- Associated Press - Saturday, February 27, 2016

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) - With its mirrored windows and minimalist design, the Jonah Business Center looks like it should house a telecommunications company or perhaps a medical office.

For the time being, it’s the State Capitol, Wyoming’s version of the People’s House.

Business of utmost importance occurs inside - the creation of laws for citizens to live by, the adoption of a state budget.

But “State of Wyoming Legislature” is listed fourth on the Jonah Business Center’s parking lot sign - below Allstate, Cigna and the Social Security Administration.

For at least the next three legislative sessions, the Jonah Center will house the Legislature, as the 125-year-old Wyoming State Capitol and adjacent Herschler Building undergo a $300 million restoration.

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With a rotunda made of Tiffany-styled glass and staircases lined with hand-carved spindles, the Capitol is steeped in history, architectural embellishments and formality.

Jonah, with carpeted floors and metal doors, prizes function over style.

The Jonah does have a history - albeit a shorter one, having been built in the 1970s - that includes housing a former Kmart and Pay ‘n Pak hardware store.

“At first, I was kind of less than thrilled about it,” Rep. Charles Pelkey said about moving into the new digs. “This used to be a Kmart, so I jokingly referred to it as Leg’-Mart.”

Pelkey, a Democrat from Laramie, has since softened his criticism, prompted in part by memories of nearly a decade ago when the Wyoming Supreme Court was under renovation. Its temporary space, furnished with folding tables, was more cramped, he said.

In addition to the House and Senate chambers, the Jonah building has a small office for Gov. Matt Mead and some of his key staffers to use during the legislative session. There is one room where the secretary of state, auditor, treasurer and superintendent of public instruction and their staffs can work.

“WAM has decided to call the Jonah Building our nicknames - either JB, for the Jonah building, or the Emerald City, which of course is in the great Land of Oz,” said Shelley Simonton of the Wyoming Association of Municipalities.

So who in the Emerald City is the Wizard of Oz?

It depends on the day, Simonton said.

The Legislature’s space at the Capitol was about 37,000 square feet. At the Jonah it’s 45,500. That includes larger space for both the House and Senate chambers.

But Rep. Mark Baker, R-Rock Springs, said in the Capitol, lawmakers had an aisle next to each of their desks. In the Jonah, staff and lawmakers are walking behind each other to distribute paperwork and get in and out of their seats. The result is a feeling of less personal space, he said.

Pelkey said he can live with the inconveniences. His biggest complaints are the increasing costs of the Capitol reconstruction project and the time it’s taking to complete.

“I think these things always take longer than they promise,” he said.

In the Jonah, members of the public can watch their Legislature in rooms behind the House and Senate, each separated by a wall with windows - reminiscent of church crying rooms.

Technically, they’re the House and Senate galleries. But at the Jonah, lawmakers call them the fishbowl, because of the effect of being stared at through the glass.

The galleries are on the same floor as the lawmakers. In the Capitol, the galleries are one flight of stairs above the House and Senate, giving the public a better view during standing votes.

Sometimes, leadership asks lawmakers to stand if they are in favor of a bill. Those who remain sitting are opposed to it. At the Jonah, it’s difficult to see who is standing and who is sitting because tall people in the back block the view of legislators up front.

“I’m not fond of the fishbowl,” said Marian Smith Orr, a lobbyist who has observed the Legislature for 21 years. “I don’t like looking at the back of everybody’s head. I have the back of everybody’s head memorized.”

At the Jonah, lawmakers don’t have exclusive bathrooms. They have to do their business among the masses.

Lawmakers run into journalists, lobbyists and members of the public in the restrooms.

“You might have a chance to get another vote in the ladies’ room that you would never have had before,” said Simonton, of the Association of Municipalities.

Simonton hasn’t yet asked a lawmaker in the bathroom to vote for a bill her association wants.

“But I’m not above it,” she said.

Forefathers who designed and built the Equality State’s Capitol never envisioned - or perhaps they never wanted - many women in the building.

There are only three stalls for women in the Capitol - two in the basement and one in a unisex bathroom off the House gallery.

In the Jonah, there is gender equality - at least for the washrooms - with two bathrooms for the fairer sex and 18 stalls total for them.

Overall, observers say the public’s access to lawmakers is better at the Jonah.

Committee rooms are larger, meaning more people can get a seat when bills are discussed, Smith Orr said.

Lawmakers more frequently walk the same halls as the public. They have to pass commoners on their way to the office space and to a room where lunch is frequently served. People often stop them to talk.

That’s different than the Capitol, which contains office space and break rooms blocked off from the public, she said.

Lobbyists rent a space, which they call the Capitol Club, where they can rest, eat and meet people.

The doors to the lawmakers’ parking lot are in the Capitol Club. Mostly, lobbyists are respectful and don’t ambush lawmakers, Smith Orr said.

“I don’t think that the legislators actually like it,” she said.

The Wyoming Legislature’s nonpartisan staff says the building was constructed in 1978. The Laramie County Assessor’s Office says it was built in 1971. Both agree the building originally was a Kmart and Pay ‘n Pak.

“It’s ironic they’re discussing the budget in a former discount retail space,” Smith Orr said.

The building was once a place for slashing prices. Now, it houses lawmakers who, in the face of declining revenues, are slashing programs, reducing money to state agencies and borrowing from savings.

Cheyenne Mayor Rick Kaysen said the building housed Kmart and Pay ‘n Pak until the late 1980s.

“Then it stood vacant for a number of years,” he said.

In 1991, the building got an addition for SafeCard Services, a Florida company that provided services for lost or stolen credit cards. In 1996, SafeCard was sold and became Trilegiant. In 2004, Trilegiant closed Cheyenne operations and moved to Connecticut.

The building was vacant until 2007, when Casper businessman Mick McMurry purchased it.

Don Wright is the building superintendent at Jonah. He has worked in the building since 1994, when he provided security for SafeCard.

“At one point, we had a full restaurant in here, it fed people who worked here,” he said. “Of course, all that changed with renovations.”

Once the state began leasing space for the Legislature, the state and the Jonah Building management tore down walls, created new rooms and installed overhead speakers for people to hear floor action in the House and Senate.

The state is leasing the space for three years - through 2018. The state has the option of two, one-year extensions, Wright said.

The Legislature is not the only occupant. Other tenants include EOG Resources, Trihydro and Unicover.

Without the symbolism and seriousness of the Wyoming State Capitol, people have been more casual at the Jonah.

In the Capitol, Lawmakers typically refer to each other as “Representative” or “Senator.” That’s not always the case now.

“More than once I’ve heard a legislator refer to another legislator by their first name on the House floor,” said Smith Orr, the lobbyist. “That’s not part of protocol. That’s easy to have happen when you’re in a casual conversation.”

Smith Orr doesn’t believe the casualness is good. The work lawmakers do is important. Lawmakers need to treat it as such, she said.

Smith Orr is excited for the Capitol restoration to finish.

“That building is such a jewel that really needed to be polished and restored,” she said. “I believe there’s going to be some really thoughtful design in it.”

Sen. Gerald Geis, a Republican from Worland who has served in the Legislature off and on since the 1970s, said the Jonah is serving the Legislature’s needs.

“It’ll do until we get back to the Capitol,” he said. “It’s not the State Capitol. But they’ve really done great work out here and everything’s running pretty smooth.”

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Information from: Casper (Wyo.) Star-Tribune, https://www.trib.com

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