Testifying before the state Legislature is one of the few ways — aside from voting — Texans can affect the legislative process.
The process of testifying is not well known, and it is not as accessible as walking into a voting booth. But Sherri Greenberg, a former state representative and a professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, said it can significantly impact the way lawmakers think about an issue.
“If you think about the number of bills that come before the Legislature, the vast majority of them, they’re not topics on which people have predetermined philosophies, ethics, notions, opinions,” Greenberg said. “For many, many bills, it’s really about hearing from people, finding out the facts, finding out the issues. Many times, the testimony is important.”
After a bill is filed, it is referred to the committee where its hearing will take place. All hearings are open to the public, but some only allow invited testimony. The notice for the hearing will specify if public testimony is allowed and the time limit for individual testimonies.
Selina Eshraghi, who has testified in front of committees in both the House and Senate, said the process is not as simple as showing up to the Capitol the day you want to testify. Those interested in testifying are required to sign up in advance.
“The sign-up process is a little bit confusing if you don’t really know what you’re doing ahead of time,” said Eshraghi, a radio-television-film and chemical engineering sophomore. “The sign-up process is different for whether it’s the House doing the hearing or the Senate doing the hearing.”
Giving effective testimony requires speakers to follow the rules of the hearing, said Susan Nold, director of UT’s Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life.
“There are certain things to keep in mind if you choose to do this,” Nold said. “Being respectful of (committee) members’ time, being pretty direct and getting to your point pretty quickly is something that they’ll appreciate. You also have to be truthful … If you’re asked a question and you don’t know the answer, I would not encourage someone to guess. I’d just say, ‘I don’t know.’”
Including personal anecdotes in a testimony is a good way to make the argument more compelling, said Eshraghi who testified in favor of stricter gun laws following the shooting at Santa Fe High School last year.
“What I like to do is combine some sort of personal story with a statistic,” Eshraghi said. “That way, you’re kind of hitting both the logical side and also tugging at the heartstrings a little bit.”
Eshraghi said it’s particularly important for students who care about an issue to testify on its behalf.
“The reason I think it’s important to go — there are a lot of voices that show up, there a lot of people who care, but I think the thing that makes it stand out is that you are a student,” Eshraghi said. “When I showed up, me and my friends were the youngest people there, and that in itself kind of gets the attention of the committee.”