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Opinion: Missourians deserve open government

  

Dear Missouri Senate & House Leadership,

When the legislature suspended operations this week because of a COVID-19 outbreak, it came as a surprise to no one. Missouri’s government continues to operate in-person while Missourians lose access to their government. It does not have to be this way.

Starting now, the Missouri Legislature must create a meaningful virtual option for the public to engage in legislative hearings. For individuals who judge themselves able to come to the legislature in-person, let them; however, for the thousands of Missourians for whom that is not an option, the government must not forget its obligation to govern in the open.

The very purpose of public hearings is to give Missourians an opportunity to petition their government. That cannot and does not exist in an atmosphere where in-person testimony is the only option for live engagement, especially during a pandemic. Merely accepting written testimony that is not read into the record and where there is no possibility for questions is not an adequate remedy for the reality we face today.

Missourians should be able to join a hearing virtually. The legislature is not exempt from needing to change with the times and the reality of the pandemic.

If we are serious about containing COVID-19 and equally serious about ensuring a fair and democratic government, then we should give people an option to make their voices heard safely.

Without this opportunity, you get exactly what we’ve seen in the previous two special sessions: lobbyists ponying up to come to the Capitol because it is their livelihood and regular Missourians left at home.

The legislature will make decisions this year about budgets, taxes, policing, public safety, and much more. It is irresponsible to do that without fostering real and productive dialogue. It is irresponsible to do that when we have the tools at our fingertips to give people access to government, and it is unethical to work on the people’s dollar but shut them out of the process.

Of course, this will take some investment of thought and time and maybe even the purchase of a Zoom account or two, but the building has wifi, the hearing rooms by and large, and particularly in the House, already have screens. Every legislator in that building is familiar with the need to connect virtually with their constituents nine months into the pandemic.

It’s the time for open and transparent government. This pandemic has forced us to innovate when it comes to connecting with our fellow Missourians and the rest of the country. Jefferson City is not immune from COVID-19, and nor should it be immune to innovation.

We the people deserve access to the people’s house, and we know that every elected official should wish to hear from those they represent. We come from different sides of the political spectrum and different parts of this state but we share this value: The government is for the people and by the people. It is time to let the people speak.

Missourians should be provided the choice as to how they can participate in the process during these uncertain times without that choice requiring them to risk endangering their health.

Sara Baker
Legislative and Policy Director, ACLU of Missouri

Carl Bearden
CEO, United for Missouri

Jeremy Cady
State Director, Americans for Prosperity- Missouri

Nimrod Chapel, Jr.
State President, MO NAACP

Jeanette Mott Oxford
Director of Policy & Organizing, Empower Missouri