Ease of special session obscures true costs of moving the capital

Alaskans won't benefit from Juneau's loss

Posted: Wednesday, July 04, 2007

The recently concluded special session in Anchorage came and went quickly, making it the quickest special session in history.

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Senate Bill 4, the one and only piece of legislation, was prefiled before the regular session began in January and made it out of the Senate by early April. Upon moving over to the House, its progress slowed, and it got stuck in the Finance Committee. But when the Legislature got together last week in Anchorage, the legislation moved quickly, as if by magic.

The House session began at 10:06 a.m. and ended at 5:04 p.m. The full entry for the day's business only takes up 10 pages in the House Journal. As the Senate had only to concur with the House's changes, it began work at 11:09 a.m. and wrapped up at 4:55 p.m., a mere seven-page journal entry.

This sort of quick work may lead one to wonder why the Legislature isn't always so efficient. The easiest answer is this was a one-issue session with most members in agreement on the desired outcome, the exception rather than the rule in legislative matters.

About 50 Alaskans came to watch the House and Senate sessions and the intervening committee meetings. This is cited as evidence that having the special session on the road system increased participation in government. I question the extent to which it is possible to participate meaningfully in a process that unfolds so quickly, but I accept that it must have been nice for those who had never seen their state government in action in person. I wonder how much these same spectators have previously watched the Legislature on "Gavel to Gavel" or attended teleconferenced hearings at a legislative information office.

"Gavel to Gavel," it should be noted, only covered the Anchorage special session with audio streaming. That means anyone who would have followed the proceedings on television, had they taken place in Juneau, was not able to watch. I imagine at least 50 Alaskans usually watch legislative sessions on television. The Egan Center is not wired for a television broadcast, and it is not collocated with the legislative information office's conference rooms, so any future sessions of greater length held in Anchorage would present some challenges if Alaskans are to enjoy access through television. The public television station in Anchorage is not prepared to step into the shoes of the Juneau staff who have been perfecting their work for years.

Alaska is a huge place, and it will never be possible for all of us to travel easily to where important things are happening. Yes, putting things in Anchorage may mean easy access for those who live closest, but it will mean much harder access for everyone who lives in Southeast Alaska, and it will make little or no difference for quite a few other Alaskans.

Whatever the upside may be in having legislative sessions in Anchorage or elsewhere on the road system, there is a huge downside for Southeast. The economic vitality of the whole region would be significantly harmed if legislative sessions were no longer held in the "Capital City." The fear of the capital being moved is very well-founded, because that eventuality would decimate the region's economy.

The next special session will not be quick and easy. It will be more expensive if held outside Juneau - expense that needs to be taken into account. Even if the daily rent for the Egan Center is waived, it's going to cost a lot. I hope Juneau's legislative delegation is doing all it can to convey this message to its colleagues.

I was born in Anchorage and grew up in Palmer. I totally understand the frustration of Southcentral residents who have difficulty getting to Juneau. I respectfully ask them to consider the economic well-being of the place I now live. I don't know that there's an easy answer, but I do know that Alaska's capital will never be easily accessible to all Alaskans. I believe maintaining the status quo is the best course of action right now, and, of course, I'd love nothing more than for Juneau to be on the road system.

• Benjamin Brown is a lifelong Alaskan who lives in Juneau.

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