The 2009 legislative session starts Wednesday, Jan. 28, at noon. There is no set end date for the session, but it generally ends in July or early August.
If you go: The legislature meets in the imaginatively titled Legislative Building, 14 W. Jones St. in Raleigh. There is a convenient parking lot one block east, others farther away and street parking nearby. Don't park in the reserved street spaces; those are for lawmakers.
Inside the Legislative Building, in particular, is a maze, without a piece of cheese at the end. WUNC statehouse reporter Laura Leslie notes the building's ecosystem will show you the way. "People get lost all the time. Even the lawmakers get lost. If they could do breadcrumb trails, they would do it," said Leslie, who blogs state politics at wunc.org/programs/news/Isaac-Hunters-Tavern. "The trick is that each court has its own arrangement of plants and water." In the 1300 court outside House Speaker Joe Hackney's office, there are nine large planters with palms and lilies, but no water feature; however, the Senate side has a small, round fountain, and a wall of palms near President Pro Tem Marc Basnight's office.
House and Senate sessions and committee meetings are open to the public. Citizens sit in the galleries, which overlook the House or Senate floors. There is not a dress code for the gallery like there is for the floor (men must wear coats and ties, women "dignified dress," according to the rules); however, you cannot bring food or drinks. To access the floor while the House or Senate is meeting, you will need an official pass or credential. Charged with maintaining decorum on the floor, the Sergeants at-Arms can be brusque. If you wander onto the floor during the sessions without a pass, you will be escorted to the hall.
Committee meetings are held in committee rooms. The public sits in a designated area, either in chairs facing the lawmakers or on the perimeter of the room. These meetings are often more interesting and informal than the sessions; this is where some of the nitty-gritty discussions happen.
The euphemistically named "working groups"—lawmakers, lobbyists and other interested parties—meet to craft proposed legislation in committee rooms. These sessions are also open to the public, but they can be harder to find out about. That's not an accident. The sausage-makers really don't want you there, which is all the more reason to go. Some meetings are listed on the legislative calendar; some are not. If you have questions, call the Legislative Services Office, 733-7044.
The difference between LB and LOB: When you go online to see the location of a legislator's office or where a committee meets, you will notice some are held in LB and others LOB. The former stands for Legislative Building, and the latter, no, not lobotomy, but Legislative Office Building, which is behind the LB. You can enter the LOB by going out the back of the LB, or simply enter from Salisbury Street. Both the LB and LOB adjoin the lovely lawn, where protesters and demonstrators often hold court to try to attract the attention of lawmakers strolling by or peering from their office windows.
Bathrooms: They're ample, and some are quite private, one toilet only. You'll recognize the personal-sized bathrooms by their narrow doors.
On the Web: The General Assembly Web site, www.ncga.state.nc.us, has greatly improved, and we salute whoever redesigned it: The site is clean, intuitive and interactive. You can search for bills by number and keyword. Enter your ZIP code and find out who represents you in the House and Senate, plus their contact information. The House, Senate and committee calendars are posted, as well as valuable links to the bill-drafting division, the legislative library and other publications. You can also retrieve laws from previous legislative sessions since 1959. Phone directories for all legislative staff are also posted.
The General Assembly sessions are not yet televised, although a House Select Committee on such a public service is considering its feasibility, but you can listen to streaming audio of the House and Senate Chambers, the press conference room and the finance and appropriation committee rooms.