Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Expanding Legislature Constitutional Amendment Committee Hearing

House State Affairs Committee
Feb. 2, 2010
8am - 10am
On House Joint Resolution 38

 The session began with Rep. Peggy Wilson (R-Wrangell) in the witness stand (I better find out what that's called here) presenting an overview of her resolution to amend the Constitution.  On the panel are the State Affairs Committee members, from left to right, Craig Johnson (R - Anchorage), Carl Gatto (R - Wasilla), Paul Seaton (R-Homer), Committee Chair Bob Lynn (R - Anchorage), Rep. Max Gruenberg (D - Anchorage), (space is Rep. Wilson's place), and Pete Petersen (D-Anchorage.)

You can read the resolution and the sponsor's statement in the earlier post today.  Going through my notes of the 90 minutes or so of meeting, I saw the following issues surfacing.  

1.  The size and nature of rural districts.  This appears to be the motivation behind the resolution.  Rep. Wilson is listed above as being from Wrangle [Wrangell], but the district she represents includes Petersburg, Sitka, and a lot of small villages.  She said she'd been flown on 90 Alaska Airlines flights, charter flights, and ferries to visit her constituents.  One spot she'd only been to once because it cost her $1000 to charter a plane there.

[Second picture shows Committee Chair Bob Lynn and witness Pamela A. Varni, Executive Director  Legislative Affairs Agency.]

Wilson also mentioned Rep. Kookesh's district as the largest in the United States with half the school districts in the state.  "It's easy to represent a town with only one school district and one municipality," she said.

In such districts, constituents are not well represented because there are so many different local situations, such great distances and no road system that maintaining contact with constituents and knowing their issues is difficult.  Also the cost of campaigning is extremely high.

2.  Alaska Constitutional requirements for the make-up of districts.  The Alaska Constitution sets forth standards for how districts should be created. 
Section 6.6 - District Boundaries.
The Redistricting Board shall establish the size and area of house districts, subject to the limitations of this article. Each house district shall be formed of contiguous and compact territory containing as nearly as practicable a relatively integrated socio-economic area. Each shall contain a population as near as practicable to the quotient obtained by dividing the population of the state by forty. Each senate district shall be composed as near as practicable of two contiguous house districts. Consideration may be given to local government boundaries. Drainage and other geographic features shall be used in describing boundaries wherever possible.  [Emphasis added.]

3.  Impacts on Current Districts - The testimony and the questions revealed several layers of issues here:

a. The intent of the resolution is to preserve existing rural districts so that level of representation is not diluted further than it is. The new Census is expected to show increases in the Matsu and Anchorage areas. Witness Gordon Harrison said that without increasing the number of legislators, some rural districts would be be swallowed up and this problem would be even greater. 
[Third picture, committee member Rep. Paul Seaton listening to witness Gordon Harrison.  The Alaska Law Review 2006 bio of Harrison:
The author was the executive director of the Alaska Redistricting Board. Previous employment includes director of the Alaska Legislative Research Agency, associate director of the Alaska Office of Management and Budget, and associate professor of political science at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. He is the author of ALASKA'S CONSTITUTION: A CITIZEN'S GUIDE (4th ed. 2002). He has a Ph.D. in International Relations from Claremont Graduate School and a Masters of Journalism from the University of California, Berkeley. This Comment seeks to lay out both the history and the author's opinion of redistricting in Alaska. Comments on the opinions expressed herein should be sent directly to the author. - Click on the link to access Harrison's Law Review article on the 2001 Alaska redistricting.]
b.  The additional districts are expected to be in the Matsu and Anchorage areas.   How this will impact specific existing legislative districts may have been a sub-theme of some of the questioning.  It would appear that most districts might have some nibbling around the edges, but in the urban areas with the most population gain, the biggest changes might occur. (I'm consolidating what I think I heard from a number of people here.)  While Rep. Gatto said he stands to gain, at this point no one can predict how individual districts might look at the end of redistricting. 

4.  The Voting Rights Act of 1965.  Rep. Wilson and others pointed out that most, if not all, of Alaska's redistricting plans have been challenged in court.  One factor is the Voting Act. Alaska is one of a small group of States that gets special scrutiny over voting.  I understand this only vaguely and expect I'll learn more as this process unfolds.  Wikipedia gives us some background on the Act.  Footnote 52 of the Harrison article says
Alaska is covered by Section 5 of the Federal Voting Rights Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1973© (2000), which requires all political jurisdictions in the state to seek prior approval from the Department of Justice ("DOJ") for any change in electoral laws and procedures. The DOJ objected to the reduction of the Native voting age population from 55.5% to 50.6% in House District 36.
The important part is that whatever the State does, must comply with the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which in our case seems to revolve around whether Alaska Natives lose representation.  What exactly that means and how that is determined, I really don't know.

 [Attorney Jim Baldwin, who was in the Office of the Attorney General and closely involved in the 2001 redistricting, responding to a question from Rep. Peggy Wilson.]

5.  The Costs - This is probably the easiest issue to understand.  Pam Varni testified that they estimated start-up costs of $6.14 million to remodel the Capitol to accommodate the new legislators and after that $4 million a year for the expenses of the new legislators.  The issue of building a new Capitol was raised by Rep. Gatto who then offered Matsu as a perfect spot.  After the meeting, under questioning from reporters, Rep. Gatto said, he was only raising the capital move issue to test the motivation of those supporting the resolution. 

Here, after the hearing, Rep. Peggy Wilson talks with Rep. Craig Johnson while Rep. Paul Seaton listens.  Chair Bob Lynn consults with a staffer.

Rep. Lynn said he would keep public testimony open and there would be further testimony on this issue. 

I missed getting reporter Bob Tkazc's photo yesterday, so here he is questioning Rep. Gatto after the meeting. 

This is starting to feel like blogging the Film Festival in Anchorage.  There are little booklets that come out - maybe everyday, I'm not sure - with lists of hearings and meetings taking place.  Some happen at the same time, but even so, if you go to something, there's not much time to write about it AND go to something else.  I feel like I should be doing a lot more with this report, but time moves on and more is happening, so you'll have to make do with this.

And the marmot did NOT see his shadow in Juneau today.


  1. Great job Steve. I've never seen a behind the scenes report like this from Juneau. Keep it up.

  2. uhhh...

    Steve, the name of the town is WRANGELL. Named after the Baltic German (Estonian) Admiral Baron Ferdinand von Wrangel, who was chief administrator of Russian America 1829-1835. See the Wikipedia entry for details.

    The American spelling has always been Wrangell.

  3. Well, it's a slightly different view, Dennis, not sure about great. I can't even spell Alaska names wrightell. Danke schön, Harpboy.

  4. One typo out of 500 words or so, I think I'll survive. I knew what you meant...


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