In the early days of the Missourinet, the state capitol didn’t have many rooms for legislative committee meetings. A lot of meetings were held at night. We remember when meetings were held in the cafeteria in the basement where the refrigerators would kick on from time to time and make it hard to hear those testifying at times. Some meetings were held in the legislative library, which has a high, bowl-shaped ceiling, and a lot of marble walls and glass windows allowing sound to bounce around the room. The acoustics were so poor that people sitting six feet behind the person testifying sometimes could not hear what was being said. Sometimes hearings were held in the Highway Department’s conference room. There were some tiny rooms on the second floor that seemed jam-packed in the winter when 20 people showed up wearing their winter coats. The House Appropriations Committee held hearings in the House Lounge, surrounded by the Benton mural. At least we had something entertaining to look at when things got boring, meaning we spent a lot of time looking at the mural. Years later I learned why I would start looking at one part of the mural and find myself later looking at another segment. That’s another story.
I remember hearings held in the House chamber. Some were in the rotunda — where acoustics are incredible for singing but pretty grim for speaking and testifying. But large crowds of citizens wanted to be seen and be heard and those were the only places that could hold that many involved citizens.
And I’ll never forget the first hearing on the Equal Rights Amendment that I attended in the Senate Lounge. Senate Committee members sat at a large table on risers at the north end of the room while those testifying stood or sat at a small table against the base of the riser. The room was so full that night that I wound up crowded halfway under the committee table for a meeting that lasted FOREVER and ended with one of the women opposing the ERA singing “I enjoy being a girl.”
All of these events were at night.
Those sure were some times.
Those times came to mind yesterday morning when I was reading the Kirksville Daily Express, one of about 20 newspapers we check online each day, and read an article about some students at Truman State University who have started their own Occupy effort. One of the leaders told the newspaper, “The frustration we have, it’s the same as the Tea Party, it is legitimate, We need dialogue. We need political awareness and a democratic awakening.”
Just across the hall from our studio in one of the capitol press rooms are two large Senate committee hearing rooms. The Senate Lounge was remodeled several years ago to be a better hearing room. The House of Representatives has built seven hearing rooms in the basement. Hearings are not held in the House Lounge to protect the mural.
Few hearings are held at night anymore. For the last few years, only one Senate committee has met in the evening. And it seems something has been lost because of that trend away from night committee hearings.
We seem to be seeing far fewer citizens coming to the capitol for hearings. That’s an impression, not an established statistically-supported fact. But it just feels like we’re not hearing the voices of the citizens who used to be able to go to the capitol after getting off work to testify at an evening hearing. Most hearings today are held during regular working hours and it seems to us that we’re hearing the voices more of representatives of groups than of individuals.
Lobbyists sometimes bring a few regular people with them to speak. But it just feels as if we’ve lost a lot of voices of the people during hearings on proposed laws. Perhaps our vision of the past is distorted by the lens of nostalgia but it is hard to shake the feeling that we have lost something during the 37 years the Missourinet has been covering the legislature. .
Next year will mark the 20th anniversary of voters’ adoption of term limits for state lawmakers. One of the arguing points for term limits was that they would bring new blood that would enrich the political process because we would not have entrenched legislators who had lost touch with the people.
Today we are hearing voices in the public square of people who feel left out of the public dialogue. Tea Party people, Occupy people—“We need dialogue. We need political awareness and a democratic awakening,” the young man says in Kirksville.
We have more hearing rooms than ever at the capitol but more voices are heard from people who feel left out of the process and call for a “democratic awakening.” .
Something has become disconnected.
We’ll probably never get back to days of hearings in the rotunda or in the House chamber because so many citizens want to speak on a bill. But the Missourinet will be reporting the fitful journey to whatever the next standard of citizen participation in state government will be.