By Julie Anderson, Editor
Garza County Judge Lee Norman has talked the talk and walked the walk – through the Capitol halls that is. In fact, Norman makes his way to Austin some six-10 times every legislative session.
Norman launched his county career in 1993 as a County Commissioner and served for 12 years, during which time he traveled to the Capitol on various occasions including County Government Day.
“These trips helped me have a working knowledge of the legislative process,” Norman stated. “I had the benefit of traveling with my mentor, then-County Judge Giles Dalby, during those years.”
Norman has served as County Judge for the past 10 years, and he has continued his involvement in the legislative process testifying before committees during sessions and speaking before traveling committees.
“I learned from the County Judges and Commissioners Association of Texas about the importance of testifying,” Norman emphasized. “I work closely with our legislators and try and get to know more of them at every opportunity.”
Norman calls his senator and representative to discuss important issues and makes personal requests asking them to carry legislation. For example, during the last session lawmakers representing Garza County, Sen. Charles Perry and Rep. Drew Springer, co-sponsored a joint resolution raising the population cap on a constitutional amendment to help rural counties, Normal detailed.
“They helped me research issues relating to the bill, and then I prepared notes to have available during testimony,” Norman shared. “I have also testified on school property tax issues and revenue cap issues and helped facilitate a meeting for area Judges to discuss legislative issues.”
During the 2016 West Texas Conference, Springer served on a legislative panel that also included Rep. Drew Darby and Rep. Andrew Murr.
Springer, Darby and Murr, former Kimble County Judge, encouraged officials to stay connected with their lawmakers and let them know either personally or through correspondence exactly what resources counties need to serve their constituents.
“Nothing is too small to bring to us,” Springer emphasized. “Email us. Call us. Come see us.”
If the lawmaker is not available, Norman makes contact with a legislative aid or the chief of staff.
“I enjoy making the contacts with both legislators and staff,” Norman offered, “and I have found them to be very engaging and supportive whenever I want to share a county issue.”
Those who are unable to make the trip to the Capitol can still play a valuable role in the legislative process.
“Constituents in House District 82 should contact my Austin office where my staff keeps track of all calls on issues and makes me aware of who has called in and about what topic,” advised State Rep. Tom Craddick.
“Form letters and form emails are an easy way for constituents to communicate and promote an agenda, but not effective,” Craddick elaborated. “I am more invested in constituents’ concerns when they take the time to write me and use their own words to express their concerns about a legislative issue.”
For those who do travel to Austin to formally testify on an issue, Craddick offered the following advice:
- Everyone testifying before a committee should have visited the committee members’ offices prior to the meeting and briefed them on their position.
- Be truthful, succinct and to the point. “After office visits, it is fair to assume everyone on the committee is informed and will know what you are testifying about,” Craddick said, “therefore a quick summary is successful, and your position is on the official record.”
Preparing to Testify Before the Legislative Committees
The Texas Association of School Boards has developed a guide to help witnesses prepare for testimony and feel comfortable in front of legislative committees, https://www.tasb.org/Legislative/Legislative-Information/documents/witness_guide.aspx.
The Legislature works through a committee process to pass legislation. Committee members are selected by the presiding officer of each chamber – the speaker of the house and the lieutenant governor, who oversees the Senate.
Once a legislator files a bill, it is sent to the appropriate committee for a hearing. The committee assignment is determined by the subject matter of the bill. Each committee holds hearings on its assigned bills. Under the Open Meetings Act, legislative committees must post the issues and/or proposed bills they intend to discuss at least five days prior to a hearing. During a special session, committees must post hearing notices at least 24 hours prior to a hearing. When hearings are called from the floor of either the House or Senate, a committee must give notice at least two hours before a hearing.
Once the committee hearing has been scheduled, the legislators on the committee may request that certain witnesses testify on a bill or an issue under consideration. Additionally, the committee allocates time during the hearing for the public to provide testimony. Since legislative committee meetings and state agency hearings are open meetings, all proceedings and testimony are public record and are documented. Additionally, committee hearings are generally broadcast via the Internet.
What Happens During a Committee Hearing?
Once you arrive at a committee hearing to testify, you will be required to sign a witness affirmation form stating your name, the organization you are representing, your contact information, the bill or issue on which you are testifying, and whether you support, oppose or wish to remain neutral on that bill or issue.
When the hearing begins, the committee chair will announce the bill number being considered and will then begin calling witnesses who have signed up to testify on the bill. When you are called up to testify, it is important to keep three things in mind:
- Begin your comments by thanking the committee.
- Limit your comments to between three to five minutes or the time limit imposed by the chair.
- Be ready to answer questions.
Bring several copies of your testimony, as it is customary to provide hard copies of your testimony for each member of the committee.
Once testimony has been heard on a bill, the committee may vote on the bill, amend it, delay it for further discussion, or ask for more information. Bills delayed for discussion or voted down may reappear as another bill or an amendment to another bill, so it is advisable to monitor communications for updates on legislative and regulatory activities.
Tips for Preparing Testimony
As you develop your testimony, keep these important points in mind:
- Develop a concise message.
- Focus on three or four message points you want to emphasize. Prioritize those points and deliver the most important ones first in case there is not enough time to deliver all of them.
- Focus on local impact. Illustrate your message points with data, statistics, or a brief anecdote about how the proposed bill/issue will affect you. The point of your testimony is to tell your specific story.
- Get the facts straight. Be as accurate as possible and give credit to the source of information to increase your credibility and protect yourself if the details turn out to be incorrect.
Tips for Testifying
As you prepare to testify, keep these tips in mind:
- Build rapport.
- Acknowledge the committee members and thank them for allowing you to testify.
- Try to keep good eye contact with and address your comments directly to the members.
- Summarize points. Avoid reading written testimony. Simply summarize the key points verbally and provide copies of written testimony to all members of the committee, staff, news media and other observers.
- Avoid repetition. Legislators often hear much boring, repetitious testimony, so make yours memorable.
- Be sincere. Be yourself. Don’t become too emotional or dramatic.
- Waive the opportunity to speak if several others have already said what you wanted to say, but remember to distribute written copies of your testimony.
- Be honest and helpful. Often, the committee members will ask questions of people who testify. Answer questions as honestly as you can. If you don’t know the answer, say so or defer to another expert.
- Avoid confrontation. If a member of the committee asks a hostile question, diffuse the hostility by remaining poised. Even if the committee seems opposed to your perspective, your testimony may earn their respect, educate those attending the hearing, and/or at least prove that opposition exists.
- Dress conservatively. You do not want to distract legislators from listening to your message. Business attire is appropriate.
At any state office building, security guards may require you to show picture identification and the contents of your belongings (i.e., your purse or briefcase) upon entering the building. Be prepared for increased security measures during the legislative session or after any national security alert.
For more information including getting around the Capitol, parking, eating and sleeping accommodations and other important details, go to https://www.tasb.org/Legislative/Legislative-Information/documents/witness_guide.aspx.