Alaskans are testifying more than ever… but does it matter?

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.

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Dillingham residents testify at the LIO, March 2016. (Photo by Molly Dischner, KDLG - Dillingham)
Dillingham residents testify at the LIO, March 2016. (Photo by Molly Dischner, KDLG – Dillingham)

KDLG’s Hannah Colton took a harder look at public comments to see where they go, what happens to them, and most importantly, whether or not they have any real effect on legislative outcomes.

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, and she explained how it all works.

“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.

“We stream to our website every committee meeting, and those streams then are archived through our local public TV station, KTOO in particular Gavel-to-Gavel,” said Cotter.

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.

“And they go into the public record for anybody to view,” Cotter said.

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 January 19 and we’re at March 31, and so far we’ve conducted 1,105 teleconferences..,” said Cotter. “We’ve had 8,361 individual callers… And we’ve had almost 178,000 minutes of meetings. That’s a lot.”

So there’s a huge amount of resources that go into collecting and documenting testimony.

But does all that public comment really matter? Well… sometimes.

 Take, for example, House Bill 77. It was a 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.

H.B. 77 flew under the radar at first, but when it was brought up again in 2014, it triggered a massive backlash.

“This bill is aimed at bypassing the public and getting the Pebble Mine their permits!”

“House Bill 77? See the trash can down by your feet? That’s where it belongs.”

“You are silencing my right to protect our culture, our primary food sources, and our renewable natural resources.”

“We use the water to gain access to the harvest of the game. The water is our dinner table!”

That’s Diane Folsom and Billy Maines of Dillingham, Delores Larson of Koliganek and Dennis Andrew of New Stuyahok, who were among dozens of people who called in during more than six hours of public testimony at hearings in mid-March 2014.

And soon, their loud efforts paid off. The bill withered away in Senate Resources Committee, in large part, says Rep. Andy Josephson, because of grass-roots organizing in the interim between the two sessions.

“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 Senator Giessel, and even though she is very serious about resource development, she killed the bill,” Josephson said. “So there was an example when the public process worked sort of just in the nick of time.”

Of course, H.B. 77 was a rare accomplishment. For every bill like H.B. 77, there are probably a dozen outcomes that fly in the face of public outcry. Some experts say, 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,” said Clive Thomas, a former University of Alaska Southeast political science professor who is writing a book on Alaska politics.

Three decades of studying the legislature has made him somewhat cynical — or realistic, however you see it.

“You can go to a hearing on an issue that, say for example, that a Majority caucus member wants,” Thomas 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 out. Because it’s already been predetermined.”

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

For Dan Dunaway, who’s a regular at the Dillingham LIO, it’s a matter of principal. He says 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,” said Dunaway. 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.”

This year seems to be an extraordinary one for the Alaska legislature. The stakes are high, and with bigger spending cuts, changes to the PFD, and new taxes all on the table, Alaskans are finding the motivation to speak their opinions in droves.

Though statistics on previous years’ testimony weren’t readily available, there’s a consensus among staff at the LIO headquarters in Juneau: for whatever reason, more people are testifying this session than they’ve seen in decades.