Legislators face costly housing or family separation

Posted: Sunday, February 05, 2006

In the early 1960s when Alaska was still a brand new state, lawmakers moved to the capital with their families, many traveling to Juneau in a caravan of cars, swapping long underwear and automotive advice as they made their way down the gravel-topped Alaska Highway to the legislative session.

The three- to four-day trek took them across Alaska's frozen Interior, through Canada's icebound Yukon Territory, over a dangerous, sometimes stormy mountain pass and down into Alaska's Southeast Panhandle, where they hopped a ferry ride for the final leg to the nation's most inaccessible state capital.

Beth Kerttula, a kid in one of those cars and now a lawmaker herself, says session was a family affair, even though it meant putting the kids in a new school midway through the scholastic year and scrambling for housing in this quaint but crowded old gold mining town.

"We decided we would never really get to know my dad if we weren't together," said Kerttula, now of Juneau, whose father, Jalmar Kerttula of Palmer, served 34 years in the House and Senate.

"Plus, it was a different time then," she added. "Life wasn't so frenetic."

You still can't drive to Juneau, but it's now easier and cheaper to fly in. And even though today's four-month session is at least a month shorter than it used to be, the life of a part-time citizen legislator who is hundreds of miles from home - in one case 1,200 miles - is as challenging today as it was 47 years ago when Alaska gained statehood.

Those lawmakers who still bring their families find the challenges only compounded by the financial and social demands of modern life.

State Rep. Kevin Meyer of Anchorage was able to arrange for a yearly leave-of-absence from work as an oil company procurement officer after he was elected six years ago. But his wife, Marty, had to quit her sales job in favor of a couple of part-time government jobs.

Meanwhile, their ponytailed teenage daughter, Karly, has adjusted happily to her double life: two schools, two sets of friends, two soccer teams and two homes.

But keeping her happy in the family's cramped two-bedroom rental apartment a block from the state Capitol has required some accommodation.

They gave Karly her own bedroom - it's a teen sanctuary with a pink flowered bedspread and a makeup mirror. Mom and 6-year-old Valentina share the other tiny bedroom.

And dad? Well, the co-chairman of the House Finance Committee sleeps on the couch.

"I can watch TV and go through the bills that are up for tomorrow and I don't have far to go to bed," Meyer laughed.

The Meyers count themselves lucky to have found an apartment they can come back to every year. Mary Kapsner, a Yupik Eskimo from Western Alaska, has become more familiar with the tight rental market in Juneau.

Typical rental rates can range from about $825 a month for a low-end one-bedroom apartment to about $1,300 a month for a two-bedroom house.

At a public indoor swimming pool where she watched 7-year-old son Conrad splashing about, Kapsner said she's had to find a new place to live every year since she was first elected in 1998. Unlike many child-free lawmakers, she refuses to settle for a Juneau motel room.

"I don't want my kids having memories of their childhood as a motel room with a calendar on the wall," she said. "We've lived in some beautiful homes in Juneau. And that's another thing: I'm not willing to scrimp on rent."

The state last year paid non-Juneau legislators $25,929 apiece to cover rent and meals during session whether the family is along or not. Most lawmakers, including Kapsner, claim the full amount.

The state also picks up the tab to relocate lawmakers for the session, and Kapsner's bill tops the list. Moving to and from her home in Bethel, a rural outpost nearly a thousand miles from the capital, totaled $16,374 in 2005, compared to $1,070 for Rep. Harry Crawford, who flew down from Anchorage by himself.

Despite the distance, she says her children make the transition easily. Conrad, her eldest, enjoys Juneau's more cosmopolitan scene.

"There are things we don't have in Bethel," she explained. "Fred Meyer (department store), movie theaters, the pool, unlimited running water. It's pump and haul in Bethel."

House Speaker John Harris of Valdez and Senate President Ben Stevens of Anchorage have solved the housing dilemma with year-round residences in Juneau. Harris bought a condo where he lives with his wife and young son for the session, renting it out to a summer tourism company once they are back in Valdez.

And Stevens rents a house through the year. Although he has trouble finding sub-leasers once session is over, he says the stability the house affords his four school-age children is worth the expense.

Not every lawmaker can afford a second home. Typical home prices in Alaska's capital can range from $260,000 for a two-bedroom home on nearby Douglas Island, to about $425,000 for a three-bedroom home in downtown Juneau.

Anchorage Sen. Gretchen Guess says her legislative salary of $24,012 and per diem alone are not enough to hold down two homes. And her husband, who owns a small manufacturing company, is tied to his business in Anchorage, more than 550 miles away.

So the two spend a lot on airfare in order to see each other on weekends. And Guess must scramble to find good weekday childcare for their 16-month-old daughter who lives with her.

Now, with another child on the way, she has decided not to seek another term.

"Could we have done it? Yes. Was he (my husband) supportive? Yes. Is it the right thing to do? No," said Guess.

Given such logistical headaches, some lawmakers choose to leave their families at home or wait until the kids are grown to run for office.

But Kerttula, for one, is sad to see this change.

She remembers her own childhood "watching the founders of our state build our state," and she wonders if politics aren't more rancorous today without the family social life that once brought lawmakers together.

Plus, she says, having children around keeps everyone's eyes on the prize.

"It gives them a sense of why they are here, that sense of future. I really miss that. I wish there were more kids around," she said.

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