Legislature debates cost of moving

Posted: Sunday, March 23, 2008

A decision by the Alaska Legislature whether to move to the Anchorage area may hinge on cost.

Both move advocates and Juneau defenders are struggling to define the battle for the location of the Legislature on their own terms, and both have won some victories.

Rep. Mark Neuman, R-Big Lake, has introduced a bill to have communities bid against each other to construct a new legislative hall - not the Capitol, he said - and then lease it to the Legislature for $1 per year.

Opponents of the bill, including Reps. Les Gara, D-Anchorage, and Bill Thomas, R-Haines, talked of the cost to the people of Juneau, while move proponents talked of the cost savings by having the Legislature closer to the Anchorage population center.

Capital move supporters who back Neuman's bill agreed with Juneau defenders on one section of the bill, which would have repealed the FRANK Initiative, a voter-adopted law that requires public disclosure and voter approval of the cost of a capital move. The two forces joined to amend the legislation to delete provisions repealing the FRANK Initiative.

Rep. Mike Hawker, R-Anchorage, said the public in his House district supported having the Legislature close by, but would also want to know the cost.

"I know the fiscally conservative nature of my district, and I believe it would not be responsible of us to make such a move without absolute consideration of the cost," he said.

The House Finance Committee removed the FRANK Initiative repeal language over the objections of outspoken capital move advocate Rep. Bill Stoltze, R-Chugiak.

Concerns about theLegislative Affairs Agency

Stoltze said Juneau supporters use the FRANK Initiative and cost estimates to make the cost of a capital or legislative move appear higher than they really are.

Stoltze said the Legislative Affairs Agency, which he pointed out was based in Juneau, would try to make a move of the Legislature seem more costly than it really is.

"I know the folks over across the street who work for Legislative Affairs (Agency), they'll gin up a fiscal note that creates a cost," he said.

The agency has estimated that even with a free building, moving to a new legislative hall would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, depending on location.

Hawker said he supported retaining the FRANK Initiative's cost assessment, that while it had been used disingenuously in the past to overstate costs, he trusted that process more than the Legislative Affairs Agency.

"I think they've demonstrated a propensity to overstate those costs for their own personal, partisan interests." he said.

Legislative Affairs Agency Executive Director Pam Varni declined to address Stoltze's and Hawker's comments in detail.

"We've always done our best," she said.

Disputing the costs

What a new legislative hall would cost the state is unclear.

Stoltze said that if you could give someone 1,000 acres of state land to build a new legislative hall, he'd consider that to be no cost to the state.

Neuman said developers he'd talked to suggested it would cost $70 million to build an acceptable building, with a total development cost of $200 million.

The sale of housing, including high-scale homes on the surrounding land obtained from the state, would finance the development, he said.

Neuman declined to identify the developers he'd talked to, but said he had no business relationships with them.

Win Gruening, chairman of the Alaska Committee, said it appeared that such a deal would only work in the Anchorage area, where there is available state land that would be made more valuable as part of a new development.

An amendment proposed by Rep. Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage, an advocate of moving the Legislature and the capital to Anchorage, would require the decision on which proposal to accept be based in part on the cost to citizens to visit the Legislature.

"We should be looking at this as not what it costs the state, but what it costs our people to have access to us, their elected representatives," he said.

Gara said that means the winner will have to be Anchorage, the state's population center.

"Mathematically, this has to be Anchorage," he said. "It's not going to be any other place."

Meyer disputed that, saying some locations in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough could qualify as well.

Community impact debated

Gara said a cost that ought to be looked at is the damage a Legislature move would have on the community of Juneau.

Thomas, the move opponent from Haines, said that would be substantial.

"The minute this passes, the value of homes in Juneau are going to rapidly decline who knows, $20-$30-$40,000 a piece," he said.

Neuman said his bill wouldn't damage Juneau, because it could compete to build the new legislative hall along with everyone else.

Thomas said he planned to make an amendment on the House Floor to reimburse legislative employees for the decline in value of their homes.

"I think we should be held harmless, legislators and staff," he said.

The bill is now in the House Rules Committee, awaiting scheduling for time on the floor.

• Contact Pat Forgey at 586-4816 or patrick.forgey@juneauempire.com.

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