The State is looking into the legality of using money earmarked for building repairs to construct a new tennis complex in Anchorage. The multi-million-dollar grant was suspended after Mayor Dan Sullivan’s opponent in the lieutenant governor’s race called the decision into question.
From here on out, Alaskans might consider substituting the phrase “political football” with “political tennis.”
Debate has raged for months over whether lawmakers knew they were funding the construction of a new sports facility in Anchorage when they voted to give the city $37 million for “deferred and critical maintenance” to aging public buildings. Now, the state Division of Community and Regional Affairs is referring the grant to the Department of Law for review, and freezing the money until they get confirmation that it’s being used correctly.
The decision comes after Sen. Lesil McGuire, an Anchorage Republican, raised the issue with the governor on Monday after getting an opinion from the Legislature’s legal division that the grant was suspect.
“If we set a precedent that says ‘critical and deferred maintenance,’ and allow local communities to then use it for whatever they want, including building new facilities, which we know are going to require more money both in the building and the maintenance and other things, then we are not doing our jobs,” says McGuire.
According to the grant agreement, the state authorized funding for the Anchorage Museum, the Egan Center, the Sullivan Arena, and the Anchorage Center for the Performing Arts. The grant also funds upgrades to the Dempsey Anderson Complex, including the addition of a tennis facility. Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan has argued that language should allow the city to put $4.4 million of that grant toward the construction of a new standalone sports complex.
McGuire thinks it does not. She says the suspension should encourage more transparency in funding requests.
“It sends a signal statewide that when you ask for money that it’s going to be a rigorous process – that it’s got to be for what is clearly allocated,” says McGuire.
Members of the Democratic Minority believe suspending the grant is long overdue. Earlier this week, they tried repealing the tennis money by offering an amendment to the operating budget, but McGuire was the only member of the Majority to support the idea.
Sen. Bill Wielechowski, of Anchorage, also points out that Democrats asked for legal review of the appropriation back in December.
“When we put the legal opinion out, why wasn’t there any sort of action then? Why did it take four months for a Republican to put the legal opinion out and get some action?”
For his part, Sullivan stands by the use of the money for the new sports complex, and is disappointed that the suspension could stall work on all of the buildings included in the grant. He also believes that the group who originally lobbied for the grant did so in an appropriate way.
“The Alaska Tennis Association did everything they were supposed to do. They got community council support. They got support from organizations that would be users of the facility. They got a legislator to champion the grant,” says Sullivan. “So, they’re the ones that are being hurt by this, and that’s unfortunate.”
The tennis issue has also been a key divide between Sullivan and McGuire in their separate efforts to secure the Republican nomination for lieutenant governor. Sullivan won’t say if he personally thinks this has anything to do with the campaign.
“Some people have said it’s pretty transparent, but I can’t read the hearts and minds of other folks,” says Sullivan. “So we’ll let others speculate about that.”
McGuire says she’s sensitive to how her status as a candidate and her status as a senator relate to the tennis question, but making sure state money is used appropriately is part of her responsibility.
“When you’re running against somebody, and they have a different position than you, that’s going to be something that people bring up,” says McGuire. “I’ve tried really hard this session to keep my Senate hat on and to keep the work of the Senate at the forefront, and this is the work of the Senate.”
The state is hoping to complete the legal review and resolve any questions surrounding the grant before the end of the legislative session this month.