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February 17, 2017

"Getting There" - Testifying in Hartford

Don’t look now, but our legislature is back in action considering dozens of bills affecting transportation.  Everything from tolls to train fares, from airports to Uber could be up for grabs in this session.

But how is a citizen supposed to voice their views, let alone follow these machinations from afar?  Aside from my journo-hero Ken Dixon (Hearst’s excellent reporter in Hartford), and websites like CT Newsjunkie, CT Mirror and The Capitol Report, there’s not much left of the “fifth estate” to keep us informed.  Of course, you can watch CT-N, the state’s answer to C-Span, for the blow-by-blow… assuming you have the time.

Some bills, like State Rep Gail Lavielle’s (R - Wilton) HB773 deserve our support.  That bill would require a vote of the legislature to approve any proposed fare increase on Metro-North. But offering your support (or disapproval) of any of these bills isn’t easy.

Sure, you can submit testimony by e-mail.  There are 36 members of the Transportation Committee, each juggling hundreds of bills coming before this and the many other committees on which they serve.  Will your e-mailed comments make a difference or just be seen as spam?

Forget about lawmakers coming to you for a public hearing.  You must go to them.  I can't remember the last time our elected officials held a hearing downstate, can you?

For decades I traveled to Hartford to testify on various bills in my capacity as a member of the Metro-North Commuter Rail Council, as a commuter and just as a taxpayer.  But not anymore.  It’s a waste of time.

You have to give up an entire day to go to Hartford, arriving early in the morning to sign up on the testimony list (or enter a lottery for a slot). 

Knowing where you are on the testimony list, you then settle into the hearing room waiting your three minutes of time.  With almost 50 bills up for consideration at a single hearing and scores of people who wish to testify, you’d better be patient.

Oh, and don’t forget to bring 50 copies of your written testimony to give to the Clerk.
The first hour of the hearing is usually given over to the Commissioner of the CDOT who explains why his agency opposes most of the bills up for consideration.  Then, elected officials get to speak… their time being far more precious than any citizen who’s given up a day to watch this sausage-making.

Even with three dozen members of the Committee, you’ll be lucky to see more than a handful in attendance as they must flit from hearing room to hearing room, trying to juggle their calendar conflicts. 

What you will see are the lobbyists, designated by a special colored badge.  They’re well known to lawmakers and you’ll see them making sure their clients’ views are known on pending bills.   Media come and go as well, occasionally grabbing folks for a sound-bite after they’ve spoken.

Your turn to speak may come early or late in the evening.  You’ll read your remarks and hope there are follow-up questions before the egg-timer goes “ding” and you’re sent home.
It’s all political theater and you (like me) may come away quite cynical about the process.  The real power lies with the Committee Chairs and your favorite bill may never make it out of that body for consideration, let alone a full vote.

As demonstrators love to chant, “This is what democracy looks like”.  And this part of it ain’t pretty.

Reposted with permission of CT Hearst Media

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