Staff works to make the Capitol easy to visit, or not visit

Citizens in and outside Juneau can keep track of their legislators

Posted: Friday, December 21, 2007

With Alaska's vast distances, the state's residents have challenges like nowhere else in keeping up with what their state leaders are doing.

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That led to the creation of Legislative Information Offices, a method of keeping both citizens and legislators informed that's unlike anything in any other state.

Citizens outside Juneau can drop into one of 22 offices, located in most regional cities. With the session starting on Jan. 15, traffic at the various locations is likely to increase.

At the offices, citizens can participate in teleconferences of legislative hearings, obtain public documents, and send public opinion messages to their legislators, said Sue Gullufsen, who manages the offices for the Legislative Affairs Agency.

"A lot of what our offices do, especially the smaller offices, is serve as one-stop-shops for a myriad of information about the legislative, judicial and executive branches," Gullufsen said.

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That's long-included the ability to send public opinion messages to legislators. Though they can now be sent through the Internet, they were originally available only at the offices, and still carry extra weight with legislators because they can single out those from their own constituents.

The amount of technology the Legislature makes available on its BASIS bill tracking system makes more information available over the Internet than before, but has only changed, not diminished the need for legislative information offices, she said.

"There's still a great need to help people navigate the process, and learn the best ways to communicate with a legislator," she said.

Teleconferenced hearings also are useful to both legislators and citizens, Gullufsen said.

Citizens who gather at one of the offices for a teleconference hearing can review state documents about which the legislators want their opinions, as well as help save some money.

"There is still a cost for teleconferencing," she said. "A number of people at an (office) making one phone call is less expensive than people calling from their homes and businesses."

The offices are also available for people who don't have Internet access, which is especially helpful in rural areas with spotty Internet availability, Gullufsen said.

"All of our offices have an extra constituent computer," she said, which can be used to check bill status or agency Web sites.

Those visiting the Capitol in person will find a cramped building, but much to do and see, said Gary Stambaugh, Senate sergeant at arms.

First-time visitors can drop in on the Documents room on the ground floor to get a list of legislators and office locations. The security guards tend to have extras, and have long experience guiding visitors around the building as well.

A self-guided tour brochure is also available, as is a virtual tour online at the Legislature's extensive Web site to familiarize oneself with the building before arriving.

Before a bill reaches the House or Senate floor, which are both on the building's second floor, most of action takes place in committee rooms ranging from the ground floor to fifth floor, as well as in legislative offices and in the hallways.

Though the Legislature owns and runs the Capitol building, it provides the entire third floor to the governor's office.

Citizens can track on the BASIS system when bills are up for discussion to observe and sometimes even participate in discussions.

Tip for visitors: The uniformed security guards have been trained on the BASIS system and double as information sources.

Gullufsen recommends that visitors check in with the staff at their local legislators' offices as well.

"They'll bend over backwards to accommodate them," she said. "They'll show them BASIS, how a bill becomes law, or show them around the building."

On the second floor, where the real action takes place, Stambaugh said there are big display screens showing what legislation is being acted on.

Also on the second floor is are the galleries, small seating areas from which the public can watch the proceedings on the floor.

Legislators frequently introduce guests from their districts, especially if the person has visited their office earlier. Rarely, they'll do what's called "poaching," introducing a notable citizen from someone else's district.

"We want proper protocol in the chambers," Stambaugh said. "That means no flashing cameras or cell phones."

A dress code prevails upon the floor, and a legislator appearing without a tie is likely to find himself crosswise with his Rules Committee chairman.

Ties aren't required in the gallery, Stambaugh said, but pages collect coats and bags and store them in a side room.

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