Tell legislators to support safe access to state’s public hearings

By Gail Wechsler

Last summer and fall, as the general election approached, citizens across the country voiced concern about the prospect of voting in person. With COVID -19 spreading, many jurisdictions saw a need, even if only temporarily, to expand absentee and mail-in voting options so that people did not have to choose  between exercising their constitutional right to vote and their health and safety. Missouri was one of the states that expanded voting options for that election. 

Just as exercising the right to vote is central to our democracy, so is the right to provide oral testimony live at legislative hearings. In fact, the reason that hearings exist is so that members of the public who have a stake in the matter being considered, whether individuals or representatives of organizations, have an opportunity to state their case in favor of or against a piece of legislation. This is a pillar of our democracy. 

As Jews, there are many political issues we care about. Historically, many of our organizations have been on the front lines at the Capitol, testifying on bills related to Israel, reproductive rights, health care access and more. Our Jewish teachings tell us that we must pursue justice, and one way we do so is by lobbying our legislators.  

Right now, the Missouri Legislature is effectively denying Missourians the right to state their views at hearings by making them choose between showing up in person and risk getting the COVID-19 virus or not showing up at all. Only in person testimony is allowed in most cases.  While on paper the Missouri House (but not the Missouri Senate) has a procedure to request remote testimony, it is not guaranteed but rather considered on a case-by-case basis with no guidelines provided as to what criteria matter. Practically speaking, because most hearings are announced only on 24 hours notice, the advance notice required for permission to testify remotely cannot be met.  

Compounding this situation is that the Legislature voted earlier this year not to require masks at the Capitol. Hearings are taking place in small, closed hearing rooms where not everyone is wearing masks or social distancing. 

Congress has been conducting much of its business, including hearings, using virtual testimony since last summer. The Missouri Legislature has the technology, including screens in all hearing rooms, to do the same.  

An additional issue that comes from not allowing virtual testimony is that legislators are able to hold hearings that are anything but. A few weeks ago, there was a hearing in the Missouri House that considered 11 bills at once. This could be done because hardly anyone was in attendance to speak on behalf or against any of these bills. They were summarily considered and the hearing concluded. This is not democracy. 

While the option of submitting written testimony still exists, it does not have the power that oral, live testimony has in swaying elected officials. Anyone with experience advocating in Jefferson City will tell you that to have an impact, you need to testify live to get the full, undivided attention of legislators.

The issue of making the ability to testify safely accessible to our citizens is nonpartisan and affects all Missouri stakeholders.  Last summer, an open letter was circulated by two organizations at opposite ends of the political spectrum chastising the Legislature for opening during COVID while at the same time limiting the ways that the public could interact with lawmakers while bills were being considered.  

Those two groups, the ACLU of Missouri and Americans for Prosperity, supported the open letter because each understood that the First Amendment and the right of the people to petition their government are central to who we are as a nation.

Governing in the way that restricts how people can testify in a pandemic should not be allowed. Restricted government stifles speech, including the speech of the elected representatives sent to Jefferson City to serve and, most importantly, including the speech of Missouri constituents whose lives and livelihoods depend on the laws the Legislature creates.  

As Jews we are called to speak out against this undemocratic practice. Contact your state representative and senator and demand that they support a change in rules so that their constituents can testify safely in real time on the issues that matter to them.

Gail Wechsler belongs to Central Reform Congregation and is a member of its Tikkun Olam Steering Committee. This article represents her personal views.