Two Anchorage Republicans made a pitch to move legislative sessions out of Juneau today, saying the Capitol is too small and unsafe and that most Alaskans don't have access to their representatives in the Legislature.
Reps. Norm Rokeberg and Joe Green told the House State Affairs Committee the state would be better served if the Legislature moved its sessions to Anchorage.
Similar bills have failed in previous sessions, and this one did not pass out of committee today. However, committee chairman Rep. John Coghill, a Fairbanks Republican, said he's open to moving the session and he plans to schedule more hearings.
Green, a co-sponsor of the current bill, said about 70 percent of constituents in his Anchorage district support moving the sessions to a more
populated area of the state. He argued the inconvenience of moving to Juneau every year dissuades potential candidates with young children from serving in
the Legislature because it's too disruptive to their families.
"Primarily you're going to get old people like me who may or may not be in touch with reality, if the majority of our people are in their 30's ... or they're going to be very young people right out of school, and they probably don't have a pulse on reality yet," Green said.
Rokeberg, House Bill 1's other prime sponsor, pointed to the 70-year-old Capitol, saying the building violates fire codes and is not fixable unless the state totally reworks the structure.
He acknowledged moving sessions to Anchorage would impact Juneau severely, but said he puts part of the blame on the town for thwarting economic opportunities, including mining and timber development.
"I would call this one of the most anti-business environments I've ever seen in my life," Rokeberg said.
Juneau Republican Rep. Bill Hudson called the bill one of the most divisive and difficult issues Juneau lawmakers deal with because it's a "back-breaker."
"This is not just moving the session to Anchorage, this will be a de facto capital move," Hudson told the panel.
The move would cost roughly $5 million to $6 million a year, according to fiscal notes prepared by state agencies. Hudson pointed to a citizens initiative passed in 1994 requiring voter approval before the state can spend money to move the capital or legislative sessions.
"This is the last spoken word of the majority of the people of Alaska," Hudson said of the initiative, which passed with 77 percent of the vote.
Other opponents of the bill argued technology, including teleconferencing, has opened access to the Legislature to people in far reaches of the state. But Rokeberg said that's not the same as meeting with lawmakers face-to-face.
Rep. Scott Ogan put it another way.
"I think it's important your constituents can look you in the eye during session and figure out if you're lying or not," said Ogan, a Palmer Republican who sponsored a separate bill to move sessions out of Juneau.
Rep. Beth Kerttula said moving sessions out of Juneau won't solve that problem.
"No matter where we are in the state, someone is not going to be able to visit us," said Kerttula, a Juneau Democrat.
Win Gruening, chairman of the Alaska Committee, said for the past six years his group has worked to improve electronic access and to lower air fares for constituents. He said the group also expects to receive an extra $150,000 from the city to study the adequacy of office space and parking for lawmakers and their staff. The group plans to hire an architect to identify reasonable improvements to the Capitol, said Gruening, adding it's unlikely lawmakers will get a new legislative hall.
"We don't think there is political support for building a brand new building either in Juneau or anywhere else in the state," he said.
Despite today's hearing, Gruening doubts the bill will make it to the House floor for a vote.
"It just doesn't seem to be a statewide issue," he said. "But we certainly intend on responding during the hearings so that we can explain our case."
Kathy Dye can be reached at email@example.com.