The November statewide election includes a ballot measure that is particularly important to rural communities like Kodiak and the villages in District 36. Ballot Measure 1 is a constitutional amendment. It would increase the size of the legislature by six people, four state House Representatives and two Senators, in order to maintain rural representation in the state Legislature during redistricting in 2011. I support this ballot measure, and would like to share some information on why I think this is important for rural residents.
Today in Alaska we have 40 House districts and 20 Senate districts. Each Senate district contains two House districts. After each decennial U.S. census, district boundaries are redrawn. The Alaska Constitution outlines the factors to consider when reshaping these districts. They include contiguity, compactness, integrated socio-economic areas, population as nearly equal as possible, local government boundaries, and drainage and other geographic features. Legislative districts also must meet national standards, including those outlined in the National Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Alaska’s population has been shifting over the last decade. First, it has been growing. Second, it has been migrating toward urban areas of the state. So what do we expect when we draw new legislative boundaries in 2011?
Based on Alaska Department of Labor projections, population per House district is expected to increase to 17,500 people, or about 2,000 more than when the lines were drawn a decade ago. There are simply more people in Alaska. As a result, with the population shift toward urban areas, rural Alaska is expected to lose seats in the state House and Senate. Urban areas, particularly the Mat-Su Valley as well as Anchorage, are expected to pick up seats.
What does this mean for rural Alaska and for Kodiak? I think there are three important things to think about.
First, of the 40 House members today, only nine represent rural, non-road system communities. The remaining 31 represent urban areas or road system communities, including 20 from just Anchorage and the Mat-Su. Under the 2011 redistricting we expect to lose at least two House seats and one Senate seat in rural areas.
It is a constant battle in the Legislature to get urban legislators to understand rural issues. In my experience, “rural” issues oftentimes is synonymous with “coastal” issues. This means that important issues like fisheries, ferries, and the importance of port and harbor infrastructure are off the radar of three-quarters of legislators. Add other critical village issues like air travel, rural schools, village public safety and subsistence management to the mix, and the disconnect is extremely clear.
Second, when we redistrict next year the geographic size of our rural districts will increase, in some cases markedly. Rep. Woodie Salmon already represents more than 90 villages; his senatorial counterpart has a district the size of Texas and represents 140 communities. Our house district, District 36, already includes 17 towns and villages from Kodiak to Lake Iliamna. We’re likely to pick up another 10 or more communities under redistricting. Rural legislators advocate for scattered communities across great geographic areas, while Anchorage legislators get funding and projects for needs at the scale of neighborhoods.
Finally, rural legislators have worked together over years and have been successful at maintaining key committee chairmanships and membership on finance committees. Fewer rural legislators means fewer seats can be filled at the critical committee tables. This will tip the scales further toward the Railbelt and make it even harder to advocate on important issues like commercial fisheries and rural schools.
Are there reasons not to increase the size of the Legislature? In my view, the only drawback of increasing the size of the legislature is, of course, the annual cost to operate additional legislative offices. Our Legislative Affairs Agency is estimating that cost at approximately $2.3 million, as well as some one-time costs for renovating the state capitol to hold more offices. Recurring costs include legislative salaries and travel on official business, as well as staff.
Because the population has increased in Mat-Su and Anchorage, the additional legislative seats from a Constitutional amendment would go to them. But rural Alaska wouldn’t lose seats, as will happen if we keep the status quo. And that’s what’s important. When considering this balance, I feel certain that the benefit of maintaining rural representation in Alaska’s Legislature far outweighs the cost.
Alaska’s Legislature has remained the same size since statehood, but our population has tripled. We have the second smallest legislature in the country, but we are the biggest and arguably the most complex state. States with similar populations to ours have an average legislature size of 134 members. Adding six legislators to the Alaska Senate and House is a small cost to maintain reasonable representation for our far-flung communities. I’ll be voting “yes” on Ballot Measure 1.
Alan Austerman is the Representative for House District 36 including Kodiak in the Alaska Legislature.