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Lawmakers hope to add seats to legislature

Posted: Thursday, October 28, 2010

Rep. Peggy Wilson, R-Wrangell, knows she can't stop rural Alaska's diminishing voice in the state Capitol, but she does hope to slow the decline.

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Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire

With legislative redistricting to come soon after the 2010 U.S. Census is complete, the state's population shift to the Southcentral area, especially in the Mat-Su Borough, is certain to mean new seats for those areas.

What Wilson said she hopes to do, and what she championed Ballot Measure 1 in the Alaska House of Representatives for, is to expand the size of the Legislature. The measure would add six seats to the legislature, two senators and four representatives.

Wilson gave two interviews to the Empire, one at the end of the 2010 legislative session, and another this summer.

While that would not change rural Alaska's proportional political clout, it would give it more voices to speak for rural needs, she said.

"We are going to have to convince the voters this is crucial," Wilson said.

Ballot Measure 1 would not increase or decrease any citizen's political influence, each would still have one senator and one representative. But the districts each represented would be slightly smaller, making it somewhat easier for legislators to know and visit their districts.

Ballot Measure 1 was placed on the November ballot during the last legislative session following a battle led by two rural legislators, Wilson and Sen. Donny Olson, D-Nome.

In Wilson's district, which also includes Sitka and Wrangell, population loss has meant it is about 3,400 people short of the likely district average 2010 population of 17,300.

Even in Juneau, where the population has changed little over the last decade, the city's two House districts are each about 2,100 people below the state average because the capital city hasn't kept up with growth elsewhere.

That growth is most pronounced in the Mat-Su, where at least three districts are at least 6,500 over average.

Wilson's measure is needed to keep Southeast Alaska and other rural areas from losing as much representation as it would with out the additional seats, said Rep. Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau.

"If Ballot Measure 1 passed the districts will be more or less the same size," said Rep. Cathy Munoz, R-Juneau, with the difference being there will be additional seats in the growth areas.

One of the challenges of drawing districts in Alaska is because of its history of white political establishment trying to deny voting rights to Alaska Natives. The state is one of the few outside the South to be covered by the Voting Rights Act.

To ensure Native representation, predominately Native communities are grouped together in districts likely to represent their interests, but that's led to sprawling, difficult to represent rural districts.

The Senate district now represented by Sen. Albert Kookesh, D-Angoon, and created in 2000 begins in extreme southern Southeast on Annette Island, where it includes Metlakatla, the state's only Indian Reservation. It stretches north, picking up Native communities such as Kake, Angoon and Hoonah before stretching north through Yakutat and then picking up a wide swath of the Interior, before coming south as far as Cook Inlet. It excludes the population centers of Fairbanks and Anchorage, but includes more than 100 villages.

Without Measure 1, Kookesh said, that district will get even larger and become even more difficult to visit and represent.

Wilson said the fate of Ballot Measure 1 will hinge upon whether advocates can convince people in the population centers to vote for it.

"Half the state is in the Railbelt, that's the area we're going to have to convince," she said.

Rural residents will understand the issue, she said.

"Because of our economy and the jobs situation, people are moving from the rural ... areas, so I don't think we'll have a hard time convincing the rural areas," Wilson said.

Wilson originally proposed adding 12 seats to the Legislature, but eventually supported adding six as a cost-savings concession.

There's been little strong opposition to measure, though Rep. Carl Gatto, R-Palmer, has raised concerns about the cost.

The Legislative Affairs Agency cost estimates for the expanded legislature appear to be about $1.8 million a year, based on an estimate of $3.6 million for Wilson's original proposal.

Legislators say the challenge is convincing the public that money spent to give them a better voice in the Legislature will be worth the cost.

During Legislative debate in April, Rep. Reggie Joule, D-Nome, said it was worth the cost.

"I don't know what price tag you can put on less voice," Joule said.

"I don't think anybody ever said democracy was cost effective," said Rep. Berta Gardner, D-Anchorage.

Gatto, who wrote the ballot measure statement opposing the Measure 1, said it was up to the voters now.

"It's not about us, it's about them," Rep. Carl Gatto, R-Palmer, said. "And if they tell us 'OK,' then I'm OK with it.

The measure took a two-thirds majority in the House and Senate to be placed on the ballot, but a simple majority of voters can approve the amendment to the Constitution at the polls.

• Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 523-2250 or patrick.forgey@juneauempire.com.



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