Lawmakers debate expanding Legislature by 12 seats

Sean Cockerham | Tribune Media Services

JUNEAU -- The Senate has passed a measure to amend the Alaska Constitution to add a dozen new seats in the Legislature. Supporters say it would keep rural Alaska from losing representation as a result of the growing population in urban areas.

As a constitutional amendment, the measure requires a two-thirds vote in the House and Senate to move forward. Then it would go before Alaska voters in the fall election for a final decision on a bigger Legislature.

The Senate vote was 14-5 Wednesday, just enough votes to pass the measure. It will next be up to the state House -- unless a senator changes his or her mind when it comes up for reconsideration today. There's debate in the House over the cost and effectiveness of the proposal, and opposition from an influential committee chairman who could stop it in its tracks.

The urgency is because Alaska's legislative districts will be redrawn in 2012, using the population numbers that come from this year's Census. Anchorage and especially the Mat-Su have increased in population since the last Census in 2000. Many rural areas, meanwhile, have remained flat or lost population.

The proposal would increase the size of the state Senate from 20 to 24 and the House from 40 to 48. The added seats would likely go to the urban areas where population has grown. But advocates hope the bigger Legislature would at least preserve the number of seats representing rural areas and keep huge rural districts from getting even more spread out.

Nome Democratic Sen. Donny Olson, who sponsored the resolution, said districts have swelled while Alaska hasn't increased the size of the Legislature since statehood. Nearly 30 other states have added legislators in that time, Olson said.

"Alaska presently has the smallest bicameral Legislature in the nation. We are at a crossroads because our population has tripled since statehood," Olson said.

Wasilla Republican Sen. Linda Menard was among the votes in favor. "I would have immense pain if we left out some of the rural representation that we do desperately need," she said.

The resolution faces an uncertain future in the state House, which already has a version before the House Finance Committee. Chugiak Republican Rep. Bill Stoltze decides what measures get hearings in that committee, and Stoltze doesn't want to change the Constitution for what he called a temporary fix.

"It would protect some incumbents in a few districts around the state. But do we do it again in another 10 years when there's another spurt of growth? Do you add on more legislators again?" he said.

Stoltze said representation has changed throughout Alaska history as population shifted. Anchorage didn't always have a lot of legislators, he said, while mining towns that few now remember used to have their own legislators. Stoltze didn't rule out giving the resolution a hearing, but said there are a lot of other measures he wants to deal with before the Legislature adjourns for the year on April 18.

Con Bunde and four other Republican senators voted against the measure when it passed the Senate. Bunde brought the always contentious issue of moving the capital from Juneau into the debate.

"This building is bulging at the seams, if indeed we're thinking of expanding the size of the Legislature we need to think about expanding the size of the building and perhaps even the location of the building," Bunde said on the Senate floor.

Pam Varni, executive director of the Legislative Affairs Agency, has indicated the state could handle the dozen additional legislators without a new capital building. She's estimated 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, Varni said, including salary, staff and other legislative expenses.

Angoon Democratic Sen. Albert Kookesh said on the Senate floor that it's challenge enough to represent his far-flung constituents without his district getting even bigger. Kookesh's district covers 129 communities and about half the land mass of Alaska.

It's by far the largest state legislative district in the nation, ranging from Metlakatla in deep Southeast Alaska up into the Arctic and west nearly to Bethel. Kookesh said Alaska voters should decide whether the state Legislature should grow.