Why Wasilla? Alaska special session venue stirs debate
WASILLA, Alaska -- When Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy called for the Legislature's next special session to be held in Wasilla, some agreed with him that a change of venue would be good for lawmakers struggling to finish their work after a drawn-out five months at the state capital.
Others called it a means of intimidation or cited security and logistical concerns.
Now, the wait is on to see if the House and Senate heed Dunleavy's call to do business July 8 in his conservative hometown.
It would be the first time an Alaska special session has convened outside the capital, Juneau, or the state's largest city, Anchorage, where a few have been held.
Nationally, it's rare for special sessions to be held outside state capitals, though committee hearings sometimes take place elsewhere. Former Ohio Gov. John Kasich, pitching it as a way to make government more accessible, gave most of his State of the State speeches outside of that state's capital, after his first address at the Statehouse was marred by protests.
Alaska's Republican governor called the session so lawmakers can finalize this year's payout to residents from the state's oil wealth fund, a politically divisive issue that has been simmering for years and is nearing a boiling point. The checks have been smaller for the past three years as political leaders struggling with a budget deficit strayed from a formula in state law for calculating them.
If the law is followed as Dunleavy wants, this year's check will be about $3,000. The House, controlled by a bipartisan majority composed largely of Democrats, rejected a full payout during the first special session of the year, in Juneau, while the Republican-led Senate was more closely divided in not advancing a full payout.
Dunleavy warned of a change of venue if lawmakers didn't complete their business during that session, suggesting as a potential site the Matanuska-Susitna region, where Wasilla is nestled about 40 miles (64 kilometers) north of Anchorage. Wasilla made headlines more than a decade ago as the hometown of then-Alaska governor and 2008 Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin.
Senate Minority Leader Tom Begich, an Anchorage Democrat, said he sees Dunleavy choosing Wasilla as a way to intimidate legislators. He said the governor had an opportunity to work with legislators on a location that logistically made sense.
Begich's brother, former U.S. Sen. Mark Begich, lost last year's governor's race to Dunleavy.
House Speaker Bryce Edgmon, an independent from the southwest Alaska fishing community of Dillingham, has cited logistical concerns with meeting in Wasilla, along with security worries.
Edgmon said he has received threatening calls and "angry, vitriolic" emails from people frustrated with lawmakers for not approving what they consider a "birthright" - a $3,000 dividend check. Many emails have come from the Matanuska-Susitna region, he said.
"It could be a very volatile environment," Edgmon said.
Dunleavy's administration has tried to allay concerns. While the governor's office has singled out some legislators for their position on the dividend and encouraged Alaskans to weigh in, Dunleavy has asked them to do so civilly.
Deputy chief of staff Jeremy Price gave reporters a tour last week of Dunleavy's recommended venue for the special session, Wasilla Middle School, showing off two gymnasiums with room for spectators that he said could accommodate concurrent House and Senate floor sessions. Self-locking doors were touted as security measures.
Cost estimates for holding a special session in Wasilla haven't been publicly released.
"Juneau has a lot of costs all their own, and a whole lot fewer fast-food options," said Republican Rep. David Eastman of Wasilla, where the state's first Sonic drive-in restaurant is set to open in September.
Juneau's downtown restaurant options, within walking distance of the Capitol, include a Subway sandwich shop.
Wasilla residents and officials see the special session as an opportunity for the region to flex its political clout. The fast-growing Matanuska-Susitna Borough has a population of more than 100,000.
"We're really progressing, but the rest of Alaska wants to ignore that or pretend it's not happening," borough manager John Moosey said. "We're growing. Anchorage is not."
Dunleavy touted the location as a selling point, saying it is within a five-hour drive of a large majority of the state's more than 730,000 residents.
Juneau and the surrounding area, home to about 32,000 people, are not on the main road system. People have to fly or take a boat, like a state-run ferry, to get there. There have been periodic efforts to move the capital or Legislature.
Jan Engan, who moved to Wasilla in 2014 to be closer to family, cited cost concerns with traveling to Juneau and said people in other states have easier access to their lawmakers. Engan used to work for state government in North Dakota.
Some in the region, sometimes referred to as the Mat-Su Valley, see the special session as a chance to shake off the "valley trash" slight used years ago by former state Sen. Ben Stevens, a Republican who is now a Dunleavy adviser. A 2004 editorial in the local newspaper said Stevens used the term in response to an email from an individual criticizing him. Stevens didn't respond to an email from The Associated Press seeking comment for this story.
The Bearpaw River Brewing Co. recently resurrected the "Valley Trash" imperial blonde ale, using the recipe from the original brewery that closed. The beer is sold in cans.
"The label is ironically classy, with cursive lettering," owner and operations manager Jake Wade said.
Jessica Viera with the Wasilla chamber said too many people see the city as a place you pass through on your way somewhere else and don't see its expansion.
"So, to have this kind of growth and then just be like, 'Oh, well. Who cares about Wasilla?' Well, we care about Wasilla because we love living here, playing here, working here. You can do everything."
It remains unclear whether lawmakers will legislate there. Legislative leaders have been discussing their options.