Hard feelings aired by citizens denied the opportunity to testify in Nebraska Legislature

Current and former lawmakers say it’s a challenge to accommodate a growing number of people wishing to comment

By: and - February 21, 2023 5:45 am

Scenes like this, with people standing in long lines to testify on bills at the Nebraska Legislature, are becoming more and more common. More controversial proposals linked to culture wars are cited as the reason. (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)

LINCOLN — Citizens crammed the meeting rooms and hallways of the State Capitol recently to testify on hot-button issues pertaining to guns, public funding for private schools, abortion and LGBTQ rights.

At least a dozen people, who had waited up to six hours for a turn to speak, were denied the opportunity because legislative committee chairs had imposed a six-hour time limit on testimony. 

One senator invited those who were denied a chance to speak to come to his office after a multi-hour hearing to offer their views.

The issue led to complaints about how the Legislature structures hearings, more of which are stretching into the night as more contentious “culture wars” bills have been introduced and more people want to testify about various proposals.

“There are a lot of young people now that have their first interaction with the Legislature as being one where their voices weren’t heard, and in fact, they’re turned away,” said Cindy Maxwell-Ostdiek, a nonpartisan who ran for the Legislature in 2022.

The Nebraska Legislature is unique in requiring a public hearing on every bill that is introduced. But there are no rules on how to conduct those hearings.

In the past, it was rare to have more than one or two hearings extend into the evening, but more and more afternoon hearings, which typically begin at 1:30 p.m., now continue well into the evening – until 9 p.m. or later. 

Some senators blamed this on the nation’s political divide and its culture wars.

Former committee chairs

Three former legislators who headed committees cited various strategies to handle hearings with a deluge of people seeking to testify.

But all said it was important that each side of an issue got a chance to state their case.

Former Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha said he had an “Alliance Rule.”

“If someone came all the way from Alliance, they were going to have a chance to speak,” Lathrop said.

Red light, green light

The Judiciary Committee, which traditionally gets the most bills referred to it, gets so many bills that former Sen. Kermit Brashear, nearly two decades ago, instituted a time limit on individual speakers.

The limit is enforced by a light system of green, yellow and finally a red “stop” light, to accommodate more testifiers.

The light system, which typically limits testimony to three minutes, now is used by almost all legislative committees.

“It’s a challenge,” he added. “For me, it was important to give everyone a chance to speak.”

Former Sen. Galen Hadley of Kearney said he had the same priorities: Let everyone have a chance to testify because they might have driven across the state to do it.

“If you limit the proponents and opponents to three hours, you’re going to shut off some people who want to talk,” Hadley said.

The senator said he would limit how long each testifier could speak, to three to five minutes each, which he considered fair.

Former Sen. David Landis of Lincoln, who served from 1989 to 2007, said he did not recall ever having a legislative hearing that extended for six hours, as is more frequent today.

But he had a unique way of organizing such sessions — he’d ask for a show of hands of who wanted to testify, and then advise proponents and opponents how much time he figured it would take for both sides to make their case.

“I’d ask, ‘Is that fair?’ “ Landis said, and if both sides agreed, he’d ask each side to organize their testifiers to provide their case without repeating arguments.

“It was very rare to have two hours of testimony on both sides,” he said. “There weren’t the kind of issues I read about in the paper today.”

Legislative hearings, Landis said, are organized like a trial in court, with proponents presenting their case first, and then opponents. It’s important, he said, for each side to hear the other side’s arguments.

Education, Health and Human Services at center

State Sens. Dave Murman of Glenvil and Ben Hansen of Blair chair the Education and Health and Human Services Committees, which have been the subject of recent criticism for hearings on abortion and transgender Nebraskans.

Murman said he knows that some people who are unhappy with the way he organized some of the hearings before the Education Committee but felt that given the number of invited testifiers, and others, wishing to speak, three hours per side was adequate.

“I thought it worked pretty well,” Murman said. “It was unfortunate that some people didn’t get to speak.”

“Once you get past the first three hours, it gets to be pretty repetitive,” Murman said. “You’ve got to draw the line somewhere.”

People who attend hearings but do not testify, either due to time constraints or because they don’t want to speak, can sign a sheet to mark their position.

Hansen, like Murman and former senators interviewed, said he prioritizes providing “adequate and fair time” to all sides of an issue.

“I think so long as you provide adequate time and structure it accordingly and be fair, and then make sure everyone has open communication about how things are going to work, that’s how, I guess I feel is the most fair,” Hansen said.

Murman noted that some state senators commute to Lincoln. To avoid a middle-of-the-night drive home, followed by a drive back to Lincoln a couple of hours later, it’s important to end a hearing at a decent hour.

Murman said he consulted with Capitol security before some of the hearings that drew the biggest crowds, and security personnel recommended clearing the room of opponents when proponents testified, and vice versa.

An overflow room provided a video feed of the hearing, so each side could hear what the other side was  saying. He added that a recently adopted rule to allow testimony to be emailed has provided another avenue to let constituents make their views known.

With hearings that bring heightened emotion, such as those on abortion and LGBTQ issues, Hansen said he understands some testifiers’ reactions. However, he said it was “not appropriate at all” that some reacted by openly swearing or yelling at committee members and storming out of the room. 

‘The one’

State Sen. Justin Wayne, who chairs the Judiciary Committee and sits on the Education Committee, sat down with testifiers who were unable to testify at an Education hearing on a bill that would restrict who could use which school bathrooms and play on sports teams based on sex.

Wayne said it’s “pretty simple” for him, and he doesn’t have any “robust principle” behind his actions: Some people drive five or six hours to testify, “and the least I can do is give them the three minutes to talk.”

While many activists or lobbyists offer testimony, Wayne said, for him it’s about “the one,” the one from Chadron, similar to Lathrop’s “Alliance Rule.”

Wayne added that technology does allow people to testify online, but it doesn’t matter.

“At the end of the day, if somebody shows up, they should be heard,” Wayne said.

Maxwell-Ostdiek, who noted the frustration voiced by young people who were turned away, added that she appreciated that Wayne took the time to meet individually with Nebraskans but was disappointed it was even necessary.

The effects of limiting testimony might go beyond just participation, Maxwell-Ostdiek said. Over time, she said, limiting whose testimony is heard could lead to worse laws being passed, more people leaving the state and negative impacts on the state’s economy.

‘Least I can do’

In Judiciary, Wayne structures his hearings for more high-profile bills so one hour each is given to proponents, then opponents and then neutral testifiers, then repeating that cycle until done. That’s how he handled State Sen. Tom Brewer’s revived attempt for people to carry concealed weapons without a permit.

The Legislature as an institution is not supposed to extend a session past midnight, which would be a new legislative day, but Wayne said no one can tell him how to run his committee.

“So if we’re there until 2 in the morning, then dammit we’re there until 2 in the morning,” he said.

“I just fundamentally believe that I don’t know who’s showing up. I don’t know their walk of life,” Wayne said. “But if they took time out of their day to come down to be heard, that’s the least I can do.”

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Paul Hammel
Paul Hammel

Senior Reporter Paul Hammel has covered the Nebraska state government and the state for decades. Previously with the Omaha World-Herald, Lincoln Journal Star and Omaha Sun, he is a member of the Omaha Press Club's Hall of Fame. He grows hops, brews homemade beer, plays bass guitar and basically loves traveling and writing about the state. A native of Ralston, Nebraska, he is vice president of the John G. Neihardt Foundation.

Zach Wendling
Zach Wendling

Zach Wendling recently graduated from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a double major in journalism and political science. He has interned for The Hill and The News Station in Washington, D.C. He reported for the Nebraska News Service and The Daily Nebraskan before joining the Nebraska Examiner staff as an intern.