Alaska lawmakers weigh whether next special session should be in Anchorage

Legislative leaders are considering holding the upcoming special session at the Legislature's new Anchorage office building before the lease expires rather than in Juneau as Gov. Bill Walker has proclaimed.

But the move is fiercely opposed by some lawmakers, including Sen. Dennis Egan, D-Juneau, who said the Southeast Alaska community has "bent over backwards" to support the Legislature.

"I am absolutely against it," said Egan.

Walker issued an executive order on Sunday setting the Legislature's second special session of the year to start July 11 in Juneau. The decision came after the Legislature had failed to approve any of Walker's measures to raise new revenue to address a multibillion-dollar deficit, including legislation that would tap the Permanent Fund earnings reserve and shrink dividends for Alaskans, at least over the next few years.

[Governor calls Legislature back for another session]

Senate President Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage, said on Tuesday that he has informally surveyed colleagues in the Senate and has found sufficient support for an Anchorage special session.

With snowbirds back home in Juneau for the summer and tourists filling up hotels, lawmakers face limited options for lodging, he said. And they can't sleep in their temporary offices as they did during multiple special sessions held in 2006, when then-Gov. Frank Murkowski failed to push his gas line proposal through the Legislature.


"It's mostly cubicles and we can't sleep in the cubicles," Meyer said. "And there's no couches to speak of."

The Alaska Constitution directs how special sessions are held. Because the governor selected Juneau for the special session, that's where it would have to start. But the Legislature could convene, quickly adjourn, then call its own special session at the location of its choosing. House Rules Committee Chair Craig Johnson, R-Anchorage, said the Legislature's special session could be in Anchorage.

The Legislature took a similar trip to Anchorage last year, ending a special session that had been proposed for Juneau.

Johnson said he received a call from House Speaker Mike Chenault on Monday asking him where he wanted to hold the special session. The "informal poll" is a common approach and may amount to nothing, Johnson said.

But Johnson said he prefers Anchorage as a venue.

"The more we can do things in the light of day with all constituents around, the better it is for the process," he said.

"I don't know that we owe anything to Juneau," he said. Citing the major repairs underway on the state Capitol, Johnson added, "If the Capitol was up and running and we weren't paying extra to rent that building, it wouldn't be much of an issue."

Chenault did not return a call and text message seeking comment.

Senate minority president Berta Gardner, D-Anchorage, said she opposes the idea. Legislators will work more "efficiently" in Juneau because they will have an incentive to "get their work done and get home," she said.

Meyer said the session could be held at the Legislative Information Offices in Anchorage.

A Superior Court judge in March declared the Legislature's annual $4 million lease at the offices illegal and invalid because of the way it was obtained — by negotiation, not bid.

But the Legislature still has a few months left in that Fourth Avenue building, and the Legislature's proposed purchase of a Wells Fargo building near the intersection of Benson Boulevard and Minnesota Drive in Anchorage has yet to be completed, Meyer said.

An Anchorage session would save the Legislature money on transportation and lodging by allowing many lawmakers to commute from their Southcentral homes, Meyer said.

The Legislature would also save $15,000 in monthly rent, after ending the $25,000 month-to-month lease for the temporary building in Juneau, Meyer said. The remainder of the bill is being footed by a Juneau community group, the Alaska Committee, to support the Legislature's stay in Juneau.

"Do we need to pay rent on two buildings?" Meyer asked.

Egan said there's plenty of lodging in Juneau.

He said his office has compiled information showing the Legislature will pay an extra $9,150 a day to operate in Anchorage instead of Juneau, in part because legislative staff must be relocated to Anchorage and because per diem payments are higher in Anchorage than in Juneau, where the rate is $247.

"It's cool for me if I go to Anchorage because I get $453 extra a day," he said. "But I support Juneau."

Alex DeMarban

Alex DeMarban is a longtime Alaska journalist who covers business, the oil and gas industries and general assignments. Reach him at 907-257-4317 or alex@adn.com.