Visiting the Capitol is simpler than it sounds

Legislative staff makes it easy for constituents to visit

Posted: Tuesday, January 20, 2009

In Alaska, the state's citizens are welcomed throughout the Capitol, but it's not always easy. With a little bit of inside knowledge, however, what goes on in the building is readily available.

Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire

One of the first things to note for visitors is that there is no formal reception area, but the halls are open to everyone.

Staff who work at the Capitol say most visitors start with a stop to the office of their representative or senator.

Visitors who enter the Capitol through the columns at the front door may find the best way to find their legislator is to check in with the security desk.

"It's the combination security and information desk," said Pam Varni, director of the Legislative Affairs Agency, which runs the inner workings of the Legislature.

At the security desk, the person with the badge can provide a map to individual offices as well as help looking up bills on the Legislature's BASIS computer system.

They are "about the friendliest security guards you are ever going to meet," said legislative staffer Chris Clark, who works for Rep. John Harris, R-Valdez, chairman of the Legislative Council.

Visitors will get a warm reception in their legislator's office, said longtime legislative aide Dana Owen, in the office of Sen. Johnny Ellis, D-Anchorage. They can get briefed on the status of legislation, meet with their elected officials and find out what's going on in the building.

"A lot of people want to see a floor session," Owen said.

Legislative staff will provide directions on where and how to view a session, and if the day's session has not yet started they'll provide information on how to participate in one of the Alaska Legislature's rituals: the introduction of guests.

Representatives and senators take turns introducing the folks from their home districts that come to Juneau.

"It's something that legislators like to do for constituents," Owen said.

But Owen and other aides say the members of the Legislature enjoy it as well.

"I think there's a lot of concern in the building that people are aware of what they're doing," he said. "When people show up and have an interest in democracy and the nuts and bolts of what's going on, they appreciate that."

From the public galleries, visitors can watch the goings on of the regular sessions, including regular "at ease" breaks for negotiations and pages scurrying about carrying notes around the floor in a well-orchestrated system.

In the cramped Capitol - Owen called it "intimate" - those in the gallery are sometimes only a few feet from the legislators.

The pages and the sergeants-at-arms discourage wearing coats in the tight gallery seats, but coat racks are just outside. Savvy visitors leave their coats in their legislator's office while they roam the halls. A new legislative annex building next door will have a much-needed public lounge and will be connected by a sky bridge to the Capitol.

During the summer, tourists visiting the Capitol are greeted by tour guides in the lobby, but tours are available during sessions as well. Pages usually conduct the tours, but Varni said other Legislative Affairs Agency folks also will help out.

Staffer Clark said school groups are regular visitors to the Capitol.

"I find the rural kids are the most engaged of all of them," he said. "They definitely have a sense of what happens here affects them out there."

Constituents who can't visit in person have a variety of other methods of monitoring the Legislature, chief among them the Gavel-to-Gavel coverage on cable television and the Internet, and Legislative Information Offices in key communities around the state.

Gavel-to-Gavel, funded by the City and Borough of Juneau and others, broadcasts House and Senate floor sessions, as well as many important committee meetings. It's closely watched by everyone from new staffers learning the ropes to Gov. Sarah Palin.

It also plans to audio-stream on the Web all committee meetings, said Randy Burton, Gavel-to-Gavel producer for Juneau's KTOO, the program's home.

Early in the session, there will be broadcasts during the day and into the early evening, but hours are likely to expand during crunch time at the end of the session.

The state's network of Legislative Information Offices will continue to provide help tracking legislation for those outside Juneau and the ability to participate in teleconferenced hearings.

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