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Alaska editorial: Build Juneau capitol

Posted: Tuesday, November 16, 2004

This editorial appeared in Sunday's Anchorage Daily News:

Juneau's effort to design and build a new state capitol building is a double-edged sword. There's no doubt the existing building is outdated and inadequate; it ought to be improved. But there's a danger, too, in kicking the sleeping dog of the capital move.

That's probably why Rep. Norm Rokeberg declared Juneau's capitol design plan, announced last Friday, "dead on arrival." Too many people still harbor the hope of moving the capital out of Juneau. Worse, too many think a capitol building is for legislators rather than citizens - and don't want to see lawmakers get any more comfortable.

Both notions look backward rather than ahead. Way back in 1974, voters decided exactly once to move the capital - and then subsequently decided several times not to tackle the cost or the project. The last rejection was only two years ago, when the idea of moving just the Legislature failed by a 2-to-1 margin in the shadow of a big fiscal gap.

How many times do we have to ask that question?

Let's move on to something more productive. Just because Alaskans keep saying we don't want to pay the billion-dollar-plus cost of a full capital move doesn't mean we can't have a better capitol building.

The current Capitol is shabby, crowded and not the least bit welcoming. Galleries for the public to watch floor sessions are tiny. Offices are mostly cubbyholes, where lobbyists and staffers jockey with citizens and interest groups for lawmakers' attention. Office assignments reinforce the hierarchies of power in the Legislature, with leadership officers winning palatial suites while out-of-power members get tiny, remote anterooms. Committee rooms frequently overflow. Citizens coming in to observe the march of democracy have nowhere to rest or regroup. The whole scene overtly favors those with position, power, knowledge or access - those with the most inside "juice." Architecture matters; the current building makes all these things worse.

So Juneau Mayor Bruce Botelho is right to lead an effort to include the whole state in designing a new temple of democracy. Land was set aside long ago in a prime location. Gov. Frank Murkowski has expressed support. A design competition would enlist ideas from Alaskans and select a first-rate design team. If all goes well, they will produce a design that is both functional and welcoming - a "people's house" that encourages pride and enthusiasm in our young state's representative democracy.

But there's a big sales job ahead to, first, banish the notion of moving the capital out of Juneau and, second, establish the idea that Alaskans deserve something better. A new capitol is a sure loser if it becomes a referendum on the Legislature itself. What it needs is an interested and involved public - and some champions outside Juneau. If they emerge in the next several months as the design competition goes forward, the new capitol just might have a chance.



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