A proposal making it easier to relocate Alaska's capital is gaining traction in the Legislature.
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The bill would repeal a law that requires state voters be informed of and approve in advance the costs of a capital or legislative move.
Rep. Norm Rokeberg's measure would also open a competition between the state's population centers to be the site of a new legislative hall.
On Tuesday, the Anchorage Republican's bill passed out of the House State Affairs Committee on a 4-3 vote after it sat in the committee for well over a year.
Rokeberg's bill reopens a debate often heard for 30 years or longer: Should Alaska's political seat be located nearer its population center?
Juneau, which is accessible by only boat or plane, is 560 miles from Anchorage, where nearly half the state's population lives. Southeast Alaska's population is stagnating, while Anchorage and the nearby Matanuska-Susitna Borough's is growing.
Under Rokeberg's bill, areas eligible for a new legislative hall would be boroughs or municipalities with more than 30,000 residents. That would limit the site of a new legislative hall to Juneau, Anchorage, the Matanuska-Susitna Borough or Fairbanks.
The Matanuska-Susitna Borough has already mapped out a location for a new legislative hall on 1,000 acres near Point MacKenzie.
If a new legislative hall were to be built in the borough, says one its representatives, Carl Gatto of Palmer, two-thirds of Alaska's residents from Homer to Fairbanks would be able to drive to it.
But moving even a portion of the state's political structure out of Juneau would have the likely effect of crippling the capital city and possibly all of Southeast Alaska, opponents of the plan say.
"I don't think it's our place as a Legislature to put economic sanctions on any community or region," said Jim Elkins, R-Ketchikan.
Juneau Mayor Bruce Botelho was not in his office Tuesday and could not be reached for comment.
Rokeberg said critically important to his bill is the repeal of the FRANK initiative, which stands for Fiscally Responsible Alaskans Needing Knowledge.
That initiative, passed in 1978, mandates a commission be formed to determine the costs of a capital or legislative move, which would be put to voters for approval before such a move can be made.
Rokeberg said the FRANK initiative in the past has inflated the costs of moving the capital and "has been used as a foil to defeat any ability to relocate the capital anywhere in the state."
"Without the repeal of the FRANK initiative, there can be no public debate in this state about whether Juneau is the right location for a legislative hall or a Capitol building," Rokeberg said. "I strongly hold the opinion that we need a new Capitol building. This building has served its purpose."
Elkins said a better plan would be to upgrade the 75-year-old Capitol to modern safety standards instead of outlining a move that could damage the economy of the region.
Elkins found support from Anchorage Democrat Berta Gardner, who said Juneau's position as the state's political center was important to keeping the city alive.
Elkins also received verbal support from Rep. Jay Ramras, R-Fairbanks, who said he was concerned about too much power being concentrated in Anchorage, but then Ramras voted for the measure anyway.
"I will vote to move this bill, but I will fight it aggressively and will be a hard "no" vote on the House floor because I don't think this is good policy for this economic area or this community of Juneau," Ramras said.
His was the deciding vote in moving the bill out of committee. Also voting yes were Gatto, Rep. Bob Lynn, R-Anchorage and Chairman Paul Seaton, R-Homer.
Elkins, Gardner and Rep. Max Gruenberg, D-Anchorage, voted against the bill.
The measure, House Bill 23, goes next to the House Finance Committee before heading to the House floor.
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