Programming note: No Friday in the Sun this week. We had planned one that more or less got pre-empted by the release of the documents that are the basis of this story. Also, there are fundraisers underway for 2020. Isn’t that neat?
That’s the latest cost estimate for a 30-day special session at Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy’s suggested location of Wasilla Middle School, according to documents prepared by the Legislative Affairs Agency ahead of the July 8 meeting date.
The costs come in higher than the roughly $1.2 million estimate that the Legislative Affairs Agency generated earlier this year when it didn’t have a specific location in mind. Legislators and the Legislative Affairs Agency have raised a long slate of concerns with the Wasilla Middle School ranging from building security to difficulty in recording and broadcasting the session.
Of the $1.3 million cost estimate, $193,586 are fixed costs and the remaining $1.1 million is recurring costs—per diem, payroll for legislative staff, travel costs and equipment rental—that would be variable depending on the actual length of session.
Legislators living within 50 miles are not eligible for per diem, which would cover 27 legislators. It assumes that the 33 legislators who live farther than 50 miles from session would collect per diem for all 30 days, coming to $253,440 in legislator per diem.
One of the chief concerns of a Wasilla special session is the inability of Gavel Alaska or the Legislature-run Alaska Legislative Television to travel to Wasilla Middle School. As it stands, it would leave the special session without complete and unfiltered video recordings of the special session.
Floor sessions would be audio-only and even then, only one floor session could be broadcast at a time thanks to the school’s limited internet bandwidth, according to the documents. The quality of the audio recordings is also in question because the floor sessions would be planned for a gymnasium with handheld wireless microphones.
The school’s classrooms, which Dunleavy has said would be sufficient as committee meeting spaces, have no teleconference or recording options so the Legislative Affairs Agency says they would need to either take place at the Wasilla or Anchorage legislative information offices.
“Committee meetings would be required to be held in Mat-Su LIO and/or Anchorage, as there is no teleconference infrastructure at Wasilla Middle School, nor do we have enough equipment to hold committee meetings and floor session in the same offsite venue,” explained the report.
Because of the fixed costs, the cost of gaveling and gaveling out aren’t insignificant. Legislators have talked openly about such a possibility and the report also examined those costs.
With travel and per diem for staff, legislators and other supplies, the cost of such a move would be $241,038.
The Legislative Affairs Agency also prepared a second cost estimate for a special session that would split activities between Juneau and Anchorage. Floor sessions would be held in Juneau and committee meetings occurring in Anchorage at the Anchorage Legislative Information Office. Only key legislators would be required to be present while most others would stay home for the duration of the session, limiting per diem payments.
The total estimated cost of this proposal would be $853,999. It would also be lower if the session ends up being shorter than 30 days.
Such a proposal appears tailored to the reality that only a handful of key legislators are involved during a special session, especially one on such a narrow issue like the PFD. It would keep most legislators home with 10 staying in Juneau for the full 30 days (to meet the requirements that legislators regularly meet for floor sessions) and the remaining would be in Juneau for a total of 7 days.
The cost estimate for legislative per diem for Juneau would be about $190,000.
The House and Senate finance committees would be set to meet at the Anchorage Legislative Information Office, which has recently hosted the Permanent Fund Working Group’s meetings, for 14 days total. The cost estimate for travel and legislator per diem for these meetings would come to $69,791.
The move would also allow complete and unfiltered audio and video recordings and broadcasts of the committee meetings and floor sessions through Gavel Alaska and AKL.TV.
Why it matters
Legislators have raised a variety of concerns about a Wasilla special session that have run the gamut from minor, fixable quibbles to more serious issues like safety and the quality of the historical record. They can now add costs to that list, too.
The Legislature also isn’t limited to either meeting at Wasilla Middle School for 30 days or gaveling in and gaveling out. The Legislature has the ultimate authority for choosing its venue.
It could ignore the governor and attempt to convene the session in Juneau, as it did in 2015 when the Legislature convened in Anchorage over former Gov. Bill Walker’s request for them to meet in Juneau. It could also preempt the Wasilla special session by calling its own special session ahead of time.
It doesn’t sound like anything’s settled and all these options are still being weighed.
Until then, enjoy your Friday in the sun.
Here’s the downloadable PFDs of the documents prepared by the Legislative Affairs Agency.