In addition to the ill feelings I shared yesterday regarding the reprehensible partisan behavior exhibited by House leadership this session, I was also appalled by the routine abandonment of Joint Rule 304. This rule determines procedure at the beginning of each legislative biennium. Joint Rule 304 reads:
“At the beginning of each legislative biennium, the presiding officers shall establish procedures that govern public hearings, work sessions and confirmation hearings. Once established, copies of the procedures must be sent to the committees, the Secretary of the Senate, the Clerk of the House and the Executive Director of the Legislative Council. A committee by majority vote may make exceptions to the rules and notify the presiding officers of exceptions to the rules. Final committee rules must be posted and made available upon request at all public hearings and work sessions.
The rules of procedure in committee are the same as the rules of the Senate and the House of Representatives to the extent applicable. Committee procedures must be consistent with these rules.
The presiding chair shall decide all questions of order, subject to appeal to the committee. The chair’s ruling stands unless overruled by a majority vote of the committee membership.
Scheduling of bills to be considered in public hearings and work sessions must be arranged by the Senate chair with the agreement of the House chair; if agreement is not reached, the committee shall decide by majority vote of the membership.
At public hearings, the chair may limit testimony as necessary for the orderly conduct of the hearing. Members may question witnesses to clarify testimony and to elicit helpful and pertinent information. While aggressive and probing questions may sometimes be appropriate, members shall exhibit respect for the witnesses and for one another. Members shall refrain from interrogation that is argumentative, oppressive, repetitive or unnecessarily embarrassing to hearing participants. Advocacy and discussion among members are not appropriate at public hearings. A committee member who is the primary sponsor of a bill and any member who testifies for or against the bill should ordinarily refrain from questioning other witnesses.”
I serve on the Joint Standing Committee on Energy, Utilities and Technology (EUT). Earlier this session, I witnessed firsthand the lack of decorum and the squelching of First Amendment rights (my own and others) by the House Committee Chair Rep. Seth Berry.
It was evident to me and others in the room on Jan. 11 that people who agreed with Rep. Berry would be treated fairly and those who did not would be silenced. There were no senators on the committee present in the room at the time of the hearing, so the committee members’ microphones were controlled by Rep. Berry alone.
Sen. Saviello stepped forward to the podium to give his testimony on the “emergency legislation” before us, which was a solar bill shot down in the previous session (another violation of our rules, mind you). I let Sen. Saviello finish and proceeded to raise my hand to ask questions. I was questioning the violation of rules allowing this bill to come forward as well as the constitutionality of the measure.
Rep. Berry reached over to the microphone that controls mine and shut it off. He would not entertain any questioning that put his top priority agenda item in jeopardy. There were multiple witnesses who saw him do this, and in fact there is a recording of the entire meeting.
Reps. Richard Malaby and Paula Sutton spoke in opposition to the bill, then Rep. Sirocki came forward to testify and Rep. Berry shut her off and said he would not hear testimony regarding constitutional concerns or that of rule violations, thus stifling her speech. He then belittled Rep. Lyford and repeated he would not hear testimony questioning the constitutionality of the bill. Then Rep. Lockman spoke and, knowing he would also be silenced, quickly pointed out that the way this committee meeting was being run was precisely the reason people have no faith in government.
After that meeting, we had others where the House Chair found what he had to say was more important than that of others on the committee. Instead running these meetings appropriately by calling on other committee members who had raised their hands to ask questions, Berry insisted on his own extensive questioning, and in multiple instances, he badgered individuals giving testimony, including a highly respected member of the Public Utilities Commission. I voiced my concerns on the record about how poorly these meetings were being run and how disgraceful it was to badger witnesses for voicing their concerns with legislation.
I complained about the decorum of these meeting and others, legislative rules and constitutional violations and was granted my place on the agenda at a meeting of the Legislative Council. I voiced my concerns about emergency legislation and the violation of rules and a myriad of things that concerned me about the way this session was being handled.
Instead of taking my concerns seriously, I was grilled by Speaker Sara Gideon, Sen. Troy Jackson and Rep. Jared Golden who were trying to get me in a “gotcha” moment. They were not successful in their attempts because I knew the subject matter of which I spoke.
What I learned from that meeting and others was that legislative rules apply only to some people and not others. In the 128th Legislature, the majority party in the House did not care about rules, procedures, or the opinions of the minority party, and if those views could be squelched, manipulated or held hostage, it would be done in the name of partisan politics.
I ask you Dear Reader, why should we have laws or rules at all if those in the highest positions of power will not abide by them?