The Senate Health and Human Services hearing room sat in rapt attention last month as R.J. Erickson tearfully recounted the death of his father, Reno physician John Marshall Erickson.
Diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer, the senior Erickson experienced moments of hysteria and delusions as his son, in charge of his end-of-life care, measured out the drugs that were slowly killing his father.
R.J. Erickson was about to end his testimony on a bill to allow doctors to prescribe life-ending drugs to terminally ill patients when it happened. “My final comment,” he began, only to be interrupted by the committee’s chairman, state Sen. Fabian Doñate, D-Las Vegas.
“Thank you for your comment,” Doñate said. “We have to move on to the next one, so if you could please submit that in writing we would greatly appreciate it. Thank you for sharing that.”
Doñate wasn’t being rude, cruel or callous, although it could seem that way to an outsider. Instead, he was enforcing a legislative rule that limits committee testimony to one or two minutes per person.
It’s a rule that began during the pandemic, when in-person visits to the legislative building were prohibited and people testifying on legislation had to call in to be heard. But it’s continued long after COVID masks have been shed, and many say it’s taking away from the legislative process.
State Sen. Ira Hansen, R-Sparks, took to the Senate floor on Tuesday to complain about a recent hearing on gun bills, noting that proponents of gun control legislation got nearly two hours to make their case, while those in opposition were limited to just 60 seconds each.
“Everybody in the state of Nevada should know that at the Nevada Legislature, both sides will be granted an equal opportunity to present their views before those of us that are going to pass laws affecting over 3 million human beings,” Hansen said. “And that is not at all unreasonable and certainly is not something that we as legislators should turn away from. We should embrace that.”
Many lobbyists are frustrated about the limits on testimony, especially those who have to oppose sometimes complex legislation. Two minutes can’t possibly counter a long presentation from a bill’s sponsor, which carries no time limit. It’s even worse when committee chairs cap the total amount of testimony on a given bill, leading some to conclude the process is unfair.
“The argument comes that we were silenced,” says Athar Haseebullah, executive director of the ACLU of Nevada. “Anyone who wants to comment should be given the opportunity to do so.”
And while the U.S. and Nevada constitutions grant the right to petition the government for the redress of grievances, there’s nothing in statute that says the Legislature can’t limit witnesses at committee hearings. It forces advocates to truncate their presentations, often leaving out important points in an effort to come in under time, lobbyists say.
“We can’t give the presentation we want to give,” said Haseebullah.
And it’s not just lobbyists who are at pains to deal with the limits. As Hansen noted in his Senate speech, lawmakers don’t get as full a picture of the issue as they would if the rules were relaxed, or at least waived for certain controversial or complex bills. (Certainly, the lawmakers waive other rules that get in the way of their proceedings.)
Some argue the 120-day limit on sessions forces lawmakers to rush through hearings in order to get hundreds of bills through the process. More than one has confessed they’d prefer annual sessions, with more time to hear issues. But the trend in Nevada in the past 30 years has been to limit government rather than expand it.
Still, if a person earned $1 for every time he or she heard, “Your two minutes are up; please submit your remarks in writing,” he or she would have enough money to hire a quality lobbyist, one who could arrange a meeting with lawmakers behind closed doors without any time limit.
As for everybody else? Well, the Bard wrote that brevity is the soul of wit.