A public hearing last year on the removal of the religious exemption. (CTNewsJunkie file photo)

Lawmakers are expecting so much testimony on legislation requiring the vaccination of school children that they expect to cap the length of a public hearing that’s been forced online due to a global pandemic to 24 hours. 

The Public Health Committee will hear public testimony Tuesday on two bills that would eliminate the religious exemption to childhood vaccinations for elementary school students. A similar bill attracted more than 22 hours of public comment during a hearing last year, before the COVID-19 pandemic ended the session early, leaving the bill unpassed. 

This year’s legislation exempts middle-school and high-school students who already claim the exemption. It is expected to draw heavy testimony at a hearing on the Zoom conferencing platform which the legislature has used to conduct its business online while the ongoing pandemic makes it unsafe to meet in person.

During a committee meeting earlier this month, members of the panel wrestled with the idea of limiting the hearing. Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, a Westport Democrat who is co-chairman of the committee, defended the decision.  

“We were advised that an indefinite period that could last days and days might be impractical. We’ve imposed a time limit, which is longer than any other committee has ever imposed a time limit and, I should note, longer than even last year’s hearing,” he said. 

Several Republicans on the committee objected to the time limit despite Steinberg’s insistence that the option to submit written testimony prevented anyone from being shut out of the process completely. 

“We would never consider this if we were in person,” Rep. Nicole Klarides-Ditria, R-Derby, said.

The hearing seems likely to test the 24-hour cap. On Friday, four days before the event, dozens of people had already submitted written testimony on the two bills for the proposal. And in general, public hearings have run long during this largely digital legislative session. 

It is easier for many people to access a hearing held online. Members of the public are able to testify remotely, without driving into Hartford. 

Meanwhile, the process seems to take a little longer in the digital setting. There are a host of small but new delays that crop up and compound over the course of several hours. Legislative clerks must juggle multiple windows and shuffle speakers in and out of the conferencing software. Lawmakers and members of the public occasionally struggle with the mute function or have difficulty switching their video feeds on and off. 

Last week, a lengthy public hearing led to a testy exchange in the Labor and Public Employees Committee when the panel’s co-chair, Rep. Robyn Porter, D-New Haven, cut off questions from committee members following testimony from Connecticut Business and Industry lobbyist Eric Gjede about 10 hours into the proceeding. 

“At this point, we are halfway through testimony. We still have about 48 people to go. It is after 8 p.m. So what I’m going to do is ask my committee members to hold their questions,” she said. 

Rep. Harry Arora, the ranking Republican on the committee, objected and said the committee had jammed too many bills into the public hearing agenda. For several minutes, the two lawmakers tried to talk over each other while the software seemed unsure of whose audio to broadcast. 

“You’re bullying me. This is not right,” Arora said at one point. A few minutes later, Porter accused Arora of being out of order. “I am chairing this committee and you are being very disrespectful right now,” she said. 

After the hearing, House Speaker Matt Ritter told CTNewsJunkie that Porter had the discretion to halt questioning during the hearing. He said one member of the committee was “monopolizing” the hearing. 

In general, Ritter said he did not see limiting the scope of a public hearing as the same as cutting off debate over a bill during a meeting or on the floor of the House. The rules are silent on whether lawmakers can ask endless questions of the public during a public hearing.

“The public hearing is for members to listen and elicit information but there has to be some limit on that,” Ritter said. “I don’t know of any committee that’s held a public hearing longer than 24 hours.”

“We don’t cut off debate in committee meetings or on the floor of the House,” Ritter said.  

House Minority Leader Vincent Candelora said the public hearing is creating a legislative record and “you want to make sure you have the appropriate back and forth, give and take.”

He said there is no concerted effort to frustrate the process, but the process is going to be longer because of the digital format.

“A virtual platform provides the public with so much more access to us,” Candelora said.

Candelora said he disagrees with Ritter and doesn’t believe chairmen or chairwomen have the ability to stop questioning of certain members of the public. He said if they want to do that then they need to put to forward for a vote of the entire committee.