More Alaskans testifying before Legislature

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April 8th 12:28 pm | Hannah Colton, KDLG News      

Since January, thousands of Alaskans have called in to speak before the Alaska Legislature. Their testimony is facilitated by 23 Legislative Information Offices around the state, and then channeled into the legislative process.

So far this session, the Legislature has heard from more than 8,000 callers during more than 3,000 hours of recorded committee meetings, according to the Juneau LIO.

In the mid-1970s, Alaska lawmakers took a look at their constituents — scattered across hundreds of miles, on islands and off the road system — and decided they needed a better way to hear from them all.

The system that resulted was a vast network of legislative information offices equipped with teleconferencing, and according to Sue Cotter, it's still the only one of its kind in the United States.

Cotter is the manager of the information and teleconference system for the legislative affairs agency in Juneau.

"Anyone with a telephone can participate through our teleconference bridge, anybody from Ketchikan to Deadhorse," Cotter said. "If they have an LIO in their community, we encourage them to use the LIO."

During a hearing, people wait to be called on and give their 2-3 minutes of testimony. They can also send written testimony. And everything that goes on in hearings is recorded.

Then there's a legion of legislative aides and House and Senate Records staff behind the scenes, transcribing minutes and typing up detailed information on each bill.

That public record lives on the Internet, in paper and digital formats at the Legislative Reference Library, and at the State Archives "in perpetuity."

And, Cotter said, it's a massive amount of material being funneled into this system.

"Session started Jan. 19 and we're at March 31, and so far we've conducted 1,105 teleconferences. ... We've had 8,361 individual callers. ... And we've had almost 178,000 minutes of meetings. That's a lot."

The impact of all that testimony is harder to gauge.

House Bill 77, the water rights bill introduced by former Gov. Sean Parnell in 2013 as a way to streamline the process for issuing water and land-use permits, flew under the radar at first, but triggered backlash in 2014 when it was brought up again.

Bristol Bay residents were among its vocal opponents, citing concerns about Pebble Mine, and the survival - or destruction - of local culture.

Dillingham's Billy Maines was one of dozens who testified during more than six hours of public testimony in March 2014.

"House Bill 77," he said. "See the trash can down by your feet? That's where it belongs."

Koliganek's Delores Larson took a similar position.

"You are silencing my right to protect our culture, our primary food sources, and our renewable natural resources," she said.

Those comments, and others, appeared to pay off. The bill withered away in the Senate Resources Committee, in large part because of organizing between 2013 and 2014, said Rep. Andy Josephson, an Anchorage Democrat.

"The folks would gather and talk to their legislators, and got incredibly organized, enormously organized, so that when they came back, I recall the bill was before [Sen?Cathy Giessel], and even though she is very serious about resource development, she killed the bill," he said. "So there was an example when the public process worked sort of just in the nick of time."

But for every bill like that one, there are probably dozens where the outcome doesn't match public sentiment.

Former University of Alaska Southeast political science professor Clive Thomas said that's just politics.

"I'm not saying that public input is not important, but it usually doesn't make a lot of difference if the majority have already decided upon something," Thomas said.

Three decades of studying the legislature has made him somewhat cynical - or realistic — about the process.

"You can go to a hearing on an issue that, say for example, that a Majority caucus member wants," he said. "You can get 50 people in there to talk against it, and one to talk in favor of it, and they'll pass it. Because it's already been predetermined."

Given that assessment, it could be hard to see why testifying would be worth the time and energy.

But for Dan Dunaway, a regular at the Dillingham LIO, it's a matter of principal. He said it's just more painful to stay quiet, even if he knows his voice won't change anything.

"It might not, but then they have to do it and look me in the eye and ignore me, versus if I don't say a word, I don't want them to have the get-out-of-jail-free card," he said. "If you don't say anything, then you're doomed to whatever decision is made. So that's what motivates me a lot of times."

Hannah Colton is a reporter at KDLG Radio in Dillingham. She can be reached at