Saturday, January 05, 2008

Alaska State Representative Kevin Meyer Prefiles HB 293 To Relocate State Legislature From Juneau To Anchorage

KTUU Channel 2 in Anchorage reports on January 3rd, 2007 that Alaska State Representative Kevin Meyer (R-Anchorage), who represents House District 30, has pre-filed a bill which, if passed, would result in the permanent transfer of the Alaska State Legislature from Juneau to Anchorage. No other portions of the state government would be transferred; Juneau would remain officially designated as the capital of Alaska. Rep. Meyer pictured above left.

The bill, known as HB 293, is listed amongst the first batch of bills pre-filed by members of the legislature. The list of pre-filed bills can be viewed HERE. The full text of HB 293 can be viewed HERE. Below is the critical excerpt from the bill:

Sec. 3. AS 24.05.090 is amended to read:

Sec. 24.05.090. Duration of legislature; sessions. The legislature shall convene in the Municipality of Anchorage at a location designated by the Alaska Legislative Council [THE CAPITAL] each year on the third Tuesday in January at 1:00 p.m. Each legislature has a duration of two years and consists of a "First Regular Session" that meets in the odd-numbered years, and a "Second Regular Session" that meets in the even-numbered years, and any special session that the governor or legislature calls.

Meyer defended the bill by explaining that moving lawmakers onto the road system would mean better access for average citizens. Meyer said that, for the most part, only union representatives, business people and lobbyists can shell out the cash for a plane ticket south. He said that various telecommunication processes, as well as watching government in action on programs like "Gavel to Gavel", are helpful, but not the same as direct contact.

But as expected, lawmakers representing the Juneau area squawked. Senator Kim Elton (D-Juneau) first played the relevancy card, claiming that lawmakers could better spend their time debating a gas line or education. Then he played the economic card, claiming that it would be devastating to the city of Juneau if lawmakers left. He considers existing internet and teleconferencing capabilities sufficient.

Elton then explained why centralizing the state's industries is uneconomical for the Southeast, according to Elton. Since Fairbanks is the hub of education and Anchorage the center for business, Elton said Juneau needs to remain in the economic loop by keeping lawmakers in the capitol city. "I think it serves Alaska well to have strong economies across the state and when you begin consolidating the economic, political, education, it has a terrible effect on the rest of the state," Elton said.

Rep. Beth Kerttula (D-Juneau) said no matter where lawmakers held sessions there would be access problems because Alaska is such a large state. She suggests having meetings throughout the state at different times of the year.

This bill could actually gain traction, although passage this session could be problematic. On December 13th, 2007, KTUU reported that state lawmakers authorized $100,000 for an architect's design of a new legislative building, just a block east of the Legislative Information Office on 4th Avenue in Anchorage, where the existing offices are leased. The new building, owned by the state, would serve as combined space for the Legislature and state court administration. This development adds a bit more muscle to HB 293.

Read this previous post describing Alaska's love-hate relationship with Juneau, as well as this history of Alaska's capital move initiatives, for more background.

Commentary: If you think this is a stalking horse for an eventual full-blown capital move, you're absolutely right. Just as the capital was once moved from Sitka to Juneau, it inevitably will be moved again, to Anchorage, the most logical and central location. Only it will most likely be moved in two stages, and I believe that, barring a collapse of oil prices or the American economy in general, the legislature could be permanently moved as soon as sometime within the next five years. Governor Sarah Palin has previously stated she would not get in the way of any legislative efforts to move the capital.

The economic justification is powerful. Since over half the state's lawmakers either live in Anchorage of within a one-hour drive to the city, this would eliminate the housing and air travel costs for over half the state's lawmakers in one fell swoop. And while Juneau can still be weathered in, precluding flights in and out of the city, Anchorage International Airport has only been completely closed down due to weather once during the 16 years I've lived here, and that was because of a freak wind event when the control tower was rocked by 100 mph gusts.

It would be initially tough for Juneau to adjust. Other than government, Juneau's only other significant industry is the cruise ship business, which is seasonal. Juneau could build an access road linking them to Skagway and the Outside, which would bring in more tourists, but Juneau residents are a bit skittish about possible influx of RV traffic, although it is within their power to zone in such a manner as to control access and development.

Admittedly, building a 68.5-mile access road to Juneau would be a significant engineering challenge. According to the website, the Juneau Road would have a “very high” avalanche danger rating. The State estimates that, with 61 avalanche chutes along the proposed route, avalanches could keep the road closed for at least an aggregate total of one month out of every year. In addition to these dangers, drivers will also have to contend with icy freeze-thaw conditions typical in Southeast Alaska while navigating a winding roadway along steep cliffs. There are also some environmental objections, although environmental groups typically overstate their cases.

But the Seward Highway also contained avalanche chutes, particularly on the 20-mile stretch between Potter's Marsh and Girdwood, but that didn't stop us from building and improving it. And the lessons learned from that experience can be applied to the Juneau road. Even if we find the Juneau road to be simply too uneconomical, this shouldn't stop us from at least moving the legislature, which can save us significant money and markedly improve access.

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