Bill calls for expanding Legislature

Palmer lawmaker uses committee meeting to push capital move issue

Posted: Wednesday, February 03, 2010

JUNEAU - State Rep. Carl Gatto says it's a perfect time to talk about moving Alaska's capital out of Juneau.

The Palmer Republican commented Tuesday during committee discussion of a measure that could expand the size of the Legislature. The bill calls for a ballot question and constitutional amendment to increase the state House and Senate to 48 and 24 members, respectively. There are currently 20 state senators and 40 representatives.

"This bill, as far as I'm concerned, has nothing to do with the capital. I'm shocked," sponsor Peggy Wilson, R-Wrangell, said. The bill is intended to limit the geographic size of rural districts in the upcoming decennial redistricting.

Gatto suggested that the modest numerical increase - "Why not 50 and 100?" he asked - is intended to avoid the need for a new Capitol building and the capital move issue.

"As long as you're bringing up a new Capitol, it's a perfect time to talk move," Gatto said afterward. "This issue, I think brings to the forefront the capital move issue."

Juneau is the nation's most inaccessible state capital, and moving it is a perennial issue for Alaska lawmakers, particularly with residents like Gatto from the populous and centrally located Matanuska-Susitna Borough.

The location of the state capital has been one of Alaska's most emotional issues. Voters have 10 times since statehood wrestled with the issue of moving the seat of government, or the Legislature. The most recent statewide vote was in 2002, when two-thirds of Alaskans voted against a proposition to move legislative sessions to the Mat-Su Borough.

The issue became more pronounced during the administration of former Gov. Sarah Palin, who all but shunned Juneau in favor of her Wasilla home in the Mat-Su Borough, and did most of her work from her nearby Anchorage office.

Her successor, Gov. Sean Parnell, has moved his family from Anchorage to the Governor's Mansion in Juneau for the session, and a bill has been introduced to make Juneau the duty station for anyone occupying the governor's office.

The 12 additional lawmakers proposed in Wilson's bill and their support staff could be accommodated without building a new Capitol, Legislative Affairs Executive Director Pam Varney said. It would cost $6.1 million initially and $4.4 million annually after that.

Wilson and Gordon Harrison, executive director of the last Alaska Redistricting Board, said the measure is intended to facilitate redistricting, particularly in rural districts, when it takes place in 2011 after Census counts are in. The decennial process redraws lines to roughly rebalance the state's population across each district. More lawmakers mean geographically smaller districts.

Historically, population growth in urban areas has forced rural districts to grow geographically to compensate. Harrison cited Senate District C as a "preposterous" example.

That massive district, held by Angoon Democrat Albert Kookesh, encompasses about half the state's land area, stretching from the southernmost end of the Southeast Panhandle nearly a 1,000 miles up to the North Slope Borough line.

Wilson and Harrison said the geographic size of many rural districts makes contact between lawmakers and constituents or candidates and voters very difficult, affecting lawmakers' effectiveness and civic participation.

A Senate version of the bill is also working through the committee process.

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