By James Brooks
Alaska Beacon 

Public calling in to testify overwhelm Capitol phone lines


The Alaska Legislature is changing some procedures after Capitol phone lines became overloaded by public testimony for a record fifth time this year.

The Capitol’s phones reached capacity on May 2, during a hearing about a bill that intends to repeal the state’s new ranked-choice voting law. The phone lines have filled more times this year than in the past six years combined, legislative statistics indicate.

Overall call volume hasn’t changed significantly from past years, but Alaskans’ habits have: Members of the public are now much more likely to call from home, rather than one of the legislative information offices scattered across the state.

The Legislature operates a network of 22 offices across the state (including Wrangell). In addition to offering a phone system for public testimony, the offices provide resources for Alaskans interested in following the legislative process.

That pattern, plus a series of high-interest legislative proposals, have repeatedly filled the Legislature’s 90 public phone lines.

Homer Rep. Sarah Vance said that even her father couldn’t make it into the queue for one meeting.

“He’s like, ‘I tried, and I tried’ (to call in),” she said. “I’ve had numerous people reach out to me, I’ve had emails and texts, and they keep trying and trying.”

On April 21, with several committees simultaneously taking public testimony, the phone lines were so clogged that the Legislature’s own attorneys couldn’t connect to a House Judiciary Committee that Vance was leading.

“We couldn’t get our drafter on the line to answer technical questions,” she said. “I was like, ‘What do you mean, you can’t get the drafter on?’”

That tie-up was unusual in that it was caused by multiple hearings taking testimony at the same time.

Four other times, the lines have been filled by individual controversial bills: House Bill 65, which would increase the state’s funding formula for public schools, on March 21; House Bill 105, which as originally written would have restricted the rights of transgender students, on March 30 and April 13; and House Bill 4 on elections, on May 2.

Public testimony is a regular part of the legislative process, taking place in each committee that hears a proposed bill. Members of the public call in or show up in person to voice their opinion about the proposal and any changes made by legislators along the way.

“Something tells me when you put bills on social issues … you can expect people to come out and be heard,” said House Minority Leader Calvin Schrage, of Anchorage.

If there’s a silver lining to the phone problem, said Nikiski Rep. Justin Ruffridge, it’s that it shows Alaskans are involved with the Legislature. Despite that, it’s still a problem, he said.

“They took the time out of their day to try to be heard for two minutes or three minutes, and if you’re not even able to get in the queue because the phone system is down, I think you lose even more trust in your elected officials, in the government process,” he said.

To partially fix the problem, the Legislature has set up a dedicated phone line for staff and subject-matter experts who call into committee meetings.

The Capitol’s nonpartisan administrative staff are also encouraging members of the public to testify from legislative information offices if they live in a city near one.

The Legislature’s phone system was originally designed to accommodate people who live away from major cities. However, during the COVID-19 pandemic, patterns changed and more people called in rather than testify from a legislative office in their community.

On May 2, as members of the public waited to testify on the bill that would repeal ranked-choice voting in the state, 97 of 112 callers waiting in the queue were from communities with a legislative office, said Legislative Affairs Agency Director Jessica Geary.

Rep. CJ McCormick, D-Bethel, represents a rural district in Southwest Alaska and said he’s been frustrated by the capacity issues. Most of his constituents can’t reach the legislative office in Bethel and need the ability to call in.

“I think my district is pretty significantly disadvantaged with public testimony,” he said.

Vance said there are things legislators can do themselves to fix the problem. Committee chairs can schedule public testimony sessions at different times so multiple committees aren’t trying to use the phone lines at the same time.

Public testimony on contentious bills could be divided by region. The House Finance Committee, for example, sets specific times for testimony from different parts of the state.

The Alaska Beacon is an independent, donor-funded news organization.


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