Just 30 seconds? Despite complex bills, Floridians are limited on public testimony in Legislature

By: and - March 14, 2023 8:35 pm

Constituents line up to give public testimony, but it’s limited to less than 30 seconds during a committee meeting on HB 999. March 13, 2023. Credit: Danielle J. Brown

“This Florida government makes us students feel like you are our No. 1 bully–” a transgender Floridian started to say in front of more than a dozen Florida lawmakers Tuesday in opposition of a bill that would limit the use of certain pronouns in public schools.

But before the speaker could finish the thought, Rep. Kaylee Tuck, the chair, interrupted to say that the speaker’s 30 seconds to give public testimony was almost up. The Floridian was able to slip in just one more phrase: “Please vote no on the bill.” 

Floridians who travel to the state’s Capitol building find that they only have about 30 seconds to give public testimony on contentious bills. Credit: Danielle J. Brown

The mere 30 second time limit for average residents to give public testimony in the Florida Legislature is becoming increasingly common as lawmakers take up highly debated legislation that may severely impact the lives of Floridians.

Many of the speakers have traveled several hours to reach the Capitol Building located in Tallahassee to voice their opposition or support of important bills.

The 2023 legislative session spans controversial topics, such as legislation concerning the LGBTQ+ community, higher education, abortion access, and other issues that have been drawing large crowds in committee meetings — only to find that they have just a half a minute to deliver their thoughts on complicated or lengthy issues.

“That is the opposite of what we should be doing in this process,” Rep. Angie Nixon told the Phoenix Tuesday. “We should be ensuring that the People’s House (the Florida Capitol) is open and that people have the right to express themselves and participate in free speech and to ask questions or to debate what is coming out from folks they elect.”

Time was running out

Rep. Tuck is the chair of the Choice & Innovation subcommittee that took up HB 1223 on Tuesday, which critics fear expands last year’s so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill.

Tuck initially started with allowing one minute of public testimony per speaker, but due to the volume of Floridians who came to testify in front of the committee, shortened the time constraint to 30 seconds.

Members of the public can struggle to finish their comments in under thirty seconds. Some are even minors or early college students who are likely not trained in public speaking or may not have had much practice under a time limit.

However, some committee meetings start with just 30 seconds of testimony, and then cut it down to even less than that.

Monday, Rep. Lauren Melo of Southwest Florida let over 150 Floridians know at the start of a House Postsecondary Education and Workforce Subcommittee that people pursuing public comments would get only 30 seconds.

The bill in question was HB 999, which would involve many changes to higher education in Florida, including reducing tenure protections and prohibiting certain majors and minors offered on public university campuses.

When time was running out of the three-hour meeting Monday, Melo told a couple dozen people that they would only be allowed to provide their name and whether they were in support or against the bill and would not have time for further comments.

Five hours through a storm

In a Senate Health Policy Committee meeting Monday, Committee Chair Sen. Colleen Burton, who represents part of Polk County, also announced a 30-second time constraint to the audience ahead of public testimony. 

“Thirty seconds doesn’t sound like a lot of time, but I’ve sat through many of these meetings before and when you have this many appearance cards, 30 seconds – which each person – indeed gets everybody’s message across,” Burton said at the time.

Floridians who came to voice their opposition of SB 254, which would eliminate gender affirming care for transgender minors and some adults, also expressed their frustrations with the 30 second time limit.

“Thirty seconds – I’m gonna cut to the chase,” said Claudia Thomas. “I’m old enough to remember when parties would submit legislation for good reasons… for things their constituents care about… that makes sense – taxes, lowering their rent. These are culture wars and you all know it. And I would love to think that there would be one person on this panel who would have the guts to stand up for your party, take it back to the good conservative party it used to be and stop with this bull–…” 

Thomas was thanked by Sen. Burton midway through her final sentence. Burton cut Thomas’ microphone before she could finish her sentence. 

Another advocate shared a testimony for her friend, who she said could not make it.

“I will say that I’m glad she didn’t drive here, five hours through a storm, to pour her heart out, just so that she could be cut off at 30 seconds,” the advocate said on behalf of her friend.

A judgment call

According to communications staffers with the Florida House and Senate, the chair of each committee sets how long public testimony should be.

Katie Betta, with the Senate, told the Phoenix in an email Tuesday:

“The Chair is making a judgment call, depending on the number of appearance cards and the amount of time, with the goal of ensuring everyone can speak.”

Andres Malave, communications staffer for the Florida House of Representatives, told the Phoenix that lawmakers try to make time for people within the allotted committee times, but that there are other ways for constituents to voice their concerns, such as through emails and phone calls.

In the committee process, there’s a time allocation for the committee to conduct its business, and our chairmen do an outstanding job in making sure that everybody who shows up has an opportunity within the time that the committee has available to address their support or opposition to any piece of legislation,” Malave said.

In committees where there is a low number of public comments, the chair will often not mention any sort of time constraint to those wishing to provide testimony.

Committees end in outbursts

Each of the committee meetings where public testimony was cut to only 30 seconds ended in outbursts from the crowds.

On Monday, as Sen. Burton’s committee announced the favorable vote on a health-related bill, the audience shouted “Shame on you, Florida,” and began singing “Lean on Me” with raised fists. They congregated in the halls and consoled one another. 

Floridians shout “We will not go quiet, Stonewall was a riot” after a House committee meeting approves HB 1223. Credit: Danielle J. Brown

At the Monday House committee meeting, where lawmakers approved a lengthy bill that would radically change higher education, ended in an uproar of “shame” chants from the audience.

And even Tuesday, as House lawmakers voted to approve HB 1223, another K-12 education bill, the crowd left the room chanting “We will not be quiet, Stonewall was a riot,” referencing protests from the gay community in 1969.

Rep. Nixon believes that the outbursts are justified because of the time restraints.

“They’re justified outbursts because folks didn’t get the opportunity to express themselves in the normal time allotted,” Nixon told the Phoenix.

“We are seeing a chilling effect. This body, this governor, they are basically thwarting free speech, access to the People’s House. The people own this house. We as elected officials work for you all,” she added.

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Danielle J. Brown
Danielle J. Brown

Danielle J. Brown is a 2018 graduate of Florida State University. She has served as an editorial intern for International Program’s annual magazine and Rowland Publishing. She was born and raised in Tallahassee and reviews community theater productions for the Tallahassee Democrat.

Briana Michel
Briana Michel

Briana Michel is a multimedia journalist based in Tallahassee, Florida. She is a graduating broadcast journalist student at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University. During her matriculation at FAMU, she served as the editor-in-chief of the award-winning Journey Magazine, writes for the Famuan and is a producer for FAMU News 20 at Five. This spring, she is thrilled to join the Phoenix team as a reporter intern during the 2023 Florida Legislative Session.