The Utah legislative session begins today, January 19, and in a year of pandemic and political turmoil, it’s going to look a little bit different. Some have worried that the changes may make it harder for members of the public to make their voices heard, but I disagree. I think the pandemic and security-related changes will actually level the playing field.
Typically, the legislative session is peak lobbying time. Understandably, lobbyists who want to have a chance to meet, greet and persuade the largest number of legislators in the most time-efficient way spend pretty much all day, every day at the Capitol during the 45-day session.
Legislators can pretty much expect to have daily opportunities to attend breakfast, lunch, dinner, snack breaks and social events sponsored by one group or another. Again, it’s a way to be efficient in reaching legislators and talking to them about your issues, whether it’s education, rural water, heart health or the arts. But, it’s sometimes hard for individual citizens to get a word in edgewise.
This year will be different. There will be no “lobbyists row” outside the House and Senate chambers. There won’t be meals and COVID-spreader social events. For at least the beginning of the session, there will be no members of the public in the building at all.
All of that is good news for members of the public who do want to “get a word in edgewise.” This year, more than any other I can remember, the playing field is being leveled.
Utah’s government website was already top-notch and accessible. This year, it will be even more so. Go to le.utah.gov to get started. You can search for bills by topic, by number, by legislator or peruse committee agendas as they become available.
The legislature will be using Zoom to stream meetings, meaning for the first time, you will be able to see as well as hear committee meeting. And you won’t have to fight for a parking spot on the hill. Bonus! To access the meetings, go to the committee’s webpage where you want to listen and/or comment and click on “Virtual Meeting Access.” When you sign in, you must enter your first name, last name, and email. During public comment, you will be invited to raise your hand to speak if you would like to speak. The committee chair will be the one calling on people to comment. Just as with in-person committee meetings, sometimes public comment will be limited because of time. It’s a good idea to be prepared with concise statements that are one to two-minutes long. You may have longer than that, but it’s often easier to lengthen your public comment than it is to shorten it.
You can track bills electronically. Each time there is a change to the wording and each time it is scheduled to be discussed in committee or on the floor, the bill file will be updated. If you want email notifications of bill changes, enter your email on the bill page, on the right hand side under “Track This.”
All committee hearings and floor debate are streamed live and recorded, so you can return to them as often as you would like, whenever you would like.
Twitter is especially valuable during the session. Several legislators tweet actively, as do multiple reporters and news outlets, including Utah Policy. You can also find political information on pretty much any social media channel, including Facebook, Instagram and YouTube.
The work of the people is meant to be done in full public view, with input from the people it affects. When “we the people” weigh in (with respect and reason, it must be noted), legislators listen. This year’s Zoom meetings will bring the work of the people right into our living rooms, making access easier and more level than ever before. So listen in, raise your hand and weigh in on the issues you care about.