Legislative move headed to ballot

City and Alaska Committee 'intend to fight hard'

Posted: Tuesday, February 26, 2002

Alaskans apparently will vote this fall on whether to move legislative sessions to the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, the first ballot initiative challenging Juneau's status as the capital city since 1994.

Alaskans for Efficient Government, an Anchorage group that says more Alaskans need access to legislators, has met the threshold of 28,783 signatures necessary to put the issue on the general election ballot in November, according to the state Division of Elections.

The division verified that 28,928 of the 38,735 signatures turned in by the group were from registered voters and then stopped counting, said spokeswoman Virginia Breeze.

The initiative still must be certified by Lt. Gov. Fran Ulmer, a formality only. After that, the initiative will appear on the ballot unless the Legislature passes substantially the same measure first.

It requires relocation of the Legislature by 2005, either to Mat-Su, or if "suitable facilities" cannot be found there, to Anchorage.

Karen Bretz, secretary-treasurer for Alaskans for Efficient Government, said the group is in "a David and Goliath fight" in the upcoming campaign.

"I expect the city of Juneau will spend millions in it," Bretz said Monday.

Neither city officials nor members of the Alaska Committee, the largely municipally supported nonprofit group that fights for retention of the capital, would say how much might be spent in the campaign.

"It's really a little too early to know exactly what we're going to do," Mayor Sally Smith said today. "We can use the rainy day fund, and that fund has $6 million to $8 million in it. We would never go that high."

"We are going to have to spend money that would be better put toward community projects than fighting this," said Juneau Assembly member Jim Powell. "We intend to fight hard, and our friends will fight with us across the state. ... If it takes a million dollars, then we will spend a million dollars."

That was the approximate amount spent in 1994, said Clark Gruening, one of the city's legislative lobbyists and a member of the Alaska Committee.

"We should take it seriously," Gruening said. "What's different about this one is that we have an educational campaign to establish the truth that this really is a capital move starting with the Legislature. It may not be self-evident. The truth of that can be established in a campaign."

Juneau leaders will tout advances in access to the capital and to the Legislature, including discounted "constituent air fare" and enhanced technology for landing planes in bad weather, public television coverage through "Gavel to Gavel Alaska," and expanded Internet access to legislative materials and committee video and audio streams.

The cost of a potential move of the Legislature promises to figure prominently in the debate.

"It just seems to me once the people of the state understand the issue - and given the fiscal gap situation we're facing, and all the unmet needs - it's ridiculous to be considering this," said Mike Barton, vice chairman of the Alaska Committee.

Alaskans for Efficient Government is suing the state over the ballot language approved by Ulmer, which they say distorts their position on assessing the costs of a move.

Under a 1994 ballot measure that passed in a landslide, a move of the capital or Legislature must entail creation of a commission to study the bondable costs, which must be approved by voters separately before the move can be carried out. The pending initiative would repeal the reference to the Legislature.

Ulmer's summary says in part: "The bill would repeal the requirements that before the state can spend money to move the Legislature, the voters must know the total costs as determined by a commission, and approve a bond issue for all bondable costs of the move."

The phrase "the voters must know" is key to the lawsuit, says Ken Jacobus of Anchorage, attorney for the ballot group. That implies that the group wants to hide the costs, when in fact the reason for the repeal is that the commission already should have been established and hasn't been, he said.

"The voters will know the total costs, I think, because of the debate that goes on," Jacobus said.

Alaskans for Efficient Government on Friday submitted a motion for summary judgment in Anchorage Superior Court that would require a rewrite of the ballot language and also compel the state to create the commission.

Sarah Felix of the Department of Law, who is defending the state in court, said Ulmer's wording is "fair and impartial."

"They apparently don't want us to explain to the public what their initiative does," she said.

As for the motion to compel creation of the commission, "That is completely out of order," Felix said. "That's (an issue for) another lawsuit."

In the Legislature, Sen. Randy Phillips, an Eagle River Republican, has introduced a bill that mirrors the ballot initiative.

But Senate President Rick Halford, a Chugiak Republican, while noting that he comes from a strong capital-move area, said this morning that he doesn't think voters ultimately want to pay for the relocation of the Legislature.

"I'm not sure that the public wants to build new buildings for bureaucrats anywhere, unless it were probably further away, colder and more inhospitable," Halford said. "It's easy to get the votes to move it. And it's impossible to get the votes to pay for it."

Bill McAllister can be reached at billm@juneauempire.com.

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