With public testimony phone lines clogged, Alaska legislators consider different options
Careful scheduling and greater use of Alaska’s 22 auxiliary legislative offices could fix the problem
The Senate Finance Committee takes public testimony on Senate Bill 114, on Thursday, May 4, 2023, at the Alaska State Capitol. (Photo by James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)
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 Tuesday, 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.
Legislative Information Offices
The Alaska Legislature operates a network of 22 offices across the state. In addition to offering a phone system for public testimony, the offices contain legislators’ out-of-session business offices and provide resources for Alaskans interested in following the legislative process.
To find the closest office to you, click here.
That pattern, plus a series of high-interest bills, have repeatedly filled the Legislature’s 90 public phone lines.
Rep. Sarah Vance, R-Homer, 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 tieup 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 per-student funding formula, 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 Tuesday.
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, I-Anchorage.
If there’s a silver lining to the phone problem, said Rep. Justin Ruffridge, R-Soldotna, 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, known inside the Capitol as “offnet.” However, during the COVID-19 pandemic, patterns changed.
In 2019, 532 people testified in legislative hearings from the Anchorage legislative office. Through Tuesday this year, only 52 people have, legislative statistics show.
On Tuesday, as members of the public waited to testify on a 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.
“If more phone lines were added to the 90 lines we currently have, it doesn’t solve the issue of the system getting bogged down,” Geary said by email. “Doing so would also require additional staff and, in the end, would just result in more people waiting on hold as each offnet caller has to wait for their turn to testify.”
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.
On the ranked choice voting bill, several people in his district texted him, saying they were trying to call in but couldn’t because the lines were full.
“You want your people to be able to get on there,” 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 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.
For her part, she encourages people to submit testimony by email as well, but it’s not the same as a phone call, she said.
“The power of them adding their voice to the committee carries so much weight, especially when members are in deliberation and wanting to know the different nuances,” Vance said.
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Correction: The initial version of this article incorrectly stated that Justin Ruffridge represents Nikiski. He represents Soldotna.
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