Montana Shooting Sports Association
by Gary Marbut

Attending public hearings on bills before the Montana Legislature

Speaking for or against a bill at a public hearing on the bill is the most persuasive thing a citizen may do to affect the outcome of the bill.  It is not difficult to support or oppose a bill at public hearing, but the interested citizen must show up at the right time and place to do so.  This brief should give you the information you need to attend and to speak.

Public hearings are held by the committee of the House or Senate to which a bill is assigned by leadership.  Most MSSA bills tend to be assigned to the Judiciary or Fish and Game committees of the House and Senate.

Who may attend and speak.  Any Montana citizen may attend public hearings, either to simply listen, or to speak for or against a bill.

Where to go?  The Legislature meets in the State Capitol building in the southeast quadrant of Helena, near I-15.  The Capitol dome is visible from most of that part of Helena.  Each committee has a room in the Capitol that it normally uses for business and for public hearings.  This room number is listed on the Legislature's Website for each committee.  This information for the House of Representatives is located at: (Click House); and for the Senate at:  (Click Senate)

For example, the House Judiciary Committee meets in Room 137 of the State Capitol building.  In the room number, the first digit identifies the floor of the Capitol, so Room 137 is on the first floor.  Rarely, for a bill of significant interest a committee chairman will schedule a public hearing on a bill for a larger room than the normal committee hearing room.

When to show up.  The official hearing time for a bill is the announced start time for the committee (also available from the Website).  For example, the House Judiciary Committee meets at 8 AM, Monday through Friday.  Plan to be in the Capitol and in a seat in the hearing room by at least 10 minutes before the committee convenes. You may have to wait while the committee conducts public hearings on bills other than the one you're there for.

Parking.  Finding a parking spot in the Capitol area can be a pain.  Add 20 to 30 minutes to your overall schedule to locate a parking spot and get into the Capitol building.  You may luck out and find a convenient parking place, but probably not.  Parking is a challenge.  Most public parking for the Capitol is on the South (uphill) side of the Capitol building.

The bill(s) for which you are present may or may not be the first bills up on the committee schedule.  Just wait, quietly.  It could take as long as two hours for the hearing to begin on the bill of interest to you, but normally not that long.

What to do.  Before you enter the committee room, TURN OFF YOUR CELL PHONE or pager.  If your phone rings while the committee is in session, it is hugely embarrassing for you (everybody stares at you and smirks) AND you become obligated to buy delivered donuts for the whole committee.  Get into the committee room early and stake out a seat.  You can reserve a seat by putting your briefcase or coat on it.  Minimize conversation inside the hearing room.  After the committee session starts (committee "comes to order"), there should be NO conversation at all inside the hearing room above the softest whisper.  This is a respect thing for legislators and others attending the hearing.  If you MUST talk with somebody, leave the hearing room quietly and have your conversation outside in the hallway.  Even then, keep the volume down.  Loud conversation in the hallway tends to interfere with business in the committee room.

The process.  The committee chairman will call the committee to order and announce the agenda, which will include the order in which bills will be heard.  There may be some brief committee "housekeeping" business or announcements.  Then the chairman will begin the public hearing process.  Here's how that works:

The committee chairman will announce the opening of the public hearing on a particular bill.  The bill sponsor (legislator carrying the bill) will come to the podium and microphone and introduce himself or herself, will introduce the bill to the committee members, will reserve the right to speak last ("close") on the bill, and will surrender the microphone.  The chairman will then call for proponents for the bill, who will come to the microphone one at a time (more about this later).  Then the chairman will call for opponents of the bill to speak.  Then the chairman will ask for "informational witnesses" - those with information to provide but who are not either for or against the bill.

Then the chairman will ask if there are any questions by any committee members for anyone who has spoken on the bill.  This can be very interesting as committee members attempt to skewer those witnesses who disagree with the member with hostile questions.  And, others on the committee will ask questions of witnesses they agree with, trying to underscore arguments favorable to their position.  Although hostile questions are hostile in nature, decorum is maintained throughout.  If you have spoken on the bill, you incur an obligation to stay in the room for questions, in case any legislator has a question for you.  Stay in the hearing room until the hearing on your bill is done.

Finally, after all witnesses have spoken and all questions have been asked and answered, the chairman will invite the bill sponsor to "close" on the bill.  The sponsor will have been taking notes of opponent testimony and will attempt to refute claims and arguments made by opponents, and will hit again on major points in support of the bill.  Then the chairman will close the public hearing on the bill.  The committee will then proceed to other business, including public hearing on other bills.

The committee will usually not take action (called "executive action") on a bill that day.  On a subsequent day (usually) during executive action, committee members will debate the merits of the bill, may offer and vote on amendments, and will vote whether or not to pass the bill.

How to dress for a hearing.  Dress neat and clean.  You want to be a good representative of your position.  Common dress is business or business casual.  Guys should wear some sort of neckwear.  Standard ties are most common, but bolo ties, Apache ties, and neckerchiefs are not uncommon.

Decorum/demeanor.  Always be polite, both to legislators and to opponents.  If you feel strongly, it is perfectly appropriate to say, "I feel very strongly about this."  But, do not raise your voice, interrupt, or use bad language.  Remember that all people have good intentions.  People on both sides of a controversy believe they are the ones wearing the white hats.  Never challenge the intentions of others.  Challenge their facts, challenge their opinions, challenge their conclusions, but not their intentions.

On bills where you appear as a proponent, since proponents go first in hearings, you will have NO opportunity during the hearing to challenge arguments made by bill opponents.  That's just the breaks and how the process works.  But, do feel free to make notes about opponent testimony.  You CAN contact committee members later, when they adjourn the committee, by phone, by email, or by mail, to refute any refutable claims by opponents. If you're clever and can predict arguments opponents are likely to make, you can always raise those during proponent testimony by saying something like, “Opponents will probably argue that [then state probable opponent argument]. I want to inform you that [counter the imagined argument].”

Order of appearance.  Among bill proponents, there will usually be a "lead proponent," someone especially familiar with the bill, like myself for MSSA bills and the representative for the NRA.  Give the lead proponent a chance to go first.  Then be prepared to go promptly to the microphone when the chairman calls for "further proponents."

How to speak to the committee.  Be brief!  BE BRIEF!! Committee members spend hours sitting through such testimony.  It is said that you can "talk a bill to death" by talking too long.  It is not uncommon for a committee chairman to announce a fixed time for proponents and for opponents at the beginning of a public hearing on a bill.  Don't hog the available time so others can't speak.  If you agree with testimony offered by others, just say, "I agree with all the points mentioned by other proponents."  Then say, "I'd like to raise one (or two) additional point(s).  Plan to spend no more than two minutes at the microphone - one minute is better.

What you say.  All comments are made to and through the chairman.  When you go to the microphone, the first thing you say should be, "Mr. Chairman and members of the committee."  Or, "Madam chair and members of the committee," if a woman chairs the committee.  Then, introduce yourself.  "I am Joe Blow from Roundup."  Spell your name, for the record.  After that, give just a bit more information to qualify yourself, such as "I am a lifetime gun owner and hunter."  Be sure to include in your introduction any positions you hold that may be applicable, such as "I am the president of the Liberty County Sportsmen with 400 members in Liberty County, and I speak for them."

After introducing yourself, say "I rise in support of (or opposition to) (name of bill, i.e. House Bill 100)."  Then speak of your reasons for support or opposition.  Then, when you are finished, ask committee members to support (or oppose) the bill.  Say, "Mr. Chairman and members of the committee, please support (bill name - i.e., House Bill 100).  Thank you for that support.  I'd be glad to answer any questions."  Return to your seat.  Any questions will come later.

Personal testimony is more persuasive than generic comment. For example, you might say, “This bill is important to me because ...” and cite some personal experience.

Again, keep this under two minutes, or even under one minute.

Nervous?  Of course.  It is impossible to not be somewhat nervous.  Just forget that, it comes with the turf.  But, try to appear relaxed and confident.  One beauty of the Montana Legislature is that the people you are speaking to are just ordinary people, come to Helena every two years to do the peoples' business.  Speak slowly to them, because you don't want them to miss what you have to say.  Use short sentences.  Speak colloquially and casually - speak "from the heart"-, as you would speak to a gathering of friends.  If you have personal experiences to relate that underscores your position, those personal experiences are VERY helpful and persuasive, BUT KEEP THEM SHORT!

Written testimony.  NEVER!!! read to a committee from written testimony.  This is offensive to committee members.  If you have anything in writing, you can state during your testimony that you have written testimony to present to the committee, then give a copy to the committee secretary at the conclusion of your testimony.  Or, you can come equipped with enough copies to pass out to committee members plus the committee secretary.  Ask the Chairman for permission to pass out material to committee members.  Do this after you speak, so committee members will be listening to you, not reading your material, while you speak.  However, legislators have SO much stuff to read that it is unlikely that they will be able to attend to written testimony, especially if it is long (multiple pages).  So, don't count on written testimony to make your point.

Questions from committee members.  If you should be called back to the podium for a question from a committee member, remember that all conversation goes through the chairman.  So, when you respond, you should say, "Mr. Chairman, Representative X (whoever asked you the question - last name - they all have name placards on the table in front of them), …."  (Or "Senator" if it is a Senate committee.)  If you aren't up to speed on the last name of the legislator asking the question, it is OK to refer to them as just "Representative" or "Senator" without the last name, but "Mr. Chairman" should always come first.  Better to focus on giving a lucid answer to the question rather than devoting distracting effort to figuring out the name of the question asker.

Also, if you don't feel you can give a good answer (especially for what may be a hostile question), you can always defer the question to somebody else.  Just say, "Mr. Chairman, Representative (last name if you know it), I don't have the information to give you an answer and I'd like to defer that question to (whomever you think can answer it well, such as the representative from the NRA or MSSA)."

After the conclusion of a hearing on a bill, there will be a pause in proceedings before the next committee business while people there for that bill file out of the room.  DO NOT talk in the hearing room or get into loud conversations in the hallway immediately outside of the hearing room.  If you wish to have conversations with others, walk away from the door to the hearing room.  The committee probably has other business to conduct and will appreciate the quiet.

Follow-up.  If you wish to stress any points raised in the hearing, or to cover any points not covered there, you can probably find the legislator you wish to address in a hallway somewhere for a short conversation, or follow-up by email, mail, fax, or phone.  Follow-up is always a good idea. You can use that to refute points raised by the other side, or to offer a more considered answer to a question raised by a committee member.