JUNEAU -- A committee meeting called to advance the purchase of the Legislature's Anchorage office building was abruptly cancelled Thursday amid ongoing questions over whether the $28 million proposal was a wise move for the state -- or for legislators in an election year.
The unusual cancellation of the 5 p.m. meeting of the Legislative Council caught some lawmakers off guard.
Two senators late for the meeting weren't sure whether to believe a reporter who stopped to talk while they waited for the elevator to take them upstairs. Then Pam Varni, the Legislative Affairs Agency director, walked by and confirmed the information. She told them she had been in the middle of setting up chairs in the fifth-floor hearing room when she was told the meeting was cancelled.
"They must not have the votes," one senator said to the other.
Officially, the Legislative Council meeting was postponed indefinitely "by request of the Senate president" -- Sen. Charlie Huggins, R-Wasilla. Huggins was hosting a meeting of ROTC cadets and unavailable for an interview, but his deputy, Senate Majority Leader John Coghill, R-Fairbanks, said legislators were still uneasy about the proposal two weeks after it was publicly floated.
Thursday's cancellation was the second this week for the Council. It was originally going to hear the Anchorage office proposal Monday, but that meeting also fell through -- though with enough time for notice to be posted on the Legislature's website.
The 14-member council meets year round and acts as the Legislature's housekeeper and business manager. It can also be unwieldy -- it's the Legislature's largest committee, composed of an equal number of House and Senate members, and includes the presiding officers of both bodies.
The council chairmanship rotates every two years between the House and Senate and now it's held by Rep. Mike Hawker, R-Anchorage. Hawker came up with the idea to buy the Anchorage Legislative Information Office from developers Mark Pfeffer and Bob Acree -- now the LIO landlords -- once major renovations are completed later this year.
Hawker's no-bid deal seems to be growing more controversial with the passage of time. On Monday, a small group of demonstrators hoisted a street sign on the LIO construction fence in downtown Anchorage, sarcastically renaming the street "Mike Hawker CPA Way." Hawker is a retired accountant.
Democrats in the Legislature have had a field day characterizing the LIO project as wasteful Republican spending that would suck up money that could otherwise support education.
Earlier Thursday, the House Republican majority dispatched Hawker to its weekly news conference "to address questions on the proposals before the Council meeting." Hawker told reporters that the purchase of the LIO was a great deal for the state, saving nearly $20 million over the cost of renting the building for 20 years.
The purchase would require passage by both the House and Senate. Hawker had a bill prepared for the Council meeting that would direct the state-owned Alaska Housing Finance Corp. to buy the building and lease it back to the Legislature for $1 a year. Pfeffer would retain ownership of the land beneath the building and the underground parking garage, leasing both to the state.
Will Vandergriff, spokesman for the House majority, said the Council would meet again on the LIO whenever Hawker and his staff could find a date "amenable to members."
The postponement also meant no action was taken on the other major pending item, renovation of the state Capitol.
Restoration of the Capitol began last summer with seismic retrofitting and water-damage repairs of the portico and its massive marble columns. But the brickwork and sandstone forming the skin of the six-story building, built by the U.S. Treasury Dept. 84 years ago before modern seismic standards, is also water damaged and at risk of tumbling down in an earthquake.
Hawker said the initial estimate was $23 million to fix the old building by tearing down and replacing the bricks, adding insulation and water proofing, and replacing ill-fitting, mildewed windows. But the cost has jumped about $10 million, so instead he suggested the Council approve renovation of one side of the Capitol for about $6 million.
Reach Richard Mauer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 907-500-7388.
By RICHARD MAUER