Ballot Measure would resize Legislature

GERRYMANDERING: Folks in support say result would be less political tomfoolery.

October 16, 2010 

On the Nov. 2 election ballot -- below this year's scene-stealing U.S. Senate race and a billion dollars in bonds -- you'll find a question that would expand the size of the state Legislature for the first time since statehood.

The plan: Amend the state Constitution by adding four state representatives and two senators, boosting the total number of lawmakers from 60 to 66. The proposal, meant to make up for 50 years of population growth by reducing district sizes and sending more politicians to Juneau, comes as a state board is about to redraw Alaska's political boundaries.

The redistricting will be based on upcoming results of the 2010 Census. That means places like the Mat-Su, which exploded in growth over the past 10 years, stand to gain political pull. Districts in the sparsely populated Bush or Southeast Alaska, meanwhile, could get lumped together or tacked onto portions of urban districts with different economies and cultures.

Supporters of the ballot question say adding more lawmakers would keep districts more reasonably sized and legislators more evenly distributed across the state as the redistricting process begins next year.

"When you start spreading out those districts to cover bigger and wider swaths, particularly out in rural Alaska, you make it tougher for them to represent the needs of that diverse, geographical population," said AFL-CIO president Vince Beltrami.

Along with Rep. Reggie Joule, D-Kotzebue, former Republican Speaker of the House Gail Phillips and Cook Inlet Tribal Council chief executive Gloria O'Neill, the union president is part a fundraising group called "Progress Alaska" aimed at persuading voters to support the measure. With less than three weeks to Election Day, the group plans to paper the Alaska Federation of Natives with fliers this week and send mailers to voters in Southcentral by the end of the month.

Critics such as Rep. Carl Gatto, R-Palmer, say the change would be unnecessary and expensive.

"Increasing the total number of legislators does not increase any person's representation; from the oldest to the youngest, we all get one rep and one senator, whether there are 60 legislators as we now have or 66 legislators as proposed," Gatto wrote in an opposition statement for the state voter handbook.

Approving the measure means hiring at least 15 staffers in addition to paying lawmakers' salaries, plus the cost of support staff, travel, equipment and other expenses, he said in an interview.

If approved, the change would cost the state $2.34 million a year, according to the Legislative Affairs Agency. That doesn't include another $1.5 million needed to remodel the cramped Capitol building and other buildings in Juneau to make room for the newcomers.

The measure would amend the state Constitution and was placed on the ballot by the Legislature -- a move that required a bipartisan, two-thirds vote of each body of the Legislature to agree. Alaska voters could approve it with a simple majority.


Every 10 years, after the Census, Alaska's political districts are re-drawn by a group appointed by the governor, legislative leaders and a state Supreme Court judge. This year, the board includes four Republicans and one Democrat.

They'll be reacting to a decade of expansion in Alaska's urban centers -- with Anchorage and the Mat-Su accounting for about half of all growth -- coinciding with stagnation or declines in rural areas, according to state Department of Labor estimates for 2000 through 2009.

The Valley Senate district served by Wasilla Republican Linda Menard grew by about 42 percent over that period, for example.

Over the same time, the population in the Southeast Senate district served by Republican Bert Stedman that includes Sitka, Prince of Wales Island and Ketchikan, shrank 7 percent.

Menard represented 45,908 people last year. Stedman had only 27,847, according to the Labor Department.

Gordon Harrison, former executive director of the redistricting board, told lawmakers in February that rural districts that cover enormous areas but have few people will grow even larger under redistricting unless more lawmakers are added.

Haines Republican Bill Thomas' Southeast district would be absorbed into other districts to the point of disappearance during the redistricting process, he predicted.

Meantime, Democrats will be watching the redistricting process for signs that the political lines are being drawn to keep Republicans in power.

Rep. Les Gara, an Anchorage Democrat with one of the most populous districts in the state, argues that reducing district size through Ballot Measure 1 would lessen the possibility of future gerrymandering, no matter which party appoints the board.

"The smaller the districts, the less ability the political folks have of playing mischief with them," he said.

So far, Progress Alaska is the only group actively campaigning on the issue. The group formed in September, Beltrami said, and is planning radio ads, fliers and mailers. The high-profile election season has ballooned advertising prices through Election Day, making TV commercials too expensive, he said. Beltrami said he'd be surprised if total spending topped $100,000.

As of Thursday the group had not registered with the Alaska Public Offices Commission to spend on the race.

Alaska currently has 20 senators and 40 members of the House of Representatives, with House members each representing an average of about 17,000 Alaskans, based on 2009 population estimates.

In comparison, state House members in North Dakota -- a state with a population slightly smaller than Alaska's -- represented an average of about 14,000 constituents last year, according to Census estimates.

In other states, lawmakers serve far more people. In Oregon, members of the state House represent an average of about 64,000 people, while members of the California Assembly average 462,000 constituents.

Read The Village, the ADN's blog about rural Alaska, at Twitter updates: Call Kyle Hopkins at 257-4334.

Districts by the numbers

Lawmakers with the five most crowded House Districts, by population:

Carl Gatto, R-Palmer: 23,055 people

Mark Neuman, R-Big Lake: 22,976

Wes Keller, R-Wasilla: 22,853

Bill Stoltze R-Chugiak: 20,425

John Harris R-Valdez: 18,145

And House members with the fewest constituents:

Bill Thomas, R-Haines: 13,290

Bryce Edgmon, D-Dillingham: 13,704

Kyle Johansen, R-Ketchikan: 13,828

Peggy Wilson, R-Wrangell: 14,019

Woodie Salmon, D-Beaver: 14,600.

Source: 2009 population estimates, state

Department of Labor and Workforce Development

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