Lawmakers: Legislature likely to vacate controversial downtown office

The Legislature is likely to back out of its controversial and costly lease of new legislative offices in downtown Anchorage, according to a couple of Republican lawmakers.

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Less than a year after moving into a new leased building with 30 offices, an auditorium, and several conference rooms, the Legislature appears increasingly likely to take a cheaper alternative. (KTUU / Austin Baird)
Less than a year after moving into a new leased building with 30 offices, an auditorium, and several conference rooms, the Legislature appears increasingly likely to take a cheaper alternative. (KTUU / Austin Baird)

The Legislative Council, a committee that handles business affairs for the branch and is composed of members of the House and Senate, will gather Saturday for a vote inside the leased Fourth Avenue building that for many has become a symbol of excessive government spending at a time when policy makers are grappling with a multi-billion dollar shortfall.

Staying in the six-story building, which re-opened in January after extensive renovations, would cost the state $47.8 million over the next decade, according to a report commissioned by the council’s current chair, Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak.

A decision to enter into a 10-year lease agreement with developer Mark Pfeffer was brokered under Stevens’ predecessor, Rep. Mike Hawker, R-Anchorage.

The bill for occupying vacant space in the Atwood Building over the same period of time, in comparison, is about $6.6 million, the report states. That building is blocks from the new legislative offices and already houses many state employees, including the governor’s main office outside of the State Capitol.

Senate President Kevin Meyer, a member of the council, said his “personal view” is that the numbers speak for themselves: “We will be able to save money by doing that, and that’s what we all want to do during these times,” the Anchorage Republican said in a recent interview. “The numbers I’ve seen would indicate that it’s probably the best move.”

“I have a feeling that it’s dead. I think we’ll move out,” said Rep. Lance Pruitt, R-Anchorage. “The whole thing is a hot potato.”

Democrats have long advocated taking a different and cheaper solution to offseason legislative work spaces, including a push unveiled Monday for each legislator to get $1,500 per month for an office in their district.

“It’s time for the Republican leadership to admit their mistake and seriously consider alternatives,” House Minority Leader Chris Tuck, D-Anchorage, wrote in a news release.

Gov. Bill Walker’s spokesperson, Katie Marquette, said in a statement Tuesday that the governor “would certainly welcome legislators into existing state-owned space like the Atwood building, but he respects that the Legislature is a separate branch of government, and the decision is ultimately up to lawmakers.”

While rent comparisons clearly indicate cost savings from trading spaces, legal impacts of breaking the lease remain ambiguous. Republicans wary of reneging on the deal have expressed concern that Pfeffer would file a lawsuit seeking damages.

Another concern is that the Atwood Building would not have space for committee meetings that occur regularly outside of the 90-day lawmaking session, Pruitt said.

If the upcoming session drags into overtime, as policymakers weigh controversial tax proposals and budget cuts, the lack of an exclusive office would leave homesick Southcentral lawmakers without an obvious place to hold meetings away from the Capitol.

The council’s hearing begins at 9 a.m. Saturday in the auditorium at the legislative offices. A portion of the meeting may be closed to the public.

Copyright © 2015, KTUU-TV – Republished with permission