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Rural Alaska in a fight for its voice

Southeast, Bush legislators hope public will support new seats

Posted: Monday, April 26, 2010

Rep. Peggy Wilson, an unassuming retired nurse from Wrangell, convinced more than two thirds of her fellow lawmakers to do something almost unprecedented - to each give up a little bit of their power.

Wilson, a Republican, sponsored House legislation seeking to expand the Alaska Legislature by six seats, four in the House and two in the Senate.

Wilson hopes to slow the loss of rural Alaska's voice in the Capitol as Anchorage and its Mat-Su Borough suburbs grow while other areas shrink.

To do so will require an amendment to the Alaska Constitution, which in turn requires a vote of the people. Legislative action set that vote for November's general election.

"We are going to have to convince the voters that this is crucial," Wilson said.

Now, in a time of tea parties and skepticism of government, the Legislature is asking that its number grow.

"Now is not the time to go to the voters and say 'let's increase the size of government,'" said Rep. Craig Johnson, a fellow Republican from Anchorage.

One of the districts certain to see its boundaries grow even further is the North Slope, represented by Reggie Joule, D-Kotzebue. His district already represents a huge swath of the state, with few population centers and a multitude of tiny villages.

Redistricting based on the ongoing U.S. Census will likely expand its geographic area even further, as state redistricting officials attempt to keep the rural nature of the district together while including one-fortieth of the state's population in its boundaries.

Joule said that will make an already spread out district even more difficult to visit and communicate with, unless the Legislature is expanded, that is.

"If we do not take this action, the voices that are here from the far flung parts of the state where we have very small populations will be diminished," Joule said, helping to persuade his fellow legislators to put the amendment on the ballot.

Even if the voters approve the amendment, there will likely be some losses of representation. One of those areas is in Southeast, where there are currently five House districts, which will likely diminish to four, Wilson acknowledged.

Without the expansion, though, Southeast would likely lose 2.5 seats, she said.

Her original proposal called for twice as many new legislators, but was scaled back in an effort to reduce costs and win legislative and voter approval, she said.

Despite Wilson's backing of the bill, along with other Southeast Republicans such as House Majority Leader Kyle Johansen, R-Ketchikan, and Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, other Republicans have expressed skepticism.

At the recent Republican convention in Juneau, some speakers made disparaging comments about legislative expansion. In some cases, references to more legislators drew jeers from the audience.

Opposition to legislative expansion crossed party lines as well, with Democratic Rep. Scott Kawasaki of Fairbanks voting against putting the measure on the ballot, saying it wasn't needed.

"I also don't think it will pass in the fall," he said. "No one I have spoken with wants to simply increase the size of the Legislature, except for some lawmakers and districts in rural Alaska who might lose more political clout,"

Fairbanks is expected to hold relatively even after redistricting.

Kawasaki had earlier proposed Alaska adopt a unicameral, replacing the House and Senate with a single body. That would have reduced district size, but also given each district only one legislator, rather than both a senator and representative. That measure failed to attract much interest among lawmakers.

Wilson said she and other supporters were already gearing up for the effort to convince voters to support the amendment.

Rural legislators such as Wilson and Joule, along with Sens. Donny Olson, D-Nome, and Albert Kookesh, D-Angoon, have been in the forefront of the effort.

"Because of our economy and the jobs situation, people are moving from the rural ... areas, so I don't think we'll have a hard time convincing the rural areas," Wilson said.

The battle will have to be won where the voters are, however.

"Half the state is in the Railbelt, that's the area we're going to have to convince," she said.

Wilson originally proposed adding 12 seats to the Legislature, but eventually supported adding six.

"We cut the number of seats because of cost concerns," said Rep. Alan Austerman, R-Kodiak, one of the communities slated to lose representation.

Legislators say the challenge is convincing the public that money spent to give them a better voice in the Legislature will be worth the cost.

"I don't know what price tag you can put on less voice," Joule said.

"I don't think anybody ever said democracy was cost effective," said Rep. Berta Gardner, D-Anchorage.

Gardner and Joule found some allies among fiscally conservative legislators, who said the voters themselves and not politicians would be able to decide whether it was worth it.

"It's not about us, it's about them," Rep. Carl Gatto, R-Palmer, said. "And if they tell us 'OK,' then I'm OK with it.

Changing the number of seats won't change the end result of one person, one vote or change relative political power. It would mean that most of the newly created seats would be in the Southcentral region, and that rural areas would keep some seats they'd otherwise lose, Wilson said.

• Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 523-2250 or patrick.forgey@juneauempire.com.



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