From guns to gay rights, emotional Texas hearings happening under cover of darkness
AUSTIN — Uvalde families showed up at the Capitol early last Tuesday, ready to make their case for stricter gun laws after the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School.
The committee began the public hearing at 9 a.m. But it wasn’t until 10 p.m. that the parents were called to testify. The 13-hour wait reminded Kimberly Rubio of the day a gunman killed 19 students and two teachers in Uvalde, “when we waited hours to be told our daughter would never come home.”
“I expressed confusion then, and I’m perplexed now,” she told lawmakers through tears. “Did you think we would go home?”
On some of the most contentious issues of the legislative session, members of the public are making their voices heard in the middle of the night.
High-profile hearings on LGBTQ rights, gun restrictions and school voucher-like efforts scheduled to start in the morning often haven’t gotten to public testimony until dinner time — or much later.
For Texans who traveled hours, took off from work or found babysitters so they could come to the Capitol, the choice is to wait for hours or leave.
“We deserve a lot better than this,” Ricardo Martinez, the head of the LGBTQ rights organization Equality Texas, said at a rally Thursday. “We deserve to be allowed a seat at the table. We deserve the two minutes to testify.”
Lawmakers said scheduling blockbuster public hearings is difficult because there’s no way to know how many people will show up. Because the Legislature meets for only five months every two years, legislators often split their busy days between committee hearings and floor debate, when they vote to advance legislation.
Even the Democrat who filed the firearm bill debated last Tuesday said the session presents a difficult balancing act when it comes to timing.
“You don’t know how many people are going to testify. You don’t know how long you’re going to be on the floor. There’s a lot of unknowns from a timing standpoint,” said Rep. Tracy King, D-Batesville.
But committee chairs have wide latitude on how their public hearings are run. They set the schedule, the order of debate on the bills and can enforce time limits.
Many allow for only two or three minutes of testimony from each member of the public. Lawmakers can also push people to the front of the line by deeming them “invited testimony.”
Put another way: They have power over who speaks, when and for how long.
Public hearings were first mandated in the 1970s, when the lawmakers passed a number of reforms, said Gary Keith, who worked at the Texas Legislature for two decades and taught politics at the University of the Incarnate Word. Late nights and long hearings are not new, he said.
“It is a common practice, if it is a hot-button issue that they do not want, to drag it out so that it doesn’t get the media attention, so that people give up and go home,” Keith said.
With so many hot-button issues now and big crowds wanting to speak, the practice may be more visible, he said.
In order to testify, members of the public must register in person at the Capitol when the committee meeting begins. But they may not be called up to speak for hours later.
To that end, advocacy groups try to step in and make what can be a confusing and tiring process a bit easier.
Ahead of recent hearings, LGBTQ rights groups posted up outside the Capitol building armed with computers and iPads to help people register.
The position was strategic: at the fringes of the building’s WiFi network people could sign into the system without having to navigate through security and into the bowels of the building where committee rooms are located. Then, the groups told people to go about their days and watch social media for a signal to return when the bill was taken up.
Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank, provided lunch and hosted a “Testimony 101 — How to Talk to Legislators” at its downtown office on the day a House education committee held a public hearing on several school voucher-like bills, according to an email sent out to supporters. The committee debate ran overnight.
Even with such help from advocates, members of the public are often left waiting for hours.
Debate earlier this month on a House bill to ban gender-affirming medical treatments for minors started at noon. People invited to testify on the bill, all of whom were in favor of the ban, got to speak first. This left the public for last. Nearly 500 people signed up to speak. Fewer than 50 were heard before the chairwoman, Rep. Stephanie Klick cut off debate at midnight.
The decision to stop debate spurred an immediate protest, with dozens of LGBTQ Texans and their allies staging an impromptu sit-in in the Capitol halls.
Klick said an online portal launched last session allows people to submit written comments instead of waiting or appearing in person.
“On some of the contentious bills, I’ve left the portal open after the hearing ended,” said Klick, R-Fort Worth.
For example: more than 8,000 people recently submitted comments on a House bill to ban medical treatments for transgender minors after Klick gave them several additional days to do so. The vast majority of the submissions favored the bill, according to legislative staff.
By contrast, most of the hundreds of people who waited hours to testify on the bill in person were against it.
Each chamber also has its own rules. While the Senate must have a public hearing before a bill can reach the floor, the House does not.
When the Senate version of the gender-affirming care ban made it to the House weeks later, Klick’s committee did not hold another public debate on the concept. Though the legislation has been dramatically changed, the committee instead passed it in a hastily called hearing that even a couple of its own members were unable to make.
Even when the public turns out in droves, the committee doesn’t necessarily vote in their favor.
Texans testified 5-1 against bills to restrict, or criminalize, drag shows but the legislation passed through the Senate anyway.
Last week, the House Select Committee on Community Safety considered more than a dozen gun related policies. After beginning at 9 a.m. and hearing a few bills, the committee broke an hour later for a meeting of the full House. The hearing didn’t pick back up until after 7 p.m. King’s bill wasn’t called until just before 10 p.m., and public testimony ran through 2 a.m.
Uvalde families shared tearful testimony on why Texas should raise the age from 18 to 21 to purchase a “semiautomatic rifle that is capable of accepting a detachable magazine and that has a caliber greater than .22.”
Committee chair Ryan Guillen’s office did not respond to a request for comment. But the Rio Grande City Republican told the Austin American-Statesman that he was concerned about everybody having to wait long. After King’s bill was heard, several more were called up for public testimony.
“The House floor went way longer than it needed to, and it didn’t get us there (back in committee) till the evening,” Guillen told the Statesman. “And so, therefore, we had to stay till 4 o’clock in the morning.”
Rep. Jarvis Johnson, a Houston Democrat who is vice chair of the committee, said he doesn’t know why the bill was called so late. What Guillen has done consistently in the past, he said, is try to get bills without a lot of witnesses out of the way first, before bigger ticket items that bring a lot of public testimony.
“Unfortunately, we went extremely long on the House floor,” Johnson said. “By the time we got back to the committee, it was 8 o’clock.”
The way the system is designed, with the Legislature squeezing all their work into only a few months, a lot of long waits are likely, he said.
“Everybody has a voice,” he said, “and I appreciate a lot of those parents and a lot of those witnesses that hung in there because this was so very important to them.”
The legislation Uvalde families support has not moved out of the committee.