PUBLISHED: 4:45 PM on Wednesday, May 3, 2006
Legislative Roundup
Legislatures decide to purchase temple

A panel of legislators voted Thursday, April 27, to notify Juneau that the Alaska Legislature intends to accept its offer of the Scottish Rite Temple, next-door to the Capitol, for future use.

The city is offering the building to the state for $1 with the condition that the Legislature does not resell the property for a profit.

"It's a gift and we want to accommodate you in any way we can," city lobbyist Clark Gruening told the Legislative Council.

According to the city, the value of the building is $577,000. The four-story temple has been used by the Freemasons and for community events since its construction in 1928. The city would buy the building and offer it to the state.

Legislative Council Chairman Pete Kott, R-Eagle River, said the panel wants the building to be professionally reviewed by engineers and an asbestos expert before it makes a decision on how to use the space.

The 13,800-square-foot temple, anchored on the corner of Fourth and Seward streets, includes a lodge room, a ballroom, a kitchen and dining room and offices.

Lawmakers suggested using the space for offices, a meeting hall for all 60 legislators, storage for documents, or razing the building and constructing a parking garage in its place.

"I don't see how we can turn it down, to be honest with you," said Senate President Ben Stevens, R-Anchorage.

Kott said if the panel decides to keep the original structure, he doesn't expect renovations to cost more than $1.5 million.

The Legislative Council approved the purchase 8-3, with Rep. Carl Gatto, R-Palmer, Rep. Norm Rokeberg, R-Anchorage, and Sen. Tom Wagoner, R-Kenai, opposing.

Gatto, a proponent of building a new Capitol in the Anchorage or Matanuska-Susitna area, said the purchase was short-sighted.

Juneau Mayor Bruce Botelho said the offer was made to aid the Legislature in its business.

Botelho said the next step for the city is to work with the owners and reach a decision on acquisition.

The temple also houses Juneau Dance Unlimited, an outfit that produces performances and trains dancers. The sale of the building means the dance group will be displaced. According to City Manager Rod Swope, the city will help the organization find another location to practice.

Senate panel slashes funds for Juneau road

An Alaska Senate panel on Monday, April 24, released a new version of the state's construction budget, cutting the governor's proposed spending on a road out of Juneau in 2006 by 55 percent.

Gov. Murkowski wants to spend $45 million from the state general fund on the road-ferry link to Skagway and Haines this year. That amount would nearly fulfill the state's total obligation in paying for the controversial $258 million project.

The Senate Finance Committee's capital spending bill released Monday would reduce the state's spending on the Juneau road to $25 million in 2006.

If approved, the reduction for Juneau access spending at the state level would likely pose some setbacks for the project.

"It's the worst kind of compromise," said Joe Geldhof, a Juneau maritime attorney and Juneau road critic.

Other projects blessed with large federal allocations - such as the Gravina Island bridge in Ketchikan and the Knik Arm bridge in Anchorage - did not face reductions in the new committee version of the capital budget bill, Senate Bill 231.

Sen. Lyda Green, R-Wasilla, the Senate Finance co-chairwoman who crafted the committee version of the bill, could not be reached for comment Monday.

State transportation officials said Monday they were still analyzing the Senate Finance bill and didn't yet know how a 55 percent reduction this year would affect the project.

The state had hoped to pool its resources to spend $55 million in 2006, building the road out to a point north of Comet Beach on the east side of Lynn Canal, according to the project's final environmental impact statement.

The Senate Finance scheduled a public hearing about the bill's proposed spending in Sitka, Juneau, Ketchikan, Petersburg, Wrangell, and eight other cities Friday, April 28.

House delays pension plan

A new retirement system for future state employees could be delayed one year, according to a bill passed by the Alaska House of Representatives on Monday, April 24.

House Bill 475 began as a "fix-it" bill for certain problems foreseen with a retirement system lawmakers created last year for employees hired after July 1.

The plan, known as a defined-contribution system, sets up 401(k)-style accounts and would be paid to employees in a lump sum upon retirement. The current scheme, known as a defined-benefit program, pays former employees their retirement in monthly checks until death.

Bill Bjork, president of the Alaska chapter of the National Education Association, opposes the plan and praised the delay.

The governor pushed for the rewrite of the retirement system as experts said the state's program was becoming increasingly expensive. A shortfall of about $6 billion owed to retirees remains in the program because health-care costs have risen, retirees are living longer and poor investments were made in the stock market.

One of the major fixes included in HB 475 gives teachers death and disability benefits under the new plan. Rep. Mike Hawker, R-Anchorage, proposed the controversial amendment to delay the new plan's start date by one year, making it effective July 1, 2007.

Hawker, a career accountant, said the state needs Internal Revenue Service approval that qualifies the new plan to have tax-preferred treatment, meaning benefits paid to the retiree and contributions made by the employee would not be taxed. Hawker added that the amendment was aimed at buying the state more time to iron out the kinks. The amendment passed 24-16, with Rep. Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau, supporting and Rep. Bruce Weyhrauch, R-Juneau, opposing. The bill passed 40-0 as amended. HB 475 will head to the Senate for approval.

Reported by the Juneau Empire