Rep. Birch asks governor to move special session to Anchorage

Rep. Chris Birch, R-Anchorage, argues over the debut of an oil tax credit bill, during a floor session of the state House in February. He wants the Legislature’s October special session to be held in Anchorage. (Photo by Rashah McChesney/Alaska’s Energy Desk)

An Anchorage lawmaker is requesting the Legislature’s October special session be held in Anchorage instead of Juneau.

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In a letter to Gov. Bill Walker, Republican Rep. Chris Birch argued it would save money and increase public participation on crime legislation — Anchorage lawmakers and residents have expressed concern over a spike in crime there. Birch sent the the letter Wednesday after attending a town hall on crime in Anchorage the night before.

In it, Birch said maximizing public engagement with Senate Bill 54, which would modify last year’s Senate Bill 91, a criminal justice reform bill, is crucial to addressing constituent concerns.

“This isn’t an effort to move the capital or anything of that nature,” Birch said. “It’s an effort to bring some balance and recognize that we need to be accessible to the public and certainly at this time money savings are certainly a plus as well. I mean if three quarters of the Legislature can basically forgo transportation and associated costs with relocation for a month, that’s just a bonus.”

Birch added that many legislators are likely planning to attend this year’s Alaska Federation of Natives conference in Anchorage, which wraps up two days before the special session begins.

Birch said he spoke with the governor and his chief of staff about the letter, and expects the majority of the Legislature to support his request.

On Friday at a breakfast event at Commonwealth North in Anchorage, Walker was asked why the special session couldn’t happen in Anchorage.

“Well, the Capitol’s in Juneau. Gavel to Gavel is in Juneau. Alaskans all over the state are able to participate through the Gavel to Gavel process and be able to observe what goes on, ” Walker said. “So yes, it would be more convenient to have it in Anchorage. That’s not where the Capitol is. And if the Legislature would like to convene and move it to Anchorage, I won’t oppose that.”

Juneau Democratic Rep. Sam Kito III said he thinks the request is short-sighted in several respects.

“One is we will have to fly regular staff to Anchorage in order to support any activities,” Kito said. “We currently don’t have a location suitable to have the entire House meet. That would have to be procured. And the other challenge is we don’t have Gavel Alaska in Anchorage, which means that the public would be less involved, even though he said they would be more involved.”

Kito said Alaskans are able to weigh-in electronically through the Legislature’s teleconference system. He also said that when the Legislature last met in Anchorage in 2015, they had about the same number of people attend the hearings as they regularly see in Juneau.

“I do think we will hear from as many people on the teleconference line or through letters to the committee on SB 54,” Kito said. “I think we have probably a better opportunity to connect with Alaskans if we’re in Juneau and we have the ability to broadcast all the information.”

Kito said he will speak with his fellow Juneau legislators and together they will encourage Walker to keep the session in Juneau.

Juneau Sen. Dennis Egan could not be reached for comment. Juneau Rep. Justin Parish had yet to review the proposal when reached.

KTOO’s Andrew Kitchenman contributed to this report.

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