JUNEAU -- State lawmakers are exploring ways to reduce their own budget more deeply than an earlier version of their spending plan by cutting costs for their offices around the state -- including their pricey, recently remodeled Anchorage space.
A Senate panel met Friday and proposed cutting an additional $1.5 million, or 2 percent, from the Legislature's $75 million budget beyond a 4.5 percent initial cut already passed by the House.
The reductions are expected to go even deeper when the full Senate Finance Committee takes up the budget next week.
In interviews Friday, two senators said they were exploring further cuts to their workspaces outside the Capitol, known as legislative information offices or LIOs.
Without cuts, the state will pay some $5.6 million for more than 30 legislative office spaces next year, according to a breakdown provided by a legislative employee. Those costs range from some $4 million for the Anchorage LIO to $300,000 for space in Fairbanks to $30,000 for an office in Kotzebue rented from the Iditarod dog musher John Baker.
Sen. Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage, said he met with Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, Sen. Charlie Huggins, R-Wasilla, and a legislative lawyer Friday morning to examine the state's contract for its Anchorage LIO, asking about "what kind of options we have."
"Office space is becoming more available now than what was available, say, a year or two ago," he said. "Things are changing."
The cost of the Anchorage LIO has drawn scrutiny over the past two years after the Legislature agreed to a new 10-year lease of a renovated space in a deal negotiated by Rep. Mike Hawker, R-Anchorage, when he was chairman of the Legislative Council for the previous two years. Critics have mocked the renovated building as the "Taj Mahawker."
Annual payments went up to $4 million from $682,000 when the Legislature moved into the space in January, with costs per square foot more than double market rates.
Stevens, the Kodiak senator, is now chairman of the Legislative Council, the body that handles lawmakers' internal business and budgets.
In an interview Friday, he wouldn't reveal what kind of changes he was examining for the Anchorage office space, but he said he was given the job of cutting the Legislature's budget.
"LIOs are a major part of that budget, so we've been looking at all sorts of options: entirely closing some of the smaller LIOs, taking other LIOs and reducing them to 50 percent, open only half the time," he said. "We're certainly looking at the Anchorage LIO as well, trying to find out what options are available to us."
The Legislature's lease for its Anchorage space is subject to lawmakers appropriating money to pay for it. Asked if the Legislature had the ability to opt out, Meyer responded: "You can always get out of every lease -- it's just at what cost, and any consequences."
"I don't know that I'm comfortable enough to say we can easily get out of this without lengthy legal expense involved," he said. "And then is it even worth it? How much do we save?"
Mark Pfeffer, the Anchorage LIO's developer, didn't return phone calls Friday.
One alternative for legislative space in Anchorage could be the state-owned Atwood Building downtown, where Gov. Bill Walker and some agencies already have offices.
The building does not currently have room for the legislative offices but the space is "always in flux," said Leslie Ridle, deputy commissioner at the Department of Administration who's responsible for the Division of General Services, which manages state leasing and facilities.
"It's like a little puzzle," Ridle said in a phone interview. "Do I know exactly if there's enough room for every single piece of the Legislature to fit in? I don't know that there is right this minute, but it's a moving target."
Ridle wouldn't say whether she'd discussed the use of the space with the Legislature, referring questions to legislative officials.