What can we learn from yesterday’s public testimony before the Legislature’s Initiative and Referendum Task Force?
- Most interested parties think initiative and referendum is good the way it is.
- The parties who want to rein in I&R are mainly South Dakota’s business interests and Republican legislators.
- Dr. Emily Wanless is a good chairperson.
- Senator Jim Bolin is determined to keep regular citizens from intruding on his arrogant power.
To illustrate, permit me to summarize the testimony offered by citizens and questions and comments from task force members yesterday in Pierre. The full three hours of audio is available via SDPB.
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Leading off was Karla Hofhenke, representing South Dakota Farmers Union’s 19,000 members, who said simply, “If it’s not broke, don’t fix it.” Hofhenke, who is familiar with the I&R petition process from her work on Farmers Union’s independent redistricting initiative in the last election cycle, expressed opposition to two major “reforms” Republicans have recently proposed for the petition process, requiring more signatures and requiring signatures from more counties. Hofhenke says raising signature requirements would make it harder for regular citizens to sponsor ballot measures and make the process “a rich man’s game” and encourage the use of out-of-state circulators. Geographical restrictions (like Rep. Spencer Gosch’s onerous and fortunately defeated House Bill 1153, which would have required half of a petition’s signatures to come from 33 different counties) would make the process unworkable. “All South Dakotans have equal merit” in supporting ballot measures, said Hofhenke; requiring geographical quotas is simply “an attempt to gut the process” of initiative and referendum.
Senator Jim Bolin (R-16/Canton) expressed his surprise that Farmers Union is not interested in seeing rural people have more ability to be involved in process of signing petitions. He said he represents a primarily rural area and finds it rare to see petitions in Alcester, Beresford, or Elk Point. Why not, asked Senator Bolin, get signatures from a more diverse geographical area? Hofhenke replied simply that Farmers Union supports the process as it is.
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Tom Harmon, who said he had worked on South Dakota initiatives dealing with radiation, invoked the “Republic Not a Democracy” mantra to cast skepticism on ballot measures. He suggested the task force need take no action on initiated laws, since any legislator can draft measures to get around them. For the “very solmen matter” of constitutional amendments, Harmon suggested allowing opponents to respond to filed amendment petitions by circulating their own petitions against placing the amendment on the ballot and allowing opponent signatures to cancel out proponent signatures. Asked by panelist and Board of Elections member Linda Lea Viken if such a process would allow the easy defeat of any amendment filing, Harmon shrugged, “That’s getting into the mechanics of the matter.”
Harmon also said the press loves ballot measures “because there is a lot of advertising that is put in on both sides.”
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Rob Timm of Chiesman Center for Democracy said his organization is founded on the principle that “Democracy does matter.” He said that initiative and referendum arose in South Dakota in the late 19th century because average Americans felt excluded by a “plutocracy… controlled by the wealthy and corporate elite.” Timm argued that the positive effects of direct democracy outweigh the “messy” problems.
Timm didn’t just assert the merits of direct democracy; he brought empirical evidence. Timm cited research showing that direct democracy has positive psychological effects on voters, making them feel they have an impact on policy. Allowing people to be the government helps them develop higher levels of “political efficacy,” their faith and trust in government. Timm also cited research showing that ballot questions increase voter turnout. States with initiative see 3% to 4.5% higher turnout in presidential elections and 7% to 9% higher turnout in midterm elections. Finally, Timm said research shows states with initiative waste fewer government resources and have better GDP growth. Barriers to placing measures on the ballot may thus reduce voter turnout and civic engagement… and maybe South Dakota’s economy!
Rather than restricting the process and risking those harms, Timm stressed the need to push education, host events, and publish information and good voter guides. Timm said research shows voters want accurate information, not less democracy. He said South Dakota voters were “pretty darn smart” when they created initiative and referendum in the 1890s and when they added constitutional amendment to their direct-democracy bailiwick in 1972; they remain smart enough today to use I&R wisely.
Panelist Will Mortenson asked Timm if he found irony in the fact that big money is now coming full circle and using “big money from the coasts” to control a process created to fight big money. Timm said the public sector and media must do their job to provide unbiased information.
Prompted by panelist Rep. Karen Soli (D-15/Sioux Falls), Timm explained a method five states (Arizona, Massachusetts, Colorado, California, and Oregon) have adopted to inform citizens about ballot measures. Those states select demographically balanced but otherwise random juries of citizens to review ballot measures. These juries take public testimony and draft a statement on the pros and cons of each measure for a voters guide.
Panelist Rep. Don Haggar (R-10/Sioux Falls) said by phone that he’s less concerned about where ad money comes from and more about getting information about ballot measures. He asked about reheating something like Haggar’s House Bill 1130, a proposal canned by the Senate last March that would have imposed hearings by the Legislature’s Executive Board on the ballot initiative process. Timm said citizens are leery of a process that comes from the Legislature; however, he feels the premise is exactly right that the public needs more information about ballot measures.
Senator Reynold Nesiba (D-15/Sioux Falls) gently resisted Mortenson’s assertion that 80% of the money for ballot questions is coming from out of state by asking if more outside money is involved in our ballot question campaigns than pours into our U.S. Senate candidates’ coffers. Senator Nesiba then endorsed the citizen jury idea and asked the Legislative Research Council to look into it.
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Sharon Gray of Vermillion testified about her heartburn over the Legislature’s use of emergency clauses to box citizens out of the chance to refer those laws to a public vote. She recommended (as I and her son Doug Kronaizl and ballot measure sponsor Roxanne Weber all have proposed) allowing voters to refer emergency legislation. Gray noted that North Dakota has allowed such referrals for a century with no apparent trouble.
Gray noted that South Dakota voters have never supported giving away their I&R power. She said the Legislature’s repeal of Initiated Measure 22 this year expanded the “chasm” voters perceive between themselves and a Legislature that ignores them or includes them at most in a cursory role. Gray said the changes she suggests would help “close that rift.”
Gray responded to Bolin’s earlier question about geographical requirements for I&R petitioners. She said having separate petitions for each county’s voters would be a “mind-boggling” and “onerous” problem that would make petitioning unworkable.
Senator Bolin replied that he has never actually been in favor of requiring signatures from every county. (He did not mention that last December he said he likes a Colorado bill that requires initiated amendment sponsors to get signatures from 2% of voters in every Senate District). Senator Bolin said Montana requires a geographical distribution of amendment petition signatures. Bolin said he objects to notion that almost all of the signatures on South Dakota I&R petitions come from three or four counties—”that is a weakness of the process.” (If we used the Montana rule, which requires signatures for amendment petitions from at least two fifths of the state’s 100 legislative districts, then in South Dakota, we could still complete a petition by getting signatures from three counties—Minnehaha, Pennington, and Brown, which include seventeen counties, more than two-fifths of our 35 legislative districts.)
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John Dale of Spearfish, sponsor of an initiative to legalize marijuana, said he sees an “attack on South Dakota culture” and urged the panel not to “throw my good idea out with the bathwater.” He said that he’d be happy to receive a bunch of out-of-state money for his initiative, then recited his marijuana agenda.
Getting back on topic, Dale responded cautiously to Bolin’s call for geographical quotas. Dale said he doesn’t want South Dakota’s big population centers controlling life for the whole state, but the rules he has heard so far seem designed not allow participation but create de facto veto power and disproportionate value of rural votes over city votes.
Dale said engaging and educating voters is a better way to beat bad measures than raising barriers to citizen participation. Dale said South Dakota needs a “non-Facebook, non-Internet-ghetto means” of discussing ballot measures and offered his tech skills to help state set up non-Facebook system.
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Jim Ackerman of Pierre said he has circulated I&R petitions since 1984, and maybe earlier. He said he came to Wednesday’s hearing in part because of IM22, which he granted was complicated but represented an “honest” sentiment of the electorate, and the people’s attempt to guide the political process is “always legitimate.” Ackerman said IM22 was not an assault on the Legislature specifically but a culmination of voter frustration at years of attempts at public input being ignored by state government.
Ackerman said he wants signature counts to remain where they are—5% of voters for laws, 10% for constitutional amendments. Ackerman said there may be too much out-of-state influence in I&R campaigns, but he noted that the most vocal complainers of that influence have said nothing about the Koch Brothers’ hefty investment in fighting IM22. Ackerman said he could live with efforts to ban out-of-state money (but remember, Jim: the courts won’t!) if we also capped in-state groups’ spending at $100K per side on each ballot question.
Apparently piqued by any impugning of the Legislature, Senator Bolin queried Ackerman about what he meant by his statement about the Legislature ignoring ideas. Ackerman said he meant state government in general. Bolin replied that he doesn’t ignore people. He listens to people who come to issues, but that doesn’t mean he’ll agree with them. He said it’s not accurate to say the Legislature ignores citizens. he then explained his interpretation of his personal Legislative power:
One of the reasons I ran for the Legislature is I didn’t want to have to call anybody up and ask them to please support my idea any longer…. Ultimately by running and winning, I will assume the responsibility of making those decisions that hopefully represent my district in the best possible way [Senator Jim Bolin, statement, Initiative and Referendum Task Force, 2017.06.21, timestamp 01:02:03].
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Jay Davis, attorney from Rapid City, offered a list of the 55 initiatives and referenda on which South Dakotans have voted since 2000. He said only two of those measures—the 2006 JAIL for Judges amendment from California interlopers and the 2016 Amendment U fake payday loan rate cap from out-of-state payday lenders—were “truly malicious” measures that shouldn’t have made the ballot. South Dakotans voted both measures down by unusually large margins. Davis distinguished those malicious measures from other measures like IM22, which, regardless of where their big donors came from, arose from legitimate grassroots concerns and warranted South Dakota voters’ attention.
“The voters know what they are doing,” said Davis, as demonstrated by their ability to distinguish the two competing payday loan measures on the 2016 ballot and by their consistent votes on measures like abortion, medical marijuana, and the five-cent-per-mile reimbursement for legislators that have appeared on our ballots in different years.
Davis said there is not a crisis justifying major changes to I&R. He says minor tinkering is o.k., like more actively publishing campaign finance information and producing a better voter guide.
Davis rebuffed Bolin’s geographical quota. Davis said seeking signatures from residents of as many counties as possible is smart politics for ballot question sponsors: counting on Sioux Falls and Rapid City alone for support at the polls is a losing strategy. But petitioners already get many signatures from residents of many counties visiting Sioux Falls and Rapid City. Demanding an arbitrary percentage of signatures from an arbitrary number of counties introduces too many technicalities into the process. Such quotas would also severely referendum petitioners, who have only 90 days to collect their signatures.
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Next I offered my comments, which I have summarized in a separate post. Chair Wanless then called a potty break (no, really, after we reconvened, she told the next speaker he bladder thanked him for waiting).
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Curt Pochardt of Rapid City said South Dakota was the first to implement initiative and referendum; he hopes we’re not the first to go back on it.
Pochardt said the changes adopted this Session need a chance to work for at least one election cycle before we tinker any further. He said he respects Senator Bolin’s effort to protect the state constitution but he wishes the Legislature felt that way about all provisions in the constitution, like our commitment to education. He called on the Legislature to live up the state motto, “Under God the People Rule” and not place itself above the people.
Pochardt agreed with previous speakers that putting measures on the ballot is hard. He said he and fellow circulators work hard to explain to people what they are signing and to uphold their responsibilities faithfully because we want valid signatures. Pochardt asked the panel, “Don’t make it any harder.”
Pochardt said he also works at Rapid City polling places, and he doesn’t see much of the “voter fatigue” that the panel has discussed. Last year at the polls, he saw some voters take longer than statutory ten minutes allowed. Many brought in the Secretary of State’s voting guide, and many had clearly studied. The voters “took their job seriously.”
The process is not broken, said Pochardt. He said it was “reckless on the part of the Legislature to so quickly disregard the decision made by the voters” on IM22. He asked that in the future the Legislature “try to be more respectful of the people that voted by a majority to enact… IM22”
Pochardt expressed concern about the new 95% confidence random sampling method for statewide petitions. He asked that petitioners whose petitions are rejected by one such sampling be given an opportunity to administratively appeal for a second sample to check for error.
Senator Ernie Otten (R/6-Tea) roused himself from silence to challenge Pochardt’s use of the word “reckless” to describe his Legislature. Pochardt said his use of that word itself may have been reckless [no, Curt! Stick by your well-chosen vocabulary! reckless—without reck, i.e., without care, concern, or regard… in this case for the voters], but repealing IM22 before the courts could fully process the legal challenge against it was not a good decision. Pochardt said voters passed IM22 in response to the corruption and death they witnessed in the EB-5 and GEAR UP scandals, but “the Legislature decided to substitute its judgment for that of the people.”
Senator Bolin asked Pochardt if he would be opposed to what Bolin called the “cosmetic” change of changing LRC review of proposed initiatives and referenda from 15 days to 15 working days? Pochardt recognized that change as “de minimis” and “probably… necessary.” [I can live with it, too, but only if every extra day LRC gets is taken off the number of days the Attorney General gets.]
Discussion of petition challenges and the new 95%-confidence sampling procedure induced Senator Nesiba, who teachers economics at Augustana, to note researchers “run the regression 25 times.” He asked Secretary of State Shantel Krebs, a non-voting member of the task force—how many times her office will run random samples of each petition. Secretary Krebs said once.
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Mark Lee, speaking for the Sioux Falls Chamber of Commerce, said his group does not subscribe to “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Sometimes we need “preventive maintenance.” The Chamber says stable laws and constitution are important.
The Sioux Falls Chamber does not advocate elimination of direct access to the ballot and has less concern about initiated laws. “I do not consider it easy to get something on the ballot,” but Lee said it is relatively easier in South Dakota than in other states, some of which don’t even allow I&R.
Lee expressed sympathy for Senator Bolin’s geographical quotas. Minnehaha and Pennington counties can drive the political agenda, said Lee, but he’s not sure that’s good public policy.
Lee said that many conversations with Bolin have led him to agree that the requirements for amending the Constitution need some review. What if it took a 50%+1 vote to amend the federal constitution, Lee asked. Changing our constitution is supposed to be difficult; toward that end, said Lee, we need a higher vote total to pass constitutional amendments similar to Bolin’s 2017 SJR 2.
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Doug Kronaizl of Vermillion, activist for Represent South Dakota, and supporter of an upcoming initiated amendment to write much of IM22 into the constitution, said initiative and referendum are citizens’ recourse when the Legislature doesn’t do what we want. He said that increasing signature requirements, reducing petition circulation time, imposing geographic quotas, and lessening public information all run counter to the process.
Kronaizl said geographical quotas are one more logistical hurdle for grassroots organizations. For example, the previously mentioned HB 1153 would have required putting the name of the county of all signers at top of each petition sheet. Kronaizl said that county labeling might make it easier for the Secretary of State to check petitions, but circulators would have to have 66 sheets available for any one visitor, which creates hassle and cost, especially for volunteers printing their own sheets.
Kronaizl said no ballot question committee is opposed to folks from rural towns getting involved. In fact, he encourages interested rural folks to work their own towns rather than inviting petition sponsors to come circulate, since, Kronaizl has found, out-of-towners are often met with an air of “distance.”
Kronaizl noted that a 2006 Florida measure that raised the vote threshold for constitutional amendments to 60% itself received only 57% of the vote. Kronaizl suggested that any such attempt to raise that bar in South Dakota should have to meet its own standard.
Kronaizl rejected proposed restrictions on the number of measures allowed on the ballot. He said that limiting citizens to five ballot measures could mean that initiative sponsors could suck up all five available ballot slots in 2017, thus making it impossible to refer any laws from the 2018 Session.
Kronaizl also opposes the Minnesota rule that counts non-votes on constitutional amendments as No votes. He says we have no business assuming the intent of voters who don’t show up.
Senator Bolin noted that in 1978, 53% of South Dakota voters said the Legislature must get a 2/3 vote to raise taxes. He asked Kronaizl if that was an illegitimate vote. Kronaizl evaded the question, saying we can learn from the past.
Mortenson grilled his “old friend… at least by our standards” (the old hands in the room chuckled at 20-something Mortenson’s use of the word “old) about why Represent South Dakota presented four drafts of its amendment to LRC and the Attorney General. Mortenson said Represent South Dakota was using state staff time to do work it should have done on its own, before submission. Kronaizl replied the differences in the drafts were relatively minor and did not thus require four times the work. Mortenson maintained that submitting four drafts abuses the process, that figuring out such details should be incumbent on initiators, and the task force should look at ways to protect LRC and AG staff.
Senator Nesiba challenged Mortenson on this point, noting that months ago, legislators angling to repeal IM22 were complaining in the Capitol about initiators not being careful enough. Do legislators now want to complain about an initiator being careful by submitting multiple drafts for review? Senator Nesiba suggested that perhaps the Legislature should make the LRC more available to public.
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Roxanne Weber of Pierre said Senator Bolin will be thrilled about her one-page petition to amend the constitution. (“How do you know?” Senator Bolin interrrupted.) Saying, “We are the government,” Weber said she got great service from the LRC. She said her group submitted three drafts to LRC because her group really didn’t know whether various provisions and wording would be acceptable or “way off.” She said submitting multiple drafts allowed her group to get feedback sooner on all three and decide which draft to proceed with.
Weber challenged Bolin’s geographical quota, saying that trying to get to Bolin’s district to collect signatures on a shoestring volunteer budget would be a difficult feat. For participation, said Weber, it’s more important that everyone gets to vote.
Weber asserted that people she’s talked to throughout the state are less upset with the repeal of IM22 than they are with the Legislature’s use of the emergency clause to shut of the possibility of referring that repeal to a public vote.
Panelist Viken question Weber about the use of the terms “qualified voters” and “qualified electors” side by side in Section 3 of Weber’s amendment. “I think you have a conflict there,” said Viken. Weber said the two terms are essentially the same but result from using existing language in the constitution.
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Karen Hall, member of the Pennington County Democrats from Rapid City who said she used to work as an engineer at a Koch Brothers refinery in Minnesota, opposes limiting the number of measures on the ballot. She said initiative and referendum are “a good check on the Legislature by the voters,” allowing us to undo bad things the Legislature does or do things the Legislature won’t. Hall cited payday loans as a good example: after the Legislature rejected efforts to regulate predatory lending in multiple sessions, the people finally took action with teh 36% rate cap.
Hall said South Dakota voters take their constitutional responsibility to vote very seriously. In response to a complaint about voter intimidation at a north Rapid City polling station last year, Hall went to the polls as an observer. She was really impressed with voters, working class folks in “jeans and workboots,” bringing their kids along, taking the time to do the work of democracy. Hall said she saw three kinds of voters:
- Some voters had cheat sheets. They’d done their homework ahead of time. They worked through every line, and Hall saw them turn the ballots over, indicating they took time to address the ballot issues along with the candidates.
- Some voters sat and read every word. Some who were at the polls at the legal 7 p.m. closing time stayed until 7:25 to finish. Hall said the Legislature should consider lengthening that statutory limit of
- Only a very small number of voters—”less than a handful” appeared to vote only for candidates and skip the ballot measures. Hall observed those few voters who did not turn their ballots over and work on the back.
People may not love to have a long ballot, said Hall, but the voters of South Dakota will do the work. She implored the task force, don’t take away voter rights.
Senator Bolin asked Hall if it bothered her when she lived in Minnesota that she didn’t have input through initiative and referendum. Hall said back then she was not as involved in politics, since working for the Kochs meany working 80 hours a week. Bolin asked Hall if she had moved to Rapid City because of initiative and referendum. Hall said she returned to Rapid City because she is a proud graduate of the School of Mines.
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John Schmidt of Woonsocket spoke, as he does to everyone in every venue, about Arctic methane release. At the end of his testimony, which Chair Wanless hastened, Schmidt expressed surprise that the members of the Initiative and Referendum Task Force had no questions about Arctic methane release.
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David Owen, speaking for the South Dakota Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said his people are “more skeptical” about I&R and find it “annoying.”
“We do have respect for the process” and South Dakota’s historical role in I&R, said Owen. The Chamber firmly believes that South Dakota voters take this seriously, and “We would dink with this at our peril.” Owen acknowledged that we don’t have a lot of voter fall-off and even see some higher votes for I&R than some constitutional offices.
However, the Chamber is skeptical of the notion that tinkering with I&R is somehow a violation of the sacred will of the voters. Signatures on a petition don’t always represent voters’ will; half of those signers, said Owen, “just wanted to get their mail” or were willing to vote on something they disagree with.
The Chamber’s irritation is that they know how elections run: “You’re not seeking to inform the public; you’re seeking to incite the people to vote your way.” He said we don’t let any crowd take away our rights by popular vote. Owen invoked lynching as an example, saying that’s 23 votes Yes on the ground, one vote No in the tree.
For the apparent antipathy toward I&R, Owen put only two relatively benign proposals on the record. He said the Attorney General should have a public comment period on ballot measures (problematic in my mind only if it creates further delay in sponsors’ ability to hit the streets with petitions). Owen also said we “dearly need” a PAC-like structure that would allow a group to address multiple ballot questions and maintain continuity over time to tackle ballot measures from election to election. Such long-term ballot question committees used to be possible; Owen noted that we only recently outlawed ongoing ballot question committees (see 2016 HB 1036).
Responding to a question from fellow lobbyist Mortenson, Owen personally warned the Legislature that any changes to I&R must be “defendable as the changes themselves. Where we will get in trouble is where we make changes that are really designed to inhibit this process without just admitting we want to make it harder.”
Owen said the constitution deserves a higher threshold for amendments. He said he is “personally skeptical that 60% is too high.”
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Shawn Lyons, speaking for the 4,000 members of the South Dakota Retailers Association, noted that his group was founded around the same time as initiative and referendum, in 1897, to advocate for small merchants. Lyons said the Retailers aren’t “special interests”; they are the businesses that collect the sales tax that funds this very process.
Lyons seconded Lee’s call for “preventative maintenance.” The Retailers “do not oppose the initiative and referendum process,” but they note that I&R lack the opportunity for review and amendment that normal legislation gets as it passes through committees and the House and Senate. Lyons said voters are frustrated with that lack of input and amendment in ballot questions and said “legislative review” of initiatives “should not be out of the question. The Retailers support a public comment period on initiatives. Lyons agreed that democracy is messy but said that when we amend law and even more importantly our constitution, we should be looking at the far-reaching impacts of those changes.
Lyons expressed support for geographical quotas, saying small communities and businesses should also “have a voice.” He said he’d like to see more petition gatherers in his neck of the woods in “Metro Reva.”
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Rebecca Terk, representing Dakota Rural Action, spoke last. She said DRA, as an organization representing primarily rural South Dakotans, does not think that not having petitioners come to town denies rural folks a voice in I&R. Everyone has the opportunity to weigh in at the ballot box if an initiative or referendum receives enough support to get there.
Terk sees no need to limit the number of measures on the ballot. Then on our ballot last year were not historically unusual, and multiple measures increase voter engagement and turnout. Terk said initiative and referendum are the people’s process. The Legislature should “tread very carefully” in changing the rules for I&R. “The greatest task of this committee,” said Terk, “is to preserve… and in some ways to regain the public trust when it comes to the protection of initiative and referendum.”
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Dr. Emily Wanless gets kudos so far for fairly chairing yesterday’s meeting. Public testimony was scheduled to run from 9:10 to 11:00, with an hour of committee discussion to follow; Dr. Wanless allowed public testimony to run the full three hours and was generally liberal with time limits as long as speakers were on topic. Her few statements from the chair showed no agenda like Bolin’s and no brittle institutional defensiveness like Bolin’s and Otten’s. Dr. Wanless appeared interested only adding a fact or two and listening to the public.