Want lawmakers to know how you feel about a bill? Consider speaking at a committee hearing
Legislative committees are important. They’re the first time bills are heard and often the only times the public can speak for or against a bill in front of lawmakers that don’t represent them. It’s also where most bills die.
There are a few ways you can engage with committees on topics you care about. You can watch the livestream of legislative committees on the Indiana General Assembly’s website — recordings are usually available a day or two later. Afterward, you might decide to contact members of the committee to let them know your thoughts on a bill.
Andrew Downs is director emeritus of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics at Purdue University Fort Wayne. He said watching these committee hearings is a better way to stay informed rather than just looking at how a lawmaker voted.
"So we actually get to hear the conversation. And that may help you understand the motivation of a legislator when commenting on something or the questions they ask during a hearing," Downs said.
If a bill affects you directly — whether in your personal life, your business, or a legal battle — you might consider testifying in front of the committee at the Indiana Statehouse. Ed Feigenbaum is the editor of the newsletter Indiana Legislative Insight.
“If you bring a different perspective and you state your case and explain why it's important, people will listen and it can often have an impact," he said.
Committee hearings are almost always during normal business hours and lawmakers choose not to provide a virtual option to the public for offering testimony outside of emailing comments.
Tips on testifying at a committee hearing
Downs said it’s best to have an idea of what you’re going to say and show up to the committee meeting early — even though these hearings often start late. Once it’s your turn to talk, you might consider editing your statement.
"So, for example, you might walk up and say, 'Hi, my name is. This is where I live. And by the way, I love what Senator so-and-so said about this bill.' And then you go into your statement from there because you've now included them, you've demonstrated you were paying attention to what they were discussing and you've started to build a relationship with legislators," Downs said.
You generally only get a few minutes to testify and committee chairs will often ask members of the public not to rehash what someone else has said to save time. Lawmakers may suggest instead that you say you agree with a certain person's testimony or have had a similar experience.
Speaking in front of lawmakers can seem daunting, but Feigenbaum said don't be intimidated.
"These are people that have, you know, real life jobs just like you. They're people that went before people like you, asking for their votes to be elected," he said.
Take former Rep. Tom Saunders (R-Lewisville), for example, who served in the legislature for more than 25 years. Feigenbaum said Saunders started as a custodian in a county courthouse and worked his way up to a white-collar job there before running for state representative.
"He never forgot where he came from and always tried, when he was in a committee setting, to make people feel that they were welcome and comfortable," he said.
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Find lobbyists that work for you
Lobbyists aren't just for big business, Feigenbaum said, and they can work behind the scenes to help move bills through committees.
"People don't realize but just about everybody has several entities that are representing them. If you belong to a church, if you belong to AAA, for example. If you belong to a PTO at your school. Virtually everybody has some kind of business that has a lobbyist that's working for that particular industry," he said.
The Indiana Lobby Registration Commission has a database of lobbyists at the Indiana Statehouse.