Sitka Sen. Bert Stedman is finally explaining why he blocked Juneau legislators' efforts to build a new state office building on the waterfront subport property, but his explanation raises all new questions.
After the 26th Alaska Legislature adjourned Monday, Stedman gave his first public explanation of the issues he had with a bill sponsored by Rep. Cathy Muñoz, R-Juneau, and other members of the local delegation.
The bill would have had the Mental Health Trust Authority construct a building to provide new offices for employees of the Department of Labor in Juneau, as well as Fish and Game and other offices in Douglas and elsewhere.
The trust would use its resources, combined with borrowed money, to build a $50 million building that would be leased to the state agencies. Proceeds from the agency lease payments would be used to provide services to trust beneficiaries, Trust CEO Jeff Jesse said.
Stedman held Muñoz' bill in the Senate Finance Committee, which he co-chairs, for more than a year without giving a public explanation as to why.
After the session, he finally said he was concerned with the eventual ownership of the building, and said he did not consider the trust to be part of state government.
"The state is better off to build their own building and then own it after 30 years rather than just lease it," he said.
He said he did not consider the trust to be part of state government, even though it's the governor who appoints Trust board members, and the Legislature that confirms them.
That explanation left Muñoz perplexed.
"The Mental Health Trust is truly an entity of the state," she said.
The Department of Labor is currently located in space leased from a private company, Juneau 1 LLC, majority owned by Patricia Blomfield of Phoenix, Ariz. Juneau 1 has hired lobbyist Kevin Jardell to lobby on Muñoz' bill.
The Department of Administration, which provides office space for state agencies, supported developing a building on the subport property. The lease on the Department of Labor building, commonly known as the "Plywood Palace," is ending and state officials say they are unhappy with the building's condition and maintenance.
Stedman said he wanted the state to "own their own land and not lease it, to get away from the land lease."
He said he'd like to see a location in the city of Juneau for which a new office building could be built to house the employees.
"That proposal was a good proposal for the Mental Health (Trust). It was not a good proposal for the state," he said.
Muñoz said that despite being a fellow Southeast Republican, she was unable to get an explanation from Stedman of his concerns about the bill in the last year, let alone a hearing.
On the last day of the session, she heard that lease concern from Stedman, she said.
The economics of the deal were discussed extensively in the House, she said.
"What we were able to demonstrate ... was the state actually had a net savings" from developing the new building in conjunction with the trust, Muñoz said.
When Juneau was without a state Senator during the 2009 legislative session, Sen. Donny Olson, D-Nome, introduced a companion bill to Muñoz' bill on Juneau's behalf. After Muñoz' bill passed the House of Representatives with overwhelming support, new Sen. Dennis Egan of Juneau co-sponsored it in the Senate.
Both Egan and Olson are members of the Senate Finance Committee, but Stedman used his power as chairman to block a hearing.
After adjournment, Stedman suggested that he had not stopped the bill.
"I wouldn't say 'blocked,'" he said, adding that "everyone has priorities."
Muñoz, Egan and Rep. Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau, all say Stedman stopped the bill from advancing.
What the Legislature did instead was to appropriate $5 million for preliminary work on the new building, including a survey of possible locations in Juneau.
"The project is still alive and we're looking at it," he said.
Muñoz said her immediate concern is that the $5 million legislative appropriation is approved by Gov. Sean Parnell.
"I hope the governor supports the full amount," she said.
Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 523-2250 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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