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When legislators/elected officials are thinking about creating or changing a law they will typically hold a “public hearing” first to hear from the agency that will administer the law as well as get input from the general public as to how they feel about the law and how it will affect them as individuals and in their communities. This process by which individual members tell the lawmakers how they feel is the act of “testifying” and the statement the citizen makes is known as his or her “testimony”.
Who Hears Testimony?
Several governing bodies make the laws of the land: The federal government in Washington and for New York City the State government in Albany, and the City government in New York City. This section will explain how to give testimony before State and City lawmakers
Testimony before the State legislature (comprised of the State Assembly and State Senate) is heard by either State Senators or State Assembly Members and in some special cases, by both at the same time. Testimony before the City legislature, known as the City Council, is heard by City Council Members.
When laws are being considered, they are heard in “committee”. Legislatures divide their membership up among different specialties in groups called “committees” so members can focus on areas where they have the most concern or expertise and more closely consider ideas for laws and perfect them before they are brought to the whole group to be made into law. For example, the committee which handles creating and changing laws about speeding tickets would be the Transportation Committee, because speeding occurs through a mode of transportation.
When Can I Testify?
If the City Council, or State Legislature is considering making a new law, amending an old law, or just wants to get ideas from the public in general, the Committee (the group that specializes in that type of law) will hold a hearing first.
For example, if the City Council is interested in raising the fine for speeding tickets, the Transportation Committee will hold a hearing. Sometimes lawmakers already have a law in mind so they publish the text of the proposed law (known as a “bill” or “proposed legislation”) and the Committee hearing focuses solely on the merits of whether or not that bill should be passed. For example, if lawmakers wants to raise speeding ticket fines from $35 to $45, he or she may introduce a bill (which would have a number assigned to it such as “Bill No. 12345”) raising the fine $10. In that case, the hearing on Bill No. 12345 would just address the merits of raising the fine by $10 and would allow the public the opportunity to comment on that single change.
Other times, lawmakers want to get ideas about how to make or change laws but are not exactly sure what to do so they want to get ideas. This instance would be called an “oversight” hearing. For example, if the Transportation Committee want to raise the fine for speeding tickets but are not sure if it is a good idea and what the increase should be, they might convene an “Oversight Hearing” on “Increasing Fines for Violating Maximum Speed Limits”
The process for Committees holding hearings on proposed laws or oversight hearings is the same for both the City and State Legislatures.
How Do I Know When Hearings (The Opportunities to Testify) Take Place?
- The City Council posts its public hearing schedule online at: http://legistar.council.nyc.gov/Calendar.aspx
- The State Legislature also posts its hearing schedule online at: http://assembly.state.ny.us/leg/?sh=hear
You will also find the topic of the hearing if it is an oversight hearing, or the name of the bill and its text on these websites. Other important information is also available on these websites such as the time and location of the hearing, the chairs of the committee, the sponsors of the bill, etc.
What You'll Need to Start
- Access to a computer with a printer
- Transportation to the hearing
- Identification (for security upon entering the government building)
- Your best public speaking voice
1. Research the bill or oversight topic
Research the bill or oversight topic you will be testifying on during the hearing. Use the links listed above to review the proposed laws or the topic of oversight.
2. Think about impacts
Think about how will this proposed change in law affect you, your neighbors, your family, your community, the city and why?
3. Type out our testimony
Type and print exactly what you will say in your testimony. You are only allowed to testify for up to 3 minutes so be brief and get to the point. Try and be structured when writing testimony; be sure to include:
- Thanks to the Chairperson and the committee for allowing you to speak
- The name or number of the Bill or topic you are supporting or opposing
- Why you are supporting or opposing the measure
- Concrete examples of how you or others are affected by the topic or proposed law
- Suggestions for how you think the law or shouldn’t be changed to best benefit you and your community. This is your chance to give your ideas!
- Include at the top of your written testimony your name, address, organization (if you represent one, and you title there), and the date. Also include at the top of your written testimony “Testimony before the ____ Committee regarding ______.” Include the name of the committee and the name of the proposed law or oversight topic in the blanks.
4. Make multiple copies of your testimony
You should preferably have at least 10 copies and potentially as many as 50 to give out to all of the legislators and their staff and to any interested parties.
5. Notifying the committee about your testimony
Call and notify the committee that you would like to testify.
- For State legislative hearings, visit this website to get the contact information on the hearing where you'd like to testify: http://assembly.state.ny.us/leg/?sh=hear
- For City Council hearings, call the main phone number (212) 788-7100 and ask to be connected to the Committee in charge of the hearing.
- When traveling to the location of the hearing, give yourself 30 minutes extra time to go through security. There is almost always a long line at the metal detector.
- When you have passed through security, go to the hearing room and see the Sergeant at Arms. He or she is usually at a desk at the entrance to the hearing room. Tell the Sergeant that you would like to testify. You will be asked to fill out a slip asking for your name, address and certain other information.
- After you have signed in, wait for the Chairperson to call the hearing to order. Typically, the first to testify will be the Commissioner or representative of the government agency that administers the topic of the hearing. After the agency representative testifies, members of the committee will ask questions of the agency representatives.
- Once you are called to testify, you may provide copies of your testimony to the Sergeant at Arms to provide to the Committee members. You will then sit down at the table in front of the Committee to begin your testimony. Speak clearly and loudly enough so that everyone can hear you. Remember you only have 3 minutes.
- If any of the committee members have questions for you, answer them the best you can.
When legislators consider the laws they are making, changing, enforcing testifying at public hearing is one of the few opportunities they get to hear from the public. If you like a law, hate a law, or just have concerns you want to be heard; testifying at public hearings is one of the best opportunities for you to make your voice heard (in person!) to the people you elect to make your laws.