Plan for special session outside Juneau questioned

Proposal raises concerns about costs, capital move

Posted: Thursday, May 24, 2007

JUNEAU - Gov. Sarah Palin wants to hold a planned legislative special session next fall in the Anchorage area, presumably to save money since a majority of lawmakers live in or near the state's largest city.

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She contends the public's access to lawmakers during the session is critical because of its main intent: re-examining how last year's legislature came to approve the petroleum production tax, which contributes more than 85 percent of the state's revenue.

The new tax plan for oil companies was approved by lawmakers last year. Since then, however, two oil services company executives have pleaded guilty to federal bribery and extortion charges related, in part, to negotiations over that bill. One current and two former lawmakers also face related bribery and extortion charges, and all have pleaded not guilty.

Last week, Palin announced she would likely call the special session to re-examine the tax, which she said had been approved under a dark cloud.

Few are questioning the special session, but some critics are challenging her venue for it on two fronts: it could cost more than a session in Juneau; and it could amount to a dry run to move Alaska's capital.

"It's not about moving the legislators; it's not about moving the capital," Palin said. "It's having a session, a special session that's a series of meetings."

She earlier had estimated the last round of special sessions in Juneau cost the state $2.1 million. Her office has not provided a cost analysis of the projected cost for a session this year.

But Pam Varni, executive director of the Legislative Affairs Agency, said moving the session could require costs not found in Juneau, including money for a sound system ($10,000), a voting system ($10,000) and daily leases ($8,000) at the Egan Center in Anchorage.

It's likely the session couldn't be held at the legislative offices in Anchorage because there may not be sufficient space for lawmakers, clerks and members of the public.

About 40 members of the legislative staff - clerks, researchers, attorneys - would have to be flown to Anchorage, essentially offsetting any travel savings from not having lawmakers flown to Juneau from Anchorage, Fairbanks and the bush, Varni said.

"I hope the governor takes a close look at the costs if she does the special session there," said Win Gruening, chairman of the Alaska Committee, an advocacy group backing Juneau as the capital.

However, the governor's office says sending legislative staff to Anchorage would be offset by not having to send other officials, including those from the departments of Revenue, Law and Natural Resources - no exact number was readily available - to Juneau from their offices in Anchorage and Fairbanks.

State Rep. Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau, said she believes a closer analysis will keep the special session in Juneau.

A special session is essential, she added.

"There needs to be special session to correct the PPT," she said. "I'm just thankful we've got a call to do that."

State Rep. Carl Gatto said the idea of a special session in the Anchorage area makes logistical sense. The Republican is from Palmer, about 40 miles north of Anchorage.

Gatto, co-chair of the House Resources Committee, said his staff and materials pertinent to the special session are with him in the Palmer area. Transportation for staff is not covered, but lawmakers can pick up the costs out of their individual or committee budgets.

"Nobody is moving, lock, stock and barrel," he said. "We just want to go someplace and function.

Juneau, nearly 600 miles southeast of Anchorage and accessible only by air or boat, was named the capital during territorial days when it was a thriving gold mining town.

But construction of the Alaska Highway during World War II changed the state's demographics to favor the northern cities.

The building of the trans-Alaska oil pipeline in the 1970s led to another boom that further boosted the populations of Anchorage (about 278,000) and greater Fairbanks (88,000).

"When you look at people from Homer and Fairbanks, now two-thirds can actually drive to work," Gatto said, if the session were held in the Anchorage area.

"If it's Tuesday night and you're not needed on Wednesday, then you can drive home. That's a big deal."

Still, the prospects of any session outside Juneau always will be a hot topic. If signs of a wholesale move emerge, the subject becomes a sensitive and emotional issue, especially for those in Southeast Alaska.

Palin says she understands this, and says her plan is not to be construed as a precursor for a permanent move.

It's not a mandate, just an idea she believes is worth considering.

"I'm not going to hammer them over the head with the idea," she said. "It's a good idea. Let's discuss this rationally, make the call together, then go back regular session - in Juneau."

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