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Southeast lawmakers unite to boost region's strength

Region has half the number of seats it had in the Legislature at the time of statehood

Posted: Sunday, February 02, 2003

A newly formed bipartisan caucus of Southeast lawmakers will focus on areas of mutual concern such as transportation, fishing, timber and education, said chairwoman Rep. Peggy Wilson of Wrangell.

The eight state lawmakers from Southeast held their first organizational meeting Wednesday.

"We may represent different parties, but our districts face many of the same challenges, issues and concerns," Wilson said in a prepared statement. "As a united force we will have a stronger voice in the legislative process."

A declining population in Southeast since statehood has meant a drop in representation in the Legislature.

Wilson said in the last two years, her hometown of Wrangell has dropped from 2,400 residents to 2,100. The state recently released figures that show the Southeast population declining from 73,082 in the April 2000 census to an estimated 71,972 on July 1, 2002.

The region's population had risen just 0.6 percent from 1990 to 2000, and then declined by 0.7 percent from 2000 to 2002. In that period, 2,315 more people moved away than moved in to the area, and 1,205 more babies were born than people died.

"The main reason that we pulled together like this is because the population of Southeast is getting smaller but none of our problems are going away," she said.

Republican Sen. Robin Taylor, also of Wrangell, said Southeast's influence has been cut in half since statehood in 1959.

Southeast lawmakers then controlled a quarter of the Senate and House, with 10 representatives and five senators, Taylor said. Today the region is represented by just over half that, with three senators and five representatives.

Taylor said the region's political clout also has been diminished because Southeast is divided politically. Four members of the Southeast delegation are Democrats, and four are Republicans.

Democrats include Sen. Kim Elton and Rep. Beth Kerttula, both of Juneau, Rep. Albert Kookesh of Angoon, and Sen. Georgianna Lincoln of Rampart.

Republicans include Wilson and Taylor, Rep. Bruce Weyhrauch of Juneau and Rep. Bill Williams of Saxman.

Elton said resource issues are of interest to the entire delegation, adding that lawmakers would work together on topics for which they can reach a consensus.

"... I think we're all smart enough to know that we don't dissipate our energy by arguing and focusing on what pushes us apart," Elton said.

Although the caucus didn't get into many specific issues at its first meeting, Elton said members did discuss a bill offered last session by Wasilla Republican Sen. Lyda Green to expand prisons.

Green's Senate Bill 231 would have added prison beds to correctional facilities in Juneau, Fairbanks, Ketchikan, the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, Bethel, the Kenai Peninsula and Seward. Juneau's Lemon Creek Correctional Center would have gained 64 beds, but the bill never made it to a floor vote in the Senate or House.

Elton said it is uncertain if a different version of the bill this session will include new beds for prisons in Juneau and Ketchikan.

"That's an issue that ought to unify the Southeast caucus," Elton said.

But Taylor, who prefers private prisons to public ones, said it would make less sense to add to existing prisons than to build a new one or have a private prison company do it.

Wilson said the caucus plans to meet twice a month throughout the session.

The caucus also plans to hold teleconferenced meetings to get comments from constituents.

• Timothy Inklebarger can be reached at timothyi@juneauempire.com.



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