of New Hampshire young women.

 [00:09:29] I'd ask products before they were installed in the women's bathrooms. They were available in the school somewhere else.

 Ben Henry: [00:09:39] Careline was ready for this question.

 Archival: [00:09:40] Yeah we had them available in the nurse's office but Kendra realized that especially for the girls who are really in need and don't have access as opposed to an emergency it would be very difficult to go to the nurse every single day for a week every single month.

 Ben Henry: [00:09:58] The committee seemed receptive to her answer. Some hearings get a little more contentious in the question asking session even though legislators aren't supposed to make statements.

Anna Brown: [00:10:07] The way around this is to ask a would you believe question and so you will get legislators who will say Would you believe and then you will get a nice long policy statement from them on exactly what they think about that bill and then having been the person who is sitting in that chair sometimes those questions you have to go. Yes I I would believe.

 Ben Henry: [00:10:31] Uh are there snacks.

 Anna Brown: [00:10:33] I wish there were not. How about how about enough seats for everyone. I've been hearing hearings where there's standing room only and they get very warm. The Legislative Office Building for anybody who wants to go to a public hearing it's very warm. It's just like they just like keep it slightly tropical dressed doctors sets in layers that you can take off. There are no snacks. There are more women's restrooms in the legislative office building than there are in the statehouse so that's good. You don't have to go up or down a floor to just find out where the ladies go.

 Ben Henry: [00:11:03] We've been talking about hearings in the legislative branch. But it's worth noting the executive branch holds public hearings to for example state agencies like fish and game or Health and Human Services when they change their rules. The public can weigh in.

 [00:11:19] Public hearings are one of the most direct ways you can take part in government hearings or just like any platform designed to give people a voice. Any of the machinery of democracy. Not everyone has equal access to them.

 Anna Brown: [00:11:35] They take place in the middle of the day. These hearings are at 10a.m. at a Tuesday or 1:00 on Wednesday. And a large body of people are at work during that time. We also had an interesting thing come up the other day. We were talking with the legislator and they were pointing out that the Family and Medical Leave hearing started at 1:00 and it went on for hours. So a lot of parents with kids had to leave by 3:00 because they had to be home for their kids so then you're sort of disenfranchising people who came up and wanted to talk in person.

 [00:12:06] So yeah I mean how about anybody from the north country traveling ever to Concord to get their voice in.

 [00:12:12] And it's not like there's a super easy way to know when there's a bill that has a hearing and what time it is and where it is.

 Ben Henry: [00:12:20] Remember how Carolyn had to miss school to come to the hearing. Hearings are sometimes scheduled just a few days before they happen. Meaning if you want to be there you've got to check the state legislature Web site constantly.

 Anna Brown: [00:12:32] This is why paid lobbyists have such a job in New Hampshire because they get paid to watch that stuff and track it and show up with you know just a couple of days notice with all their remarks prepared. And so you think about how many people are in the state versus those people showing up it's not a lot the people who do show up are going to be people who have jobs that allow them flexibility. So maybe business owners you know as opposed to lower level employees it's going to be some stay at home parents some retirees. That's one demographic.

 Ben Henry: [00:13:02] Another accessibility issue is just how hard it can be to find information about hearings.

 Jacquline Benson: [00:13:07] First thing you have to do is decide what issue you care about and then find the bill that matters. Right. And you can do that through the General Court Web site.

 Ben Henry: [00:13:18] That's gen G-E-N court dot state dot nh dot us.

 Jacquline Benson: [00:13:23] But it's a lot easier if you go to our website. Not that I'm trying to do a shameless plug here but.

 Ben Henry: [00:13:28] That's citizens count dot org. You can also look for news articles about issues NHPR dot org for example wherever you go you're looking for the number of a bill that's irrelevant or whichever issue you care about. It will be something like HB 10 or SB 11. HB for House Bill SB for Senate bill.

 Jacquline Benson: [00:13:47] Then you do have to go to the General Court Web site. Eventually you have to deal with them they are eventually going to have to go there. Don't do it on a mobile phone don't use a desktop or a laptop for all that's holy. Yes. Because you'll just cry. You'll be doing a lot of like from squinting. So you have to take note of your bill number and you basically got to go like every couple of days and plug your bill number in the gen court website and just watch for the hearing to be scheduled most of your hearings are going to happen in January and February. If you go one week and then you wait a week the hearing could be could be done. It could it coming on you wouldn't even see. Also protip check the Web site the morning of before you leave because the room numbers have to change. Yes that's an important protip. And then you're wandering around the Legislative Office Building going where. Where did they go

 Ben Henry: [00:14:35] Hearings are not always convenient to go to. They don't give you any snacks. So if you do show up you've got to wonder if the hearing will actually affect the outcome of the vote.

 Jacquline Benson: [00:14:45] Legislators can walk into a public hearing thinking that they know how they're going to vote on a bill and points will be brought up by people that are testifying at the hearing that just completely change the picture or bring up aspects of how this bill could impact things that nobody in the committee has sought of yet. So and it can be one person speaking that makes that difference.

 Anna Brown: [00:15:08] I think that if it is a really well known pretty simple issue legislators are already going to have their mind made up. So I do think that testimony makes a big difference in more complicated bills and in lesser known bills because once again you go back to legislators don't have a ton of staff to be researching these issues for them so they're going to rely on members of the public and lobbyists and other subject matter experts in the case of Carolands Bill.

 Ben Henry: [00:15:36] Most of the people who testified were in support of the bill. One woman was opposed. She brought up funding for the bill.

Archival: [00:15:42] Here to speak in opposition to this bill in Hopkinton. The school budget is a constant issue. Please don't give us one more thing that we are required to do when we're already struggling to find the.

 Ben Henry: [00:16:00] Caroline was a little surprised by this. But she knew that line of criticism would be coming. From her perspective. Schools already supply these products in the nurse's office. So it's not much of a new expense. The committee as far as Caroline could tell seemed receptive. I asked Jackie and Anna how to give a good effective testimony at a hearing. Their first tip was type up what you want to say. You can give the committee a paper copy of that testimony and that will be part of a public record.

 Anna Brown: [00:16:29] If you have written testimony they're going to ask you not to read it verbatim since they're all going to get copies. So that's up to you. Edits can be as long as you want but if you have your written if you do have something you want to read out loud. Keep in mind three minutes. So definitely no more than a page.

 Ben Henry: [00:16:43] Second tip don't repeat things people have said before you.

 Anna Brown: [00:16:46] Don't repeat things people have said before you legislators get very just sort of like I already heard this bothers them so if you see things that you were going to say you can you just kind of mark those off and say I don't want to repeat you know I agree with many of the things that have also been said in favor of this bill.

 Ben Henry: [00:17:06] Last tip. Figure out what your strategy is.

 Anna Brown: [00:17:09] I think that it depends on the legislator. I've heard legislators who say I want the personal story I want to know how this has impacted you personally. I've heard legislators say I don't care about your sob story. What are the statistics. What are the facts. But I do think that the idea is that this is a bill about town government. Were you at a town meeting. Have you served as a town clerk or something like that. This is a bill related to education. Were you a teacher. Do you have students in the schools and use that as the perspective to help them see from your point of view.

 Jacquline Benson: [00:17:39] There's going to be a reason you go to the trouble of going to this hearing. There's a reason you care about this bill. Get to the heart of that. That's what matters. Whether it's personal whether it's objective whatever it is there's going to be somebody there who's going to be interested in hearing it.

 Ben Henry: [00:17:57] Caroline strategy when she testified was to impress upon a committee of mostly men that they needed to talk about tampons.

 Caroline Dillon: [00:18:04] You can. Tell that they're kind of struggling with it internally. I see it when I talk to my dad. But there's this really cool moment when you see that they're struggling with it and that man just takes a deep breath and closes his eyes and decides I'm going to talk about it. It needs to be talked about. We're just going to get this over with.

 Ben Henry: [00:18:25] A week and a half after Caroline sat down in front of that u shaped desk to testify. The New Hampshire Senate brought her bill up for a vote. She watched it happen on the Senate's live stream.

 Caroline Dillon: [00:18:36] The discussion took a while it took half an hour.

 Archival: [00:18:39] I support the principle in this bill but I took an oath to support and defend the Constitution. There is no funding mechanism in this bill. I can't go back to my district and tell them you have to do.

 [00:18:51] We have thought carefully about whether this is an unfunded mandate. This is a matter of gender equity and equal access. And they took their votes. Call. The road.

 [00:19:04] Senator French Senator Ward. Yes. Six senators voted against the bill. Senator con. Yes Senator channelise 17 voted for the bill and it passed. The ayes have it. The motion of to pass as amended is adopted stepping down to the.

 Ben Henry: [00:19:21] Now it will move out of the Senate and go to the house.

 Caroline Dillon: [00:19:23] Yeah I'm going to go back and testify for the House committee just like I did for the Senate committee.

 [00:19:29] And then if it passes through there then the House will vote on it. And I will probably live stream that like a live stream the Senate's vote.

 [00:19:37] If you want to find out what happens to Caroline's Bill. Follow us on Twitter at Civic's 101 pod. And we'll let you know as soon as we find out.

 [00:19:47] If there is something you would like to know about how the government works and how you interact with it here in New Hampshire. Email us Civics 101 at NHPR dot org


Made possible in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting