Push to move capital from Juneau gets no momentum

Sean Cockerham | Tribune Media Services

JUNEAU -- The Legislature has only been in session a week, but a Juneau lawmaker has already effectively killed for the next two years the idea of moving legislative sessions closer to Anchorage.

Few issues have burned hotter since statehood than whether the capital should be moved from Juneau closer to Alaska's population center. It's about power, access and, to hear some tell it, the very survival of Juneau. But the debate has faded from the fore in recent years, and the instant death of the latest proposal is a sign lawmakers just don't care that much at this point.

The proposal by Big Lake Republican Rep. Mark Neuman was aimed at moving the legislative sessions to the Matanuska-Susitna Borough but would have allowed any community to make a bid. The fate of the bill was determined on the first day of this year's 90-day legislative session, when House Speaker Mike Chenault sent it to the Community and Regional Affairs Committee.

The committee is chaired by Juneau Republican Rep. Cathy Munoz.

"If the sponsor of the legislation requests a hearing, we will hear the bill. But it's not my intention to move the bill," said Munoz, who will chair the committee for the next two years.

Stopping any effort to move the capital, or the Legislature, is always the No. 1 mission for Juneau legislators. It is the reason Munoz positioned herself within the majority caucus to be chair of the Community and Regional Affairs Committee.

People in Juneau have long lived in fear of a capital move, of lost jobs and plummeting property values. Alaska voters in 1974 approved an initiative to move the capital, and Willow was chosen as the new site. But in 1982 Alaskans voted against providing the money to make it happen.

The capital move issue has come back for a vote several times since. But a lot of the heat seems to be going out of the debate. Two-thirds of Alaska voters in 2002 opposed a proposition to move legislative sessions to the Mat-Su Borough.

There is hardly any talk among legislators these days about a serious push to move the seat of power.

"I know I have constituents on a regular basis ask me about moving the capital. But I don't see the majority of legislators that are clamoring for that," said House Speaker Chenault, a Nikiski Republican. "It's a battle that, if we're going to fight it, we need to fight it hard. But if we're just throwing barbs and arrows out there maybe we should let it lay for awhile."

Nowadays even proponents of moving the seat of politics don't put in bills to move the entire capital. Instead they try proposals to move the annual legislative sessions, arguing that Juneau could keep the governor and state employee offices.

Rep. Neuman has been pushing the past few years such a bill to move the legislative sessions. Communities could bid to build a "legislative hall" and then lease it to the state for $1 a year. Neuman has Point MacKenzie in mind for the site. The Mat-Su Borough has talked about giving 1,000 acres of its land in the Point MacKenzie area, across Knik Arm from Anchorage, to a developer who was willing to build the legislative hall and lease it to the state for a buck a year. The idea is that the developer could then recoup the costs by building associated subdivisions, hotels, restaurants and other properties around the legislative hall.

Neuman was not surprised that his bill was immediately bottled up. He is well aware that it is not seen as a priority in the Legislature. But he said his constituents don't want him to give up on it.

"Up in the (Mat-Su) valley there's a lot of support for it," he said.

Juneau advocates argue that moving the legislative sessions would be an economic blow to all Southeast Alaska. They already worry about "capital creep," a gradual shift of state jobs and officials from Juneau to Southcentral Alaska.

As talk of moving the capital quieted in recent years, Juneau acted to further root its status as Alaska's seat of politics. The City of Juneau bought a former Masonic temple next door to the Capitol building and sold it to the Legislature for $1. It's now the Thomas B. Stewart Legislative Office Building, with a sky bridge that connects it to the Capitol.

Juneau built a parking garage downtown, which opened last month. And the city continues ongoing capital-retention efforts such as funding much of the budget for the "Gavel to Gavel" public television and Internet coverage of the Legislature.