Originally created 01/12/04

Capitol greets public



ATLANTA - Most Georgians who follow the happenings of their state lawmakers do so by picking up the newspaper each morning or by turning on a television.

But members of the General Assembly say the public has a standing invitation to drop by the Capitol during the Legislature's 40-day work session, which begins today.

"The door is always open to them," said Rep. Ann Purcell, D-Rincon. "We need the input of the people who elected us."

Taxpayers can talk to their elected officials in the halls, or they can watch from balconies while the 56-member Senate and 180-member House of Representatives do their work on the chamber floors below.

When issues such as pay raises for teachers or highway-repair funding come up for discussion, visitors are likely to hear fiery comments and heated exchanges.

But it's all part of the process. Every member of the Legislature faces re-election this fall and wants to make good on promises to the constituents back home.

If hard-core political banter isn't for you, the Capitol also serves as a state museum, filled with historic portraits, statues, artwork and displays.

With its marble floors and antique furniture, the Capitol itself is often considered a work of art. And, yes, the gold dome really is covered in gold, donated from a mine in Lumpkin County in 1958.

The building opened to the public in 1889. A $68 million restoration campaign is currently under way, with crews having just removed scaffolding from the dome, offering an unobstructed view of the gold top for the first time since 2002.

Despite the building's age, technology buffs and computer gurus will feel at home in the legislative chambers. Lawmakers can hook up laptops, speak to their colleagues with microphones and vote on a bill by pushing a button that registers on a giant electronic board.

Sen. Joey Brush, R-Martinez, says he has a special place in his heart for one group.

"It's always particularly fun when the school class groups come," he said.

The Secretary of State's Office, which oversees the Capitol, reported that more than 48,000 people took guided tours of the building in 2003.

Tricia M. Waldrop, the Capitol's tour manager, points out that the tours are free and run four times a day, Monday through Friday.

Cherie Harris, a third-grade teacher at McGarity Elementary in Paulding County, recently brought her pupils to the Capitol to take in the sights.

"We try to bring them every year," Ms. Harris said. "We want them to see the Capitol building and what it stands for and its history."

Taylor Mizushima, 9, said his favorite part of the trip was watching an educational video about Georgia's government, shown throughout the day at the Capitol Education Center, a 5-year-old multipurpose facility across the street from the Capitol.

"It was awesome," Taylor said of the $100,000 movie production.

Though the Legislature is required to serve 40 official workdays, the session usually lasts about three months because of days off for budget hearings and committee meetings.

The public has a better chance of catching hometown officials in action in February or March. Most of the Legislature's heavy work and long days are saved until the end of the session.

If you get hungry, you have pretty good odds of finding some politicians across the street from the Capitol at The Grill on the Hill cafeteria, where state workers, reporters and lawmakers often share tables and conversations with the public during breakfast and lunch.

GOING TO THE CAPITOL

WHEN: The Capitol is open to the public from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. During the legislative session (January to March), tours are available at 9:30 and 10:30 a.m. and at 1 and 2 p.m. April through December, tours are available at 10 and 11 a.m. and at 1 and 2 p.m. Call (404) 656-2844 to schedule a tour.

WHERE: Tours begin at the Capitol Education Center, 180 Central Ave., Atlanta. Participants should first check in at the front desk inside the Capitol, which is on Capitol Avenue.

PARKING: There is no official Capitol parking lot. Visitors may park in the World of Coca-Cola parking lot or the Underground Atlanta deck, both on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. The cost of parking varies by the hour - though the maximum for an entire day is $8.

FOR MORE INFORMATION: Go to the General Assembly's Web site at www.legis.state.ga.us.

Reach Brian Basinger at 404) 589-8424 or brian.basinger@morris.com.