RENO – Behind the laptop, beside the cell phone and next to the iPad tablet, somewhere, is a legislator.
“I ask you to please stop looking at your phones,” said Crystal Jackson, a UNR student. “Stop looking as if you’re bored.”
She made the remarks after legislators were more than two hours into listening to students and faculty testify about proposed higher-education cuts at the University of Nevada, Reno on Thursday.
Legislators often multi-task, perusing emails and e-documents while listening to testimony.
But Jackson raises important points: how much time do representatives of the public owe the public, and how acceptable is it to use technology when members of the public are testifying?
“It seems like our stories are falling on deaf ears,” said Charlie Jose, president of the Associated Students of the University of Nevada, who testified earlier at UNR.
Often, legislators punch away at their keyboards as their committees listen to public testimony. Sometimes, only the chairperson of the committee speaks to members of the public.
Still, nobody refutes the importance of public testimony, and some want to strengthen it.
Today, lobbyist George Flint testified about a bill from Assemblyman James Ohrenschall, D-Las Vegas. The bill would allow the public equal time to testify for and against a bill.
“The basic concept of our entire government is for everybody to be heard,” Flint said.
Legislators, however, do not have time to hear from everybody. The 120-day legislative session, a complex budget and a glut of bills means legislators are counting every second.
The dissatisfied students may also be bumping into what some have called the Carson City bubble, inside of which a brigade of lobbyists exert influence at the expense of those not physically in the Legislature.
“Probably the smartest thing the UNR students could do is hire a lobbyist,” said Flint, who has been a lobbyist for 49 years. “The way you get things done over here is to hire professionals who have the ear of these people [legislators].”
Flint is a lobbyist for a polarizing industry: Reno-area wedding chapels and some legal brothels. He knows as well as anyone that some lawmakers are set in their views. Three minutes or three hours of public testimony will not change their minds.
Still, it is important for the public to have a chance to have its say.
“If you’re going to walk out feeling like you’ve lost, you should walk out knowing you had enough time to make your case,” Ohrenschall said.
Nonetheless, technology has invaded committee rooms to the extent that people making their case cannot know if lawmakers are actually listening.
Assembly Minority leader Pete Goicoechea, R-Eureka, said that this is the “price we pay” for integrating more technology into the legislative process.
For the first time this year, nearly all legislative documents are on a computer system. So when legislators are looking at their computers, they could be referencing relevant documents.
Orhenschall said that he gets text messages from his assistant, who tells him another committee is waiting for him to testify on a bill.
Some members of the Senate and Assembly also use Twitter and consistently Tweet colorful quotes as people testify.
So for better or worse, legislators seem to be connected to their laptops, iPads and cell phones.
“You know how Darth Vader had become more machine than man?” Ohrenschall said.