Freshmen lawmakers learning Capitol ropes

Posted: Wednesday, January 10, 2001

Like a teacher with a class of new students, House State Affairs Committee Chairman John Coghill laid down the rules for the five freshmen lawmakers on his panel.

"Starting on time to me is very important," he said. "If you're not here for the vote, we'll vote anyway."

The freshmen listened quietly as he ran down the procedure for moving bills through the committee and cautioned them on appropriate behavior in a setting where tape recorders and television cameras capture every word and gesture.

"So dress nice and smile," Coghill said.

The freshmen on his committee are among 11 newcomers to the House of Representatives. Five new faces have joined the Senate this year, but all except one had served in the House.

The Capitol's complex and sometimes baffling procedures are familiar to some of the freshmen. Two new House members, Fairbanks Democrat Joe Hayes and Anchorage Republican Lesil McGuire, worked as aides. Rep. Peggy Wilson, a Wrangell Republican, served in North Carolina's legislature.

Hayes said the biggest problem he's encountered so far is remembering to let his aides do the faxing and copying.

Others are greener. Rep. Harry Crawford, an Anchorage Democrat who defeated longtime Republican Rep. Ramona Barnes, is totally new to the process.

"There's a lot to digest," said Crawford, who figures he won't be going home much on weekends to visit his wife and three children. "I know I'm going to have to do a lot of extra studying just to keep up around here."

Sen. Donny Olson, a Nome Democrat, scored probably the choicest role of any freshman lawmaker. Senate Republicans put him on the powerful budget-writing Senate Finance Committee after rejecting Sen. Kim Elton, a veteran Juneau Democrat.

"In order to prepare for what's going on, I've gone to those people who've already been there," Olson said.

Kevin Meyer, an Anchorage Republican who served on that city's assembly, has been feeling his way around the larger body of the Legislature. He hoped to put forward some recommendations from an Anchorage drunken driving task force, but more senior lawmakers beat him to it. He wondered if some of the proposals he'd sponsored in Anchorage - such as a ban on sales of single cigarettes - would make good bills. But he realized some of the ideas may not apply statewide.

"Speed bumps maybe aren't necessary in Bethel," he said.

Hayes hasn't had any trouble thinking of bills to sponsor. He fired off four pieces of legislation before the session started, including one letting the state seize property used to distribute or view child pornography.

"I'm jumping in with both feet," Hayes said.

As a minority lawmaker, however, he may have trouble getting them passed. Majority committee chairman may refuse to even hold hearings on minority bills.

Gretchen Guess, an Anchorage Democrat whose father Gene Guess was House Speaker during the 1970s, knows she may have little power to push bills through. She's focusing on making her office as responsive to constituents as possible.

"The nice thing about that goal is it's very doable because it's controlled by us," she said.

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