Steady fight to keep the capital

Juneau leaders say they try to avoid knee-jerk reactions when perennial proposals pop up

Posted: Friday, January 20, 2006

Alaska Committee members again find themselves defending against a threat to move the capital, but say their method is not to respond in knee-jerk fashion.

Instead, the nonprofit committee's long-term approach is to address the city's issues before they mushroom into additional attempts on the capital, Chairman Win Gruening said. It does so with nearly $400,000 in city dollars each year, largely dedicated to televising the legislative session statewide.

"The best way to prevent a move is to make Juneau a better place for all Alaskans hoping to participate in the political process," the 57-year-old banker said. "Some people believe the committee is competing against everything, but the truth is that we just believe in making Juneau a better capital city."

Juneau Mayor Bruce Botelho, a voting member of the committee, said the 22-member group is dedicated to making Juneau the "best capital city it can be."

It was Botelho who recently criticized a bill sponsored by Rep. Norm Rokeberg, R-Anchorage. He believes it is just another attempt to move the capital away from Juneau.

Rokeberg's bill would allow Alaska communities of 30,000 or more people to bid on building a new legislative hall, and he has said Juneau might have an advantage in such a competition.

Like Botelho, Gruening calls the bill unfair, but said the committee looks at all proposals objectively. He said everyone in Alaska should worry about such bills, but that the committee does not wish to say which one is "more or less" threat than the last.

"We have not taken a stance against the recent proposal to trim the legislative session from 121 days to 90," Gruening said. "We are about efficiency."

Gruening cited the committee's support for airport enhancements, parking improvements and road development. Yet some residents believe the committee is biting off more than it can chew.

A 17-year resident of Juneau says he has taken a great interest in the committee's actions, which he describes as "myopic." Attorney Joe Geldhof concedes the group brings Juneau and other Southeast Alaska communities together with its marketing work. Geldhof also cites a constituent airfare promotion as a success. It is the committee's insistence on a road out of Juneau and building a large capitol "edifice" that are not practical, he said.

"Their grandiose plans destroy the political art of possibility," Geldhof said. "There are possibilities that cost less than $100 million that would keep the Legislature here for at least 50 more years."

Gruening reported the group received $388,000 from the city in 2005. Nearly $250,000 of that is slated for "Gavel to Gavel," a live program providing broadcasts of legislative sessions via television and Internet, he said. Another $26,000 is used to market the constituency fares offered by Alaska Airlines.

The committee made a deal with Alaska Airlines to provide a 40 percent discount for travelers hoping to come to Juneau from any Alaska outpost provided the tickets are purchased three days in advance.

For several years the committee has tapped the Better Capital City Accounts Fund, according to city Finance Director Craig Duncan. He said the city has set aside $500,000 annually into the fund, used primarily to promote the capital. The committee also receives private donations.

There was a group that formed in the 1960s with purposes similar to the Alaska Committee's, Gruening said, but it wasn't until 1994 that the committee became a nonprofit.

Gruening's peers are comprised of attorneys, bankers, state workers, realtors, accountants and other professionals. They first elected him chairman in 2000.

"There was only one time I can remember that we really had to head off a challenge rather than operate in a proactive manner," Gruening said. "That was the 2002 initiative to move the Legislature to Anchorage and Wasilla. We successfully defended against it."

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