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Exercise Your Right to Testify

The midterm elections are over. Our elected representatives are busy passing new laws. Blue Wave or not, some bad bills are threatening to pass, and some good bills may fail. How can we make a difference? We can lobby, and we can testify. This post is about how to testify.

I spent a recent Monday in Salem, testifying to the Oregon Legislature in support of HB2663 (building code changes to make it easier to convert existing houses to multiple units). A few Mondays before that, I was testifying against HB2001 (statewide rezoning of all Oregon single-house neighborhoods to duplex-triplex-quadplex development). I also testified in writing against SB10 (statewide rezoning of all neighborhoods within a half mile of light rail/frequent bus to high density apartment development).

Zoning and housing may not be your interest, but right now there is a bill in Salem that affects something you care deeply about. Here’s how to find that bill, follow that bill and testify on it.

How to Find and Follow a Bill

First, you need to know the bill’s content and status. Do a Google search for “[bill] [year] OLIS” — for example, “HB2001 2019 OLIS” — to find the bill's page in the Oregon Legislative Information System with sponsor, title, a one-line summary, committee, bill history, and the next scheduled event. You'll find links to the bill text, amendments, written testimony to date, and a link to subscribe to emailed bill updates. Read the full text of the bill and amendments. The summaries are usually incomplete.

Sometimes little public notice is given of upcoming hearings. It is common to get notice on Friday for a Monday hearing. Amendments are also posted with little public notice. Lobbyists in Salem get a heads-up through side channels, but the system isn’t set up for ordinary citizens. But, you’re not going to let that stop you!

Page in OLIS for HB 2001, a bill to remove bans on duplexes, triplexes, and quadplexes.

How to Testify

So, the bill is scheduled for public hearing, and you want to testify. There are two ways to testify: written testimony and in-person oral testimony.

Written testimony is submitted by email. Click on the committee link, and you’ll see a page with the chair, members, assistants, and the email link “to submit testimony.” Type up your thoughts and email them in!

  • Be explicit, direct, and clear. Start with “I [support/oppose] [bill]” e.g., “I oppose HB2001.” Say your key points in the first lines of your written testimony. Don’t politely hem and haw, do the “on the one/other hand” thing, or wait until the end to get to make your points. We’d like our legislators to carefully read our whole testimony, but your email may also be skimmed by an overworked staffer doing a quick headcount of support vs oppose; you want your testimony to be counted in the correct category.

  • Keep deadlines in mind. Written testimony normally has to be submitted 24 hours before the hearing. This deadline can be extended by the committee chair, but often isn’t.

Oral testimony means traveling to the Capitol in Salem. On a table inside the hearing room’s entrance, you’ll find signup sheets with the bill number, labeled support, oppose, and neutral. Sign in, take a seat, and listen for your name. When called, go to the witness table. When it's your turn, pull the microphone to your lips and let ‘er rip!  Really give the committee a piece of your mind!  Err — politely, clearly and for two minutes. What can you say in two minutes?  Quite a lot!

Decorum first. “Chair [her name], vice-chairs, members of the committee, my name is [your name] and I live in [county or city]. I’m with [your organization, if any]. Thank you for giving me a chance to testify in [opposition to/support of] [bill].” That’s 15 seconds done, your voice has settled down, now to work. Here are some dos and don'ts for your remaining 1 minute 45 seconds.

  • Do: Make your three key points. You won’t have time for more.

  • Do: Include a detail that humanizes you or shows your knowledge of the subject.

  • Do: Be honest, likable and sincere. Smile if you can. Above all, be strong and speak strongly.

  • Do: Refer the committee to your written testimony for points you don’t have time to cover. Have a copy in case a staffer asks for it.

  • Do: Make eye contact with the legislators. If you get a question, give a direct answer.

  • Don’t: Ramble or waste time on a long introduction.

  • Don’t:  Read head-down from a prepared statement like a loud robot.

  • Don’t: Be rude or unpleasant, raise your voice, exaggerate or be untruthful in any way.

  • Don’t: Applaud or heckle.

  • Don’t: Talkfasttocraminasmuchasyoucaneventhoughnoonefollowsyou.

Most of us will need to practice. Start with your written testimony. Read it to a stopwatch. Cross out everything you don’t have time for. When you’re down to 1minute 45 seconds of core points, practice those. By now, you should be able to testify from your heart, not your notes.

What to do After (and Before) You Testify

Email the committee members. Email or call your own legislator. Tell your friends about the bill. Use your social media. Write an op-ed for the newspaper; here’s an example of one I wrote.

We live in a representative democracy. After we organized, canvassed, voted, and elected the best woman for the job, our continuing responsibility to help her make the right decisions.

Oregon is a small state with low-paid legislators facing a blizzard of complex bills amidst some of the country’s weakest political contribution and influence laws. They are overwhelmed with industry lobbyists and “astroturf” groups bearing position papers and campaign contributions. Sandwiched between California and Washington, we’re in the crosshairs of big money from those states, trying to do in little Oregon what they can’t do at home — or did, and want to do again.

So who are the lobbyists for the ordinary Oregonian? You are!

John Liu used to be a lawyer. Now, he’s an investment manager. He is interested in how Portland can grow without demolishing our existing historic or affordable housing or displacing our lower-income communities through gentrification.

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