Between the end of session in May, repeated special sessions, and campaign announcements, the legislators at our State Capitol have also been hosting interim studies.
With dozens filed, and some being completed (including one of our own) what do these really entail?
Here’s a behind the scenes look at interim studies, and why they have become a necessary part of the (semi) democratic process in our state.
(Picture: Senate committee room during interim study, courtesy of Shelterwell a non-profit on housing stability)
Interim studies are designed to serve as formal research sessions that go on public record via the state’s House and Senate websites. The public is allowed to attend, but they are not allowed to ask questions or speak unless they have been invited to be a part of the study. Even then, only members of the committee and the legislator presenting the study are allowed to ask questions.
The studies are recorded, and the materials presented during the study are archived as well for people to view and reference.
Although the State Capitol is the “people’s house”, there are not many opportunities for the public to engage with their state government. While other states have periods for public comment prior to votes being taking on legislation, Oklahoma does not.
Interim studies are the closest option people can get to the legislative process, outside of personal advocacy with their elected officials. These studies are the only chance for members of the public to speak their expertise on record about issues that might become policy.
However, even this process is limited. The study topics are chosen either by the elected officials themselves based off their personal preference, or they may come as a request from a constituent or organization.
From there, it is subject to approval by chamber leadership, and like a bill filed during session, it must wait to be assigned and scheduled for a hearing in the relevant committee.
If a proposed interim study does succeed in receiving a date, it is then up to the office of the elected official to coordinate and prepare the study itself.
The CAIR Oklahoma team was able to be a part of this process with the office of Sen. Carri Hicks to host an interim study regarding the Afghan Placement and Assistance (APA) Program in Oklahoma and the insecurities it exposed in our social safety network.
This involved immense cooperation with other organizations that were involved with this effort to collect data and schedule speakers to present during the study.
The time allotted for a study varies, and overall, they used to last much longer (even several days). Now, most only receive a couple of hours to present and have time for questions from the committee.
For some groups who work on interim studies, they ask supporters to attend to have a physical presence in the room to show the real, human impact these topic areas have. During our study on the Afghan resettlement, we had dozens of people who either worked with collaborating organizations, churches, were sponsor families or case workers for our new neighbors, all showing support and solidarity with our Afghan neighbors in their journeys.
The speakers are there to testify as experts on a subject matter or proposed policy for the committee to hear and consider when making decisions in these areas.
While longer studies used to be more substantive and provide in-depth research and analysis, shorter studies need to provide data and facts while also being impactful and memorable within a short time frame. Like anything in the political arena, strategy is important. Curating a study with speakers who bring professional, authoritative voices while also highlighting the humanity behind policy issues is key to making the study worth the time and effort.
Elected officials cannot be subject matter experts on every topic known to humanity. For those who attend studies, it may be the only time they hear about a certain topic from qualified individuals. However, this also means they may not be hearing from the best sources, which is why it is important to track what topics are being presented and who is speaking on them.
Interim studies are essential to allow a platform for people to contribute to the democratic process in a way that shows how decisions impact us across all sectors.
Not everyone feels safe or heard at the capitol, and not everyone has the capacity to go and advocate for what is important to them. Interim studies, although limited, provide another avenue to track and influence potential legislation.
It is crucial that our State Capitol remains the “people’s house” where the people can speak on issues that affect them and use their voice to shape the legislation that changes their lives. Currently, many people are filled with unease with talks of politics and feel like their voice does not matter. While some may see interim studies as media grabs or frivolous, they are one of the last avenues left for people to validate and document their concerns about potential life-altering policies.
We need to preserve and promote what remains of a democratic process that centers on people, not egos, money, or fear.