Alaska Editorial: Alaskans should again try to expand the state Legislature

This editorial first appeared in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner:

It’s usually easiest to bring about a needed change when an issue is getting ample attention. Wait until that attention recedes and people begin to think, “What’s the rush?”

The needed change doesn’t occur.

That’s where Alaska is with the problem of its legislative reapportionment. A change in demographics since the last census has combined with Alaska’s disparate socioeconomic components and the limit of 60 legislative seats to make, well, a mess. Two Fairbanks residents have sued over one of the new Fairbanks-area districts.

The solution is to expand the number of legislative seats now so that Alaska doesn’t have this problem when it goes through the reapportionment process again following the next census in 2020.

Having a greater number of districts would make the Alaska Redistricting Board’s job of crafting a statewide district map a little easier. It would still be a challenging task, one involving competing social and political interests. But the bottom line is that the board would have more flexibility because the puzzle would have more pieces.

The size of the Legislature is specified in Article II, Section 1 of the Alaska Constitution: “The legislative power of the State is vested in a legislature consisting of a senate with a membership of twenty and a house of representatives with a membership of forty.”

People with foresight in the Legislature were able to get a constitutional amendment for expansion on the 2010 ballot, but the amendment failed in November. The amendment called for adding four election districts, which would have brought in four additional House members and the corresponding two senators. It would have been the first increase in the size of the Legislature since statehood.

Had voters approved the amendment, Alaska would still have had one of the smallest legislatures in the nation. Only Nebraska, at 49 members, has a smaller legislature than Alaska does today. Most state legislatures have well over 100 members.

There’s a natural reluctance, especially these days, to increase anything connected to government. But adding seats to the Legislature now will solve a problem facing us in 2020, when the redistricting process will be even more difficult than it was in 2011. And Alaskans will still be able to say we have one of the smallest legislatures in the land.

The Legislature needs to put a constitutional amendment on the 2012 ballot to increase the number of House and Senate seats. And it should do it in its next session, which begins in January, while the issue is still on people’s minds.

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