Lawmakers spar over adding seats to Legislature

CENSUS: Rural areas could be hurt when legislative districts redrawn.

February 2, 2010 

JUNEAU -- A push to increase the size of the Legislature so rural Alaska doesn't lose representation after this year's census is proving contentious, with a price tag running in the millions.

Alaska's legislative districts will be redrawn in 2012 using the population numbers that come from the census. That is bad news for many parts of rural Alaska, where population has dropped or remained flat. The winners will be Anchorage and especially the Mat-Su, with its big population increase since the last census a decade ago.

Nome Democratic Sen. Donny Olson and Wrangell Republican Rep. Peggy Wilson want to amend the Alaska Constitution to enlarge the Legislature. They're attempting to increase the number of representatives from 40 to 48 and senators from 20 to 24. The proposal would go before Alaska voters this fall if the Legislature agrees.

Urban areas still stand to gain the power if the Legislature gets bigger, as the new legislative districts would likely be in the Mat-Su and Anchorage. But advocates for the idea say it would at least preserve the current number of seats representing rural areas and prevent rural districts from getting even more spread out than they are now. One such district currently covers about half the land mass of Alaska.

"They're going to be so big that constituents are not going to know who their legislator is, they're never going to meet them, never get a chance to talk to them ... the legislators are not likely to know their local issues," testified Gordon Harrison, who led the redrawing of election districts after the 2000 census. "Legislators are going to have districts that are so big that not only is it a diverse district but they're actually competing interests."

The proposal has a long way to go. A constitutional amendment requires two-thirds support in the House and Senate before going to voters. Rural districts are commonly represented by Democrats, and politics will play a role in the measure's fate, although Republican districts will also be affected.

The Senate State Affairs Committee gave the idea a warm welcome Tuesday, with praise and unanimous agreement to pass it to the next committee. But a House hearing was testy, with Palmer Republican Rep. Carl Gatto saying Alaskans won't stand for the cost.

"Where's the benefit to the person who lives in a house somewhere, has kids in school and doesn't trust with a great deal of extent their legislative body anyway?" Gatto said. "And now we want to make it bigger."

Gatto repeatedly needled the sponsor, Wilson, and a lawyer from Juneau who testified, saying if there are going to be more legislators creating space issues, the Capitol building needs to be moved from Southeast to the Mat-Su.

Pam Varni, executive director of the Legislative Affairs Agency, indicated the state could handle the dozen additional legislators without building a new Capitol.

Varni said the Legislature could ask the governor and lieutenant governor to move from the third floor of the Capitol to office space elsewhere in Juneau. She also talked about being creative with existing space in the Capitol, saying some legislative offices might have to be downsized.

She estimated that the price to the state of adding the legislators would be about $6 million in the first year. The annual cost after that would be about $4.5 million, she said, including salary and per diem, travel and relocation expenses, hiring of staff members, office supply purchases, even the hiring of an additional janitor.

Alaska House districts average about 17,500 people. That would go down to about 14,500 if the proposal to add more legislators were to pass.

House districts in Bristol Bay, Southeast, Kodiak, Kotzebue, Juneau and Interior rural Alaska are thousands of people short of the average, while districts in the Mat-Su are nearly 7,000 people over.

Some proponents of the change say that without it Alaska could have problems with the U.S. Justice Department, which scrutinizes redistricting to ensure that the political representation of Alaska Natives isn't harmed under the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Advocates use Angoon Democratic Sen. Albert Kookesh's district as an example of how bad it is already. Kookesh's district covers 126 communities and about half the geography of Alaska. It's by far the largest in the nation, ranging from Metlakatla in deep Southeast Alaska up into the Arctic and west nearly to Bethel.

"In order for me to get to one of my villages, Lime Village, I would have to go from Angoon to Juneau, Juneau to Anchorage, Anchorage to Fairbanks, Fairbanks to Aniak, and Aniak to Lime Village," Kookesh said.

But Senate President Gary Stevens is unconvinced.

"Personally, I don't see an advantage in increasing the size of the Legislature ...," said Stevens, a Republican from Kodiak. "Twenty senators, 40 representatives is a system that works."

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