Alaska’s Capital City changes with the times

Clark Gruening and Mike Miller
Former legislators Clark Gruening (left) and Mike Miller (right) discuss how Alaska’s Capital City of Juneau has adapted to the state’s changing needs over the years. Tuesday’s talk was part of the Alaska Legislature Centennial Commission program, which commemorated the 100th anniversary of the Alaska Legislature. Photo by Casey Kelly/KTOO.

As the State of Alaska has grown, the Capital City of Juneau has adapted and grown along with it.

Two former legislators on Tuesday discussed those changes and the challenges Juneau has faced over the years. The talk was part of the Alaska Legislature Centennial Commission program, which took place in the Capital City this week to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Alaska Legislature.

Mike Miller served Juneau in the state House of Representatives from 1971 to 1986. When he was sworn in as a freshman, the State Office Building was just six years old. Many state employees still worked out of the Capitol Building because of a lack of office space in Juneau. So, Miller says the only lawmakers to get their own offices were committee chairs.

“All the members that didn’t have an office, their office was their chair in the chambers,” Miller said. “And there was a custom that was developed that as you went to your own chair – your own office in the chambers – you never looked down at somebody else’s desk, because that would be like intruding on their office.”

Clark Gruening grew up in Juneau and later served downtown Anchorage for two terms in the state House. Today almost every legislator has a staff of at least two employees. Gruening says in his day they were lucky to have secretaries.

“My first session in 1975, Steve Cowper was also on the Finance Committee and we shared an office and one staff person,” Gruening said.

Eventually the state began leasing more offices in Juneau, allowing every lawmaker to have their own room in the Capitol. Over the years the City and Borough of Juneau has also donated facilities to the state capital complex, including the old Juneau High School – now the Terry Miller Building – and more recently the Scottish Rite Temple – now the Tom Stewart Building.

Gruening says Juneau residents realize the importance of promoting the city as Alaska’s capital.

“Juneau took a very proactive stance to promote and support local funding for Capital City improvements,” he said.

In 1974, Alaska voters passed an initiative to move the capital to the road system. A measure to fund the move failed, as did four other capital move votes in 1960, 1962, 1994, and 2002.

Those in favor of moving the capital say it’s too far from the state’s big population centers. But Miller says transportation to and from Juneau has improved immensely.

“We’ve got a system that I’m so proud of – the ferry system,” said Miller. “And I well remember when the first large ship, the Malaspina, came in. If you’d been a burglar you could have rifled every house in Juneau, because everybody was on the dock.”

Back in the ‘70s, there was no limit on how long a legislative session could last. Gruening says lawmakers in the still young state would spend close to half a year in Juneau, working on issues like the Permanent Fund and oil taxes.

The 120 day session was established in the state constitution in 1984. Then in 2006, voters narrowly approved a 90 day session in statute.

While he wouldn’t go back to the days of unlimited sessions, Gruening thinks 90 days is too short.

“The unlimited session was not good, because people couldn’t afford to stay there, had jobs to get back to,” said Gruening. “And I think overall, it was a good balance at 120.”

Miller says the biggest change over the years is electronic access to the state capital.

“Instead of just having an occasional telephone call with somebody in Egegik, or in Barrow, or out the chain, you can attend a meeting and just almost feel that you’re there,” he said.

As for the future, Miller says another state office complex should be built in Juneau.

“My hope is that someday we won’t be leasing,” Miller said. “We’ll be building and owning.”

Such a facility was in the works as recently as two years ago, before the Parnell administration redirected funds for planning and design into remodeling the department of Fish and Game building in Douglas.

The Alaska Legislature Centennial Commission program took place in Juneau this week at the old Elks Lodge, the original meeting place of the territorial legislature.

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