Democrats want to allow for virtual testimony at Statehouse committees

By: - May 24, 2021 12:50 am

State Rep. Brigid Kelly, D-Cincinnati, is seen testifying earlier in 2021 on legislation to allow for virtual committees and floor sessions of the Ohio General Assembly. She is now among the Democrats calling for a virtual testimony system as Ohio navigates its way out of the pandemic. Screenshot courtesy The Ohio Channel.

At different times during the pandemic, Democratic lawmakers have tried unsuccessfully to push for the Ohio General Assembly to conduct its work remotely.

Now with Ohio navigating its return to normalcy, Democrats still want to provide some virtual access to the legislative process in the years to come.

Members are proposing legislation that would allow for virtual testimony within Statehouse committee hearings.

Proposed bills are heard in legislative committees before they are considered by the full Ohio House of Representatives and Ohio Senate chambers for a vote. The committee process is where experts and constituents get a chance to make their case for or against a bill by testifying directly to lawmakers, who get to ask questions and discuss the subject at hand.

Take for instance Senate Bill 80, which proposes to  add political party designations for candidates of certain judicial elections. 

A committee hearing in March featured proponent (supporter) testimony from John C. Green, director emeritus of the University of Akron’s Bliss Institute, who argued to lawmakers that including parties on ballots will give voters more information on the candidates. 

Another more recent hearing from last week featured opponent testimony from Judge Cynthia Westcott Rice of the Ohio Courts of Appeals Judges Association, who said the lack of ballot party affiliation promotes judicial objectivity.

A person need not be affiliated with any official organization in order to testify on legislation. Issues such as gun rights and COVID-19 regulations are among those that have seen ordinary citizens visit the Ohio Statehouse for a chance to advocate directly to lawmakers.

Physical presence is required for this, although there is an option to provide written testimony. Being there in person gives a witness the chance to have a dialogue with lawmakers and answer questions.

The concept of virtual testimony came up during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, with some Democrats wanting to provide Ohioans a way to participate without necessarily having to risk appearing in person.

Companion bills in the House and Senate propose setting up a system to allow for virtual testimony beyond the pandemic. State Reps. Brigid Kelly, D-Cincinnati, and Adam Miller, D-Columbus, along with state Sen. Cecil Thomas, D-Cincinnati, are leading the efforts in their respective chambers. Nearly every Democrat has signed on as a co-sponsor.

Kelly had already proposed virtual testimony earlier this year as part of a broader effort to promote committee hearings and floor sessions being conducted fully remotely.

“It’s not fair to ask Ohioans to travel all the way to Columbus to weigh in on proposed legislation,” Thomas said in a statement announcing the proposal. “Most Ohioans aren’t able to leave their job or family on a weekday, and many don’t have access to transportation. Many Ohioans have disabilities or health conditions that also make it difficult to testify in-person. This bill would allow all Ohioans to participate in the legislative process.”

Lawmakers on the Ohio Controlling Board meet digitally and question agency officials through virtual means. Screenshot courtesy the Ohio Channel.

A constituent of Thomas’ and Kelly’s districts in southwest Ohio requires a 3-hour round trip to provide testimony that can be as short as a few minutes. Waiting in the hearing rooms for one’s turn to testify can also be time consuming, with hearings oftentimes including a handful of bills that can take hours to get through.

Lawmakers already hear virtual testimony in some circumstances. The Ohio Controlling Board, which has met virtually during the pandemic, questions agency officials about budget issues through digital means.

A year ago, lawmakers on the House Economic Recovery Task Force heard virtual testimony about the pandemic from struggling business owners throughout the state.

Committee hearings are broadcast live on The Ohio Channel and online, with meetings able to be rewatched later. 

The bills to allow virtual testimony await their first committee hearings. Those who want to testify on them will have to do so in person.



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Tyler Buchanan
Tyler Buchanan

Tyler Buchanan is an award-winning journalist who has covered Ohio politics and government for the past decade. A Bellevue native and graduate of Bowling Green State University, he most recently spent 6 1/2 years as a reporter and editor of The Athens Messenger and Vinton-Jackson Courier newspapers. He is a member of the BG News Alumni Society Board and was a 2019 fellow in the Kiplinger Program in Public Affairs Journalism.