PALMER - Advocates of keeping the Legislature in Juneau headed into the belly of the beast last week, traveling to the Alaska State Fair in Palmer to persuade Alaskans to vote no on the upcoming ballot measure.
Next to a booth selling photo albums and accessories and across from another hocking beaded necklaces and other knickknacks, workers staffing the Alaska Committee booth employed a common technique used at fairs to attract passersby - free candy.
"Would you like a piece of Juneau gold?" asked booth worker Jackie Stewart as fair-goers strolled by.
As each passerby reached for the basket filled with the butter-flavored treats packaged in shiny gold wrappers, Stewart, director of the Juneau Small Business Development Center, continued with a routine highlighting improvements in access to the capital city and asking each person to vote no on Ballot Measure 2.
The initiative to be voted on in the Nov. 5 general election would move legislative sessions to Anchorage until facilities become available in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough. It also would repeal voters' right to know and approve the cost of such a move. Palmer, about 13 miles from Wasilla, where the Legislature could be moved to, is deep in the heart of the move-advocates' strongest base of support.
Despite the home-court advantage, Stewart, 51, said about half of the people she talked to knew about the move initiative, and most said they would vote against it.
But the Alaskan Independence Party, the political party that most vigorously has pursued moving the Legislature, said just the opposite.
In another section of the fair a sign the atop the AIP booth simply read "Move It."
AIP vice chairman and candidate for House District 16 Larry Wood, 50, said in the three days he spent working the booth about 60 percent of the people he talked to expressed concern over the move initiative and only one admitted opposing it. Wood said many people giving donations to the party have asked if the money would go toward the move.
"What Juneau needs to understand is that this is not a hate-Juneau thing," Wood said. "It's just about more access."
Wood added that the per diem and travel costs of sending lawmakers to Juneau every year is another reason the state should move the Legislature.
Anchorage resident Carrie Harris, 27, added to the pro-move chorus as she walked past the AIP booth: "If they want to keep it in Juneau, they can foot the bill themselves."
Move advocates aren't the only ones playing the cost card.
Back at the Alaska Committee booth a stack of oversized novelty checks paid to the order of "bureaucrats and politicians" to the tune of "untold millions" was being handed out with packets of information about Juneau. The Alaska Committee aims to convey to voters that approving Ballot Measure 2 would repeal the FRANK Initiative, which requires voters to approve the cost of the move. Removing such a requirement in effect would give government a blank check to pay for a move.
The estimated cost of a capital move initiative in 1994 was $2.8 billion.
The cost message seemed to resonate with many who spoke to the Alaska Committee booth workers.
"It's not going to happen - it better not," said Wasilla resident Kent Kaltenbacher, 51, as he walked past the booth. "There's too much power in Anchorage and the Mat-Su valleys already."
Kaltenbacher, a lifelong Alaskan, said cost is the main issue for him. The state can't afford to move the capital right now with a $1 billion deficit, he said.
Former Juneau resident Elisia Walsh, 24, of Anchorage, said along with the burdensome cost, the move would devastate Juneau's economy.
She said the housing market would suffer severely due to government employees leaving the capital city to follow jobs to Anchorage or the Mat-Su. It also would put families in the position of choosing between staying with one spouse's job in Juneau or following the other's to wherever the Legislature is relocated.
"They should have done it back in the '70s when the state had a lot of money," said one man as he passed the Alaska Committee booth.
Alaskan Independence Party Chairman Mark Chryson, 45, called the cost issue a bunk argument. He said the Legislature easily could meet in Cottonwood Creek Mall in Wasilla. But Gary Petros, a real estate agent who leases space in the mall, said while the building could be converted into office space, it probably would be less expensive to build a whole new structure.
K.B. Tompkins, general manager of the 80,000-square-foot mall, said he has heard rumors about housing the Legislature there in newspapers and on television, but hasn't been approached by anyone on the issue.
Regardless of the cost, supporters for moving the Legislature said the ultimate issue at stake is that of access to lawmakers.
Gary Rosenbaum, 55, of Wasilla, said the cost issue is a scare tactic and that the long-term savings would outweigh the temporary cost of a move.
"God knows I don't want to see Juneau fall on hard times, but it's just good common sense," Rosenbaum said. "It's cheaper to fly to the Lower 48 than to the capital."
Rosenbaum said the only way he would change his mind on the issue would be if the state built a road connecting Juneau to the rest of the highway system.
Alaska Independence Party leaders Wood and Chryson agreed.
"If there was a road that went to Juneau, I don't think we'd be having this discussion," Chryson said. "It probably wouldn't fix the problem, but it would go a long way to alleviating the problem."
One of the problems, according to Juneau Assembly member Jim Powell, 47, who worked the Alaska Committee's booth, is Alaskans' misperceptions about the capital city. He said due to low "constituent" air fares, streaming audio on the Internet and live television coverage of floor sessions and committee hearings, access to the capital never has been better.
He said the campaign to persuade voters to keep the Legislature in Juneau is much like campaigning for elected office - you've got to spread your message out on an individual basis and convince people one by one.
Powell emphasized the importance of talking to voters and hearing their opinions on the issue as well as their perceptions of Juneau. One man thought Juneau only had about 4,000 residents, he said.
Another person who passed by the booth spoke of having read in a travel guide that it can be difficult to fly into or out of the capital city depending on the weather conditions. But Powell said due to the installation of a global positioning system and other equipment on planes and at the Juneau Airport, that concern is out of date.
He said hearing such misperceptions about Juneau made him realize that it is important to have a booth at fairs every year to promote the capital city and encourage people throughout the state to visit.
Powell said he plans to make the suggestion to the Assembly to appropriate the money in the next budget cycle.
"You learn so much about peoples' perspectives when you meet with them face to face," Powell said. "It's clear to me that we need to do this every year."
Timothy Inklebarger can be reached at email@example.com.
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