Citizens barely outnumbered lawmakers Saturday in a teleconferenced hearing on whether to move legislative sessions from Juneau to Anchorage -- an apparent indication that the bill lacks momentum.
Twelve legislators in Juneau, Anchorage and Fairbanks participated in the hearing of the House State Affairs Committee, just two fewer than the number of people who signed up to testify.
Twelve citizens actually did testify, including eight from Anchorage, where Chairman John Coghill was presiding. The Anchorage citizens supported the bill 7-1.
"It's a beautiful day," said Coghill, a North Pole Republican. "I wouldn't blame anybody for not being here, but it is a significant issue."
Juneau Mayor Sally Smith, who listened in, said the anemic attendance on a Saturday in Anchorage is good news.
"If it were a burning issue in Anchorage, there would have been a lot of people turning out," Smith said.
Also, the bill could have trouble getting out of the seven-member State Affairs Committee.
Reps. Peggy Wilson, a Wrangell Republican, Jeannette James, a North Pole Republican, and Joe Hayes, a Fairbanks Democrat, voiced adamant opposition Saturday. James said that Anchorage Democrats, such as committee member Harry Crawford, would be unlikely to support the bill. James, the House majority leader, also said she doesn't think it could pass on the floor.
Hayes, who participated in the teleconference from Juneau, shook his head and rolled his eyes in seeming disbelief as he listened to arguments made by supporters of moving the legislative sessions.
Afterward, he expressed outrage at the legislative priorities, given that the House just decided this week not to fund rural health and public safety programs to the level requested by Democratic Gov. Tony Knowles. It would cost $6.3 million to move legislative sessions just in the first year, according to a fiscal analysis he cited.
"Why should this have any level of credibility?" Hayes asked. "I am appalled we even have hearings on this."
But the overall issue of Juneau's status as the capital isn't going away.
Uwe Kalenka of Anchorage, the sponsor of last year's failed ballot initiative on capping property taxes statewide, said he will file next week for an initiative petition on moving sessions to the Matanuska-Susitna Borough. The petition would call for sessions to be held in Anchorage for an interim period if suitable facilities weren't immediately available in Mat-Su.
Kalenka, who recently traveled to the Capitol, described the building as "ramshackle and not representative of the great state of Alaska."
He also implied that Juneau is, politically, an inappropriate seat of government. "It does not send the proper message to the rest of the nation" about what Alaska stands for, he said.
Reps. Norm Rokeberg and Joe Green, Anchorage Republicans who co-sponsored the legislation, said that the Legislature needs to leave Juneau because the distance and cost of traveling here make government inaccessible for more than 90 percent of Alaskans. Conversely, 57 of 60 legislators must undergo a disruptive relocation every year, thereby limiting the pool of potential legislative candidates and staffers, they said.
"To have to spend four months in Juneau -- that certainly speaks in favor of it (the bill)," Green said.
Sen. Randy Phillips, an Eagle River Republican, said that most legislators don't see their own constituents during sessions, only "lobbyists and bureaucrats."
Citizens echoed many of the same arguments.
Dan Boone, a Chitina firefighter, said that he could go to Hawaii for a week for the cost of traveling to Juneau for a day. "You might even consider Honolulu as the capital of the state of Alaska," he joked.
Terry Martin of Anchorage, a former legislator, noted that the vaunted teleconference capacity of the Legislative Information Office is fallible, with several requests from Juneau on Saturday for adjustments of the microphone in Anchorage.
Scott Robart of Anchorage castigated Juneau residents as selfish for trying to retain "virtual ownership of the democratic process." But he said bill supporters should avoid talking about a full-blown capital move and should play down the Anchorage origins of the legislation, for fear of backlash.
Wilson, the Wrangell representative, said there is greater public participation in Alaska than in North Carolina, where she also served in the House, despite the fact that North Carolina has more roads per capita than any state in the nation.
"It takes longer for me to get to Juneau than it takes an Anchorage legislator to get here," she added.
Former state Administration Commissioner Joe Henri was the lone dissenting testifier from Anchorage. He said that a legislative move would have to become a capital move because of the necessary shift in the bureaucracy, which would be a costly and divisive outcome. With wounds still raw over the subsistence issue, Henri said, "Now you're going to alienate one whole segment of the state."
Wilson said the Southeast economy, already in "a downward spiral" with the collapse of the timber industry, would be destroyed by a capital move. But bill co-sponsor Green said that Juneau has created its own economic problem with "vehement" political opposition to mining.
House Majority Leader James said she believes the capital eventually will move, through a citizen ballot initiative. But now it's an issue that pits Anchorage against the rest of the state, which has needs for infrastructure and job opportunities, she said. "I think we should deal with that issue first."
Bill McAllister can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org