This legislative session has been speeding toward the 90-day mark and projected adjournment on the 13th of April. It's hard to say if the Legislature will make this goal, but it has certainly made for a more frenzied pace than what I saw during my six years as a legislative aide.
One issue that has commanded a fair amount of legislative time and energy - scarce commodities given the compressed session schedule - is where the state Legislature ought to meet. Three bills in particular have been considered, two of which have advanced to their final committee of referral in the House of Representatives. What would these bills do if they were to become law and what would that mean to Juneau?
House Bill 54 would allow communities around Alaska to submit competitive proposals to build a "legislative hall." This would be the new meeting venue for the Legislature, with the goal that this facility would be located somewhere on the central road system. The bill's sponsor points out that one-quarter of Alaskans don't have access to cable television or the Internet, and thus cannot participate through these electronic media in sessions in Juneau. That may be true, but the immense size of the Last Frontier means it will never be possible for all Alaskans to be connected by the road system or the information superhighway to the legislative process. It is more worthwhile trying to improve on means of helping Alaskans participate by expanding the network of Legislative Information Offices, and transforming teleconferencing into video-conferencing. In this day and age, people really ought to be able to testify from home via computer.
House Bill 293 would move the Legislature, but instead of allowing communities around Alaska to compete for the privilege of being the legislative capital, it designates Anchorage as the Legislature's new home.
Having been born in Anchorage, I know its qualities quite well, and enjoy being there whenever I have the chance. But as Alaska's metropolis, I know that the legislative process would be much less visible if conducted in that busier, vastly more populous environment. Yes, a much larger percentage of the population could theoretically drive to sessions, but would they? I don't think the example of last year's special session indicates that there would be a vast increase in public participation. I know that those Alaskans who are really interested in participating in the legislative process do so now through the means currently available. Again, a better way to increase participation is to improve on the statewide networks already in existence, not just to drop the Legislature in Anchorage and assume that will make everything better.
House Bill 318 would move only the Legislature's special sessions to Southcentral. This bill did not make it out of its first committee of referral, but it is the least alarming of the three ideas to me. I understand why it is difficult for legislators to relocate to Juneau for the shorter period of time involved in a special session, which may happen at any time of the year. Special sessions are by definition focused on a narrow range of issues, and thus they draw a targeted constituency of Alaskans. At least HB 318 wouldn't repeal the FRANK Initiative, which guarantees that the costs of moving the capital are disclosed and approved by Alaskans prior to such a step being undertaken.
It is better that HB 318 didn't move along in the committee process, because of the slippery-slope effect. It is impossible for Alaskans across Southeast not to view any of these three bills as dire threats to our lives and well-being. While I see the possible wisdom of having some special sessions elsewhere, without a guarantee that the regular sessions - and our capital city status itself - remain in Juneau, we can't risk starting down that path.
While I fully understand why Southcentral residents find getting to Juneau difficult, I must politely ask them to engage in a cost-benefit analysis. The marginal increase in public participation in the legislative process that might result were legislative sessions moved up north is completely outweighed by the economic devastation that a legislative or capital move would wreak on Juneau and all of Southeast. Demographic trends and economic realities indicate that Southeast is a challenged region of the Great Land. Now is a horrible time to be toying with governmental-restructuring ideas that offer little in the way of making life better for Southcentral residents and promise to make life much worse for Southeast.
I fully respect legislators who introduce bills that reflect their constituents' desires, but I also am thankful that if we take the time to consider what's to be gained by all Alaskans against what's to be lost, the answer is clear. The Legislature and the capital city must remain in Juneau.
Ben Brown is a Juneau resident and lifelong Alaskan.