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Growing Strains

As Palin tries to rein in the size of government, the Alaska Legislature continues to expand

Posted: Sunday, June 10, 2007

The Alaska Legislature didn't just expand the state budget last year. It's also looking to expand its own quarters. The growth is taking place as Gov. Sarah Palin tries to rein in the size of government.

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Legislators complain that they work in cramped quarters and that improvements are long overdue.

"This year we haven't even got a closet we can locate for extra space," said Sen. John Cowdery, R-Anchorage, chairman of the Legislative Council, the joint Senate and House of Representatives committee that manages the Legislature and its facilities.

The council is looking at the construction of a new building in Anchorage. The group even asked Palin if she'd be willing to move out of her offices on the Capitol's third floor.

She declined.

Among the recent developments:

• The legislature is progressing with plans for a new state-owned building in Anchorage that would house offices for the many Anchorage-area legislators, along with meeting rooms. It would be a major acquisition of Legislative office space in Anchorage.

• The Legislature has received title to Juneau's Scottish Rite Masonic Temple from the city and has begun planning a $1.5 million renovation of the building. It's likely to house a new day care facility serving Capitol employees' kids as well as local families.

Cowdery and others also want to force the statehouse press corps into the Masonic building to free up space in the Capitol.

• The Legislature asked Palin if she would move from the third floor of the Legislature-owned Capitol building. Although she said no, the governor's office did agree to surrender a basement storage area known as the "bomb shelter" to the Legislature.

Agreement on the need for more space for legislators and their staffs appears to cross party lines.

House State Affairs Committee Chairman Bob Lynn, R-Anchorage, has an office that's so long and narrow he likens it to a "shooting gallery or bowling lane." It's nearly impossible for his aides to have private meetings, or even to work without stepping on toes.

"My staff is right on top of each other," he said.

In the Legislature's pecking order, junior and minority members have even less space.

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Rep. Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau, said even fans of the Capitol building were aware the staff there needed more room.

"We love the building, but we do need more space," she said.

Cowdery said one thing that might free up more space for legislators is for the Legislature to take over the third floor offices now used by the executive branch of government.

"We've asked the governor and lieutenant governor if they want to move," Cowdery said. One option would be for Palin to relocate to the Masonic building across the street, he said.

Palin spokeswoman Sharon Leighow said the governor wasn't interested in leaving the Capitol, for two reasons.

"The administration did not want to be out of the Capitol building and the cost associated with the move, we felt, was not a prudent use of public money," she said.

The Legislature hasn't determined exactly what the Masonic building will be used for. One plan, Cowdery said, was to put a day care center there. But that has created some opposition among legislators who don't think government should get into the child care business.

"There's no part of this day care center that's going to be free," Cowdery assured the Legislative Council during the last session. It would fill a serious need for child care downtown.

Several legislators and staffers, including Sens. Lesil McGuire, R-Anchorage and Donny Olson, D-Nome, have children below school age.

"There are needs that will be met with the increased space, such as child care, which will be a real big boon to the whole community," Kerttula said.

The city of Juneau purchased the Scottish Rite Temple building and sold it to the Legislature for one dollar to help meet the Legislature's demand for space and make it a more attractive place to work.

Kerttula said she's happy the building is going to be renovated with space available for the Legislature.

"I'm glad to see us using the Masonic building," she said.

Sen. Kim Elton, D-Juneau, noted that expansion into the Masonic building didn't start with the Legislature, but with the city. The intent was, "Let's save the building, and let's find a public purpose for it," he said.

House Minority Whip David Guttenberg, D-Fairbanks, who sits on the Legislative Council, said the Legislature should use the new room to provide more space for constituents.

"One of the top priorities should be public spaces in the Capitol," he said. "We need to be friendlier to the public."

In the past, there was room for groups of constituents visiting the Legislature to gather and plan their trips to legislators' offices. Except for a single, small table in the second-floor entryway, those spaces are now occupied by offices, Guttenberg said.

The Legislature also is considering a major project in Anchorage: a new court administration building associated with a city parking garage project.

The Legislature is looking at new offices in the building for Anchorage-area lawmakers, the state ombudsman's office and committee rooms.

State Rep. Mike Doogan, D-Anchorage, said that a new joint courts and legislative building appeared to be the most economic means of providing needed space.

With the Legislature moving next year to a 90-day regular session, it is likely to need committee meeting spaces in the interim to get all of its work done, he said.

• Pat Forgey can be reached at patrick.forgey@juneauempire.com or 523-2250.



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