Economic development key for keeping seats in Southeast

Posted: Sunday, September 05, 2010

Alaskans will make many choices in the Nov. 2 general election. One of these is whether to amend the Alaska Constitution and increase the size of the Alaska State Legislature. Alaska has a relatively small number of legislators in its House and Senate compared to most states, which makes sense as we are not a populous state. One of the benefits of our smaller population is that we're much more likely to know our elected leaders personally than most Americans.

Two years ago, Rep. Peggy Wilson, R-Wrangell, introduced legislation to add eight House members and four senators to the legislative ranks. Her resolution was amended before it stalled, but a similar piece of Senate legislation made its way through both chambers of the Legislature. Resolutions to amend the state constitution have to pass by a super-majority, and Senate Joint Resolution 21 got 14 votes in the Senate and 31 in the House. Now voters will be asked if they want to add more seats in both legislative chambers.

Wilson's initial proposal was to add four new positions to the state Senate and eight members to the state House, taking us from 20 to 24 and 40 to 48, respectively, but what finally passed the Legislature was an increase of half those sizes, to 22 and 44. That resolution is what will give Alaska's voters an opportunity to amend the state constitution in November.

The main reason cited by supporters of this scheme is less populous areas of Alaska, like Southeast, will be able to have more representatives and senators if the overall number of these positions is augmented. I was born in Anchorage and raised in Palmer, but after having lived in Juneau for 10 years I fully understand the challenges our region faces. The loss of any meaningful timber industry has contributed to stagnant or shrinking populations in our towns and villages. But for the opening of the Kensington Mine, Juneau's job base would have shrunk unacceptably in the past few years.

Shrinking populations are obviously alarming in any community, but even minimal growth can be problematic if other areas of the state are growing robustly. Because the Matanuska-Susitna Borough is expanding so rapidly, Southeast and other rural parts of the state become sparsely populated by default. After the decennial census is done, seats in the Alaska Legislature are reapportioned with the goal of drawing 40 House districts with approximately equal populations. When certain areas grow a lot and other areas don't, the ones with more people end up with more representatives.

There are currently five House districts in Southeast, and the fear is that if we lose many more people there will only be four. If more legislative seats are created, it's likelier that Juneau can keep its current five seats, at least in the short run. The problem will not be solved in the longer run, however, because over time the areas that continue to grow will eventually end up with more legislators. That's just how reapportionment works.

My greatest fear in enlarging the Legislature is that it would be argued as a reason to move the Capital City from Juneau. Because we have a charming and historic - but small - Capitol, there is a constant effort to ensure it can accommodate all the legislators and their staffs. The addition of the Terry Miller and Thomas Stewart Legislative Office Buildings has done a great deal to ease these pressures, and the recent acquisition of the old Christian Science Church at the corner of Fifth and Main Streets will continue this trend. If we start adding more legislators, I'm afraid it becomes a vicious cycle wherein we can't keep up with the demand for space.

The growth of government is a source of profound concern to many Americans today, and any proposal to enlarge the Legislature runs the risk of fanning the flames of controversy. Juneau cannot afford to become the target of general anti-government sentiment as a result of a proposal to enlarge the Legislature. At the end of the day, the best way to ensure that we as a region continue to be adequately represented in the State Legislature is to foster a healthy regional economy.

Working to promote responsible resource development and the jobs it creates is a much wiser strategy to keep Juneau well represented in the State Legislature. The rest of the state is going to continue to grow, and we must keep up with our fellow Alaskans to ensure a bright future. I hope Alaskans, especially those of us in Southeast, remember this when deciding how to vote on the proposal to enlarge the Legislature.

• Brown is an attorney who lives in Juneau.

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