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Taj MaHawker is also the Chateau Chenault and the Meyer Monument

  • Author: Dermot Cole
    | Opinion
  • Updated: July 7, 2016
  • Published February 6, 2016

More than one Alaskan has probably already called the new legislative budget-cutting hotline, 1-844-414-5949, to suggest the state could save some money by dumping the Anchorage Legislative Information Office lease.

The Legislative Council, a joint Senate-House committee of legislative leaders, plans to meet again Thursday to try to make a decision on competing claims about costs and a buyout plan.

What's most disturbing about the events of the past two and a half years is how little energy the council devoted to this matter early on when its members could have made a difference in shaping the outcome. And how much time and energy they have wasted since the "Taj MaHawker" began to occupy a grossly exaggerated role in attitudes about profligate spending.

I agree with House Speaker Mike Chenault that Anchorage Rep. Mike Hawker has been unfairly "crucified" for his role in the project. "I will take as much or more blame for this building because of the inactions of the (Legislative) Council," Chenault, a member of the group for most of his 15 years in the Legislature, told the committee in December.

Yes, the Anchorage edifice could just as easily been dubbed the Chateau Chenault, the Meyer Monument or the Taj McGuire, as this did not come about because of one man.

The lackadaisical council created the mess because the committee members failed to pay attention to what Hawker was doing after they authorized him to solve the office space quandary in downtown Anchorage. The members of the committee were perfectly willing to have Hawker figure it out.

The serious second-guessing began after what an aide to Hawker identified in October 2013 as "sticker shock," with annual rent payments jumping from $682,000 to $4 million. There would have been no sticker shock had the council monitored the situation and informed the public from the start.

The council membership has changed somewhat, but these lawmakers approved the 2013 plan to let Hawker handle it: Sens. Peter Micciche, Lesil McGuire, John Coghill, Kevin Meyer, Dennis Egan and Reps. Craig Johnson, Lance Pruitt, Bill Stoltze, Max Gruenberg, and Peggy Wilson. Sen. Gary Stevens, Sen. Charlie Huggins and Chenault missed the meeting.

The committee unanimously approved extending the existing Anchorage lease on a sole-source basis, claiming to meet a "minimum cost savings of at least 10 percent below the market rental value of the real property" as required by law.

Moments later the council revised legislative procedures in a complicated plan presented by Hawker that members appeared to not fully comprehend, creating the seeds of a controversy that continues to this day, a major political problem for legislative incumbents. The council allowed Hawker to negotiate a revised deal to cost less than buying a similar new building in downtown Anchorage.

"That takes care of the beginning of a fabulous project here to establish the legislative facilities that will accommodate legislative needs," Hawker said after the other legislators handed him the keys.

If the project has been less than fabulous, so is what some legislators see as the proposed remedy — pulling out of the deal on the grounds the state can't afford it. That logic could be used to justify scrapping any contract or agreement the state has in place. It's legal and allowed by law, but it's not a good way to do business.

It was wrong when the Senate Finance Committee made a similar claim last spring, saying the state could not afford to fund the third year of labor contracts that had been approved by the responsible parties, including the Legislature.

In this instance, the council authorized Hawker to make this deal in 2013 and didn't show much concern about the cost. With the collapse in state revenue, negotiating with the landlord is preferable to walking away.

Dermot Cole, the author of more than a half-dozen books about Alaska, has been a newspaper reporter and columnist in Fairbanks since 1976. The views expressed here are his and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.

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