COLUMBIA, S.C. – Free speech advocates gathered at the State House today to address concerns regarding constituent voice in the legislative process this session.
Advocates expressed growing concern over the lack of transparency in proceedings during this legislative session. In the first month of this new session, advocates and constituents have been shut out of or discouraged from participating in the legislative process. Public comments have been restricted entirely or limited to 1-minute time allotments; written testimony has not been considered before a subcommittee vote; bills have skipped the subcommittee process altogether.
“Legislators have a difficult job to do, and the leaders of committees have even more to manage. But as difficult as the legislative process is – there is one part of it that we must never sacrifice: listening to South Carolinians,” said Jace Woodrum, Executive Director of ACLU of South Carolina. “We’ve had too many days this session where the public has felt shut out and silenced. The legislative process must be transparent and open, and we hope we can work with our legislators to improve the policymaking process to ensure all South Carolinians can engage.”
In several instances so far this year, subcommittee proceedings, the only opportunity for constituents to provide testimony, have not allowed for public comments. Committee chairs argue that the committees have already heard the public’s input on the matter.
“As one of 27 new members of the House this session, it is crucial that members of the General Assembly have access to the full process to ensure that the people of South Carolina have their voices heard,” said Representative Heather Bauer. “To say ‘we have heard public comment on this matter’ is a disservice not only to the people we represent, but to these new members of the House, working to try to represent the people of our communities. We cannot elevate their voices and concerns without having them as part of policy making.”
“When policy makers restrict public input in the legislative process, they remove the chance of equal opportunity. The legislative process already restricts so many people from being able to take part; those who are able to show up and use their voice need to be able to do so and believe legislators are working in good faith,” said Tiffany James, President of the Columbia Chapter of National Action Network.
ACLU of SC and its partners called upon Committee chairs to make several changes that would facilitate participation from constituents. In a letter to committee chairs (attached), Woodrum made several suggestions, including letting all constituents speak for the full three minutes typically allotted. The letter also suggests providing the public with more than 24 hours’ notice of scheduled hearings, which would allow the public more time to prepare to attend.
The call for change comes with increasing urgency, as the General Assembly moves with increasing speed on issues such as abortion.
“Lawmakers are ignoring the voices of the people of this state to serve their personal and political agendas. Rather than taking the time to hear from the people whose lives will actually be affected by this legislation, they are completely skipping the process of getting public input. This is detrimental to health and well-being of the people, and counter to the democratic process. All South Carolinians deserve the respect of ample time and transparent opportunities to have their voices heard on the issues that will impact their lives. WREN refuses to let our voices be silenced,” said Ann Warner, CEO of Women’s Rights Empowerment Network.
“Transparency and the opportunity to participate should extend to everyone in the state and not just those in power and those of the supermajority. We should strive to be better always,” said Representative Jermaine Johnson.
The following bills have been considered outside of the typical legislative process:
- S39, a bill to move public education dollars to private schools: it advanced to the floor with no subcommittee meeting and no public comment.
- H3827, a bill focused on what teachers can talk about in the classroom: it was considered in subcommittee, but speakers who came from hours away were given only 1 minute to testify.
- H3774, a bill to ban abortion: public comment was prohibited initially and then the decision was reversed only minutes ahead of the hearing.
- S474, a bill similar to the 6-week abortion ban that was ruled unconstitutional: the public will not be allowed to speak, and the bill is heading directly to the floor.
The following organizations are calling on our lawmakers to follow an open and transparent process:
- Alliance for Full Acceptance
- Broad River Business Alliance
- Charity Foundation
- E3 Foundation
- League of Women Voters of South Carolina
- Legal Defense Fund
- Lowcountry Black Parent Association
- National Action Network
- Planned Parenthood South Atlantic
- SC United for Justice and Equality
- We Are Family