SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Legislature has a new process to hear public testimony during committee hearings being held virtually because of COVID-19, but would-be participants will have to make a request to speak at least 12 hours in advance.
Although the meetings are being conducted with videoconferencing software, they can only be monitored via audio at the Legislature’s website. Those selected to comment will be notified about 30 minutes before the meeting and, once they click on the link shared, ushered into a silent virtual “lobby” to wait their turn to speak.
The new rules for public comment at electronic meetings warns against disruptive behavior and spells out that “submitting a request form does not guarantee that you will be able to provide remote comment” because the time allotted is at the discretion of the committee chairmen.
Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, co-chairman of the public education appropriations subcommittee, said he “hadn’t even thought about it” when asked if he planned to take public comment through the new system. “I am sure they will tell us not to cut their specific program. We may have to create an online and written comment process.”
Advocates are waiting to see how the virtual public comment process goes.
“I think it’s a huge improvement over the first iteration of the public comment process,” said Chase Thomas, executive director of the left-leaning Alliance for a Better Utah. “I commend the Legislature and the staff for working on processes that closely align with how things are normally done.”
But Thomas said he is concerned that the 12-hour lag will give lobbyists and special interest groups who follow the legislative process more closely an advantage over members of the public. He suggests the window to sign up to testify should be shortened until just before the start of a hearing.