A few days ago, Alaska passed a milestone in the COVID-19 pandemic: For the first time since last July, the state moved to “low” alert status, with fewer than five new daily cases per 100,000 residents over the past 14 days. It’s a huge accomplishment, enabled by everything from the more than half of eligible Alaskans who are now vaccinated to sacrifices by businesses and community members, Alaskans’ good work in abiding by health mandates, and a helping of good luck. In the past few months, declining case rates have enabled the gradual reopening of Alaska’s businesses and its government, to the point that now, you’d be hard pressed to find an establishment that hasn’t resumed at least some level of regular service, from barbershops to the courthouse.
Except, that is, for our state’s capitol building. There, legislators have less than a week left in their special session to pass a budget that would stave off a state shutdown and keep thousands of Alaskans from being laid off. They are debating topics as consequential as the future of the Permanent Fund and the dividend the state pays out every year, with billions of dollars hanging in the balance. And although more than 69% of Juneau residents 12 and older are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, making it one of the most pandemic-safe cities in Alaska, legislators are still keeping the doors closed to the public.
It’s easy to see why legislators could be tempted to leave restrictions on public access to the capitol in place. Surely, it’s easier to be a lawmaker when you don’t have angry constituents hectoring you in your office, giving lengthy in-person testimony in committee meetings or giving you the evil eye during floor sessions. Wrapped in a cozy cocoon of their own making, lawmakers are free to work — or not — without the distraction of looking pesky voters in the eye. Legislators have, in effect, discovered what many of the rest of us did during the pandemic: Work life is easier and more comfortable if you don’t have your boss — in this case, the people of Alaska — in the room. But in a system constrained by checks and balances, taking the easy route boxes Alaskans out of one of our most important checks: our direct and in-person access to the proceedings of our state government. Only in extreme circumstances should this foundational right of the public be circumvented, and that time is long past.
One can only assume that the continued capitol closure is simply an attempt by legislators to keep the citizens of Alaska from being able to look over their shoulders as they navigate some of the most turbulent fiscal waters in our state’s history.
Unfortunately for them, having people looking over their shoulder is the definition of their job. They shouldn’t get to shut out the public using the now-flimsy pretext of the pandemic when it’s clear that’s no longer a realistic concern. Legislators and staff have eased up on COVID-19 precautions for a month now, eschewing masks in the capitol building and socializing — indoors, maskless — at bars and restaurants around Juneau. That’s fine — cases are low enough and enough legislators and staff are vaccinated that persisting with the restrictions that were in place at the pandemic’s height no longer makes sense. But that’s true of shutting the public out of interacting with the lawmaking process in person, too.
Legislators will surely be quick to protest that they have streamed hearings and floor sessions on Gavel to Gavel and via AKLeg.tv. They will say that the public has been given ample opportunity to share input into the process, whether via calling in to give testimony or town halls when lawmakers have returned to their home communities. They may say that even when the capitol is open, few constituents bother visiting in person — particularly during special sessions in the summer. All of that may be true. But it’s still no excuse for keeping the doors closed. Sunlight is the best disinfectant, and legislators themselves have expressed dismay at a paucity of public input into the process. Are Alaskans not paying attention, or have they been locked out of the building?
Asked by Alaska Public Media about the continued barring of the public from the capitol, Juneau Rep. Sara Hannan, who chairs the Legislative Council — which has the power to reverse that policy — offered middling support for letting the public back in. But she couldn’t give any guidance about when that might happened, referring only in general terms to a meeting of the group later this month. That’s a meeting that should have happened a month ago, when legislators decided to get rid of masks for themselves and their vaccinated staff members.
Other than lawmakers themselves, keeping the public out of the capitol only benefits one group: lobbyists, who are well versed in the art of contacting — and sometimes wining and dining — legislators when they leave the building for the day. Although the lobbyists have also complained of diminished access to the capitol building itself, they know far better than the public how to get ahold of legislators and staffers both on and off the clock. These continued and unjustified restrictions only serve to increase the outsized influence of special interests, further distancing regular Alaskans from the political process.
Keeping the capitol’s doors closed to keep out COVID-19 made sense in January. In June, it has ceased to be necessary or even defensible. Court trials have resumed. The Centers for Disease Control no longer recommends masking for vaccinated Americans in public spaces. It’s well past time for Alaska’s capitol building to reopen to the public.