Jeremy Price

Deputy Chief of Staff Jeremy Price speaks with the media in the main gymnasium during a tour of Wasilla Middle School June 14, 2019.

WASILLA — The Dunleavy administration attempted to quell fears of insufficient infrastructure and security at Wasilla Middle School during a press conference last week. Dunleavy has called a second special session set to begin July 8 at Wasilla Middle.

While the answers to many of the questions directed to Deputy Chief of Staff Jeremy Price were yet to be determined and often ultimately up to the decision of the Legislative Affairs Agency, Price gave the media a tour of WMS, which could house the operations of the legislature unless Dunleavy’s call to a special session is prevented by prior action from the Legislature.

Among the concerns listed by Legislative Affairs were the lack of hardline telephones for legal consultation during floor sessions, no audio privacy safeguards for discussions during at-eases, a lack of press area and insufficient space in general to house 60 legislators, their staff, and the public.

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In a memo released by Legislative Affairs, they listed concerns with accessibility, staffing, lodging, cellular telephone service, security, and most importantly the ability to record, broadcast and establish an accurate record of the proceedings. Mat-Su Borough Public Information Officer Jillian Morrisey said that MSBSD Superintendent Dr. Monica Goyette has welcomed the legislature to use audio and visual recording equipment housed at Wasilla High School. Morrissey said that if taxpayer dollars were used to purchase the equipment, the school district would be happy to share.

The Legislative Affairs Agency issued a memo with its concerns.

“An accurate historical record is fundamental to any meeting of the legislature. There must be adequate recording, transmission and a clear historical record for any session to be considered successful (see AS 24.05.135), especially when considering monumentally important decisions. If no record of proceedings captures the deliberations, this causes immense problems contemporaneously and for posterity,” reads the LAA memo. “The inattention to the historical record is one of the greatest deficiencies throughout the proposal.”

Dunleavy was insistent that giving road-system access to legislators for the majority of Alaska’s population would be a positive influence on the session centered around the Permanent Fund Dividend. Price had proposed that the legislature could convene floor sessions in both the large and small gym. Price said that it is possible to seal off one wing of the school from the other, keeping elected officials on one side and the members of the public on the other for security reasons. Each of the 40 classrooms have interior latch locks, and the egresses can all be locked simultaneously from a remote location in case of a security threat.

While the school has 40 classrooms, each legislator could theoretically have their own office space as the building does contain 60 ‘office-like’ spaces as described by Mat-Su Borough School District Facilities Manager Tony Weese. Walking inside of a science classroom complete with chairs, tables, and a Promethean board, Price described the classrooms as an ‘optimal solution’ for legislative office space. Price also proposed the cafeteria as a large space for legislative gatherings and mentioned that the cafeteria was equipped to serve food.

Rep. David Eastman mentioned the wide variety of fast food options immediately available in Wasilla. Dunleavy’s office would not be located in the principal’s office, where security displays of surveillance cameras are. The cameras are not located in each classroom, but along hallways and each gym. Dunleavy’s Press Secretary Matt Shuckerow, said that the governor’s office is “willing to accommodate in any way we can.”

No cost analysis was given at the press conference, but some estimates have been as high as $1 million. Price did mention a nominal janitorial fee that would be incurred, but said that previous estimates were grossly overcalculated by assuming the Menard Sports Complex as the destination, which comes with a fee. Price and the Dunleavy administration was able to work with MSBSD to select WMS at no cost. Price assured media that the school comes complete with copiers, microphones, a new sound system and two drop-down screens in the large gym.

Wasilla Mayor Bert Cottle proudly mentioned that Wasilla High is also available, which houses roughly 1,200 students and the 24,000-square foot library, with 60 computers and two additional meeting rooms.

“I don’t know what we can’t do, so there’s no reason not to come here. My hope is that they don’t just gavel in and gavel out,” Cottle said.

The middle school shares a parking lot with the Brett Memorial Ice Arena, which will have programs for learning to skate and hockey leagues running in to July. Price mentioned that there is nowhere to park in downtown Juneau, making it inaccessible to large groups. Cottle also lauded the infrastructure in the Valley. The Wasilla Airport recently hosted 250 small aircraft for the Wings Over Wasilla airshow. Cottle also proudly stated that Wasilla hosts the largest wrestling tournament in the state and has hosted high school state volleyball, wrestling and hockey tournaments. Cottle said that 33,000 cars a day travel past Wasilla Lake, and that there should be no traffic issue if the legislature convenes at WMS.

Mat-Su Borough Manager John Moosey does not foresee a major economic advantage for the Mat-Su Borough while the legislature is in Wasilla.

“We really want them there. We think we can be great hosts to them and as borough manager, I’m excited that there’s an opportunity to come so they could explore and see the Mat-Su Borough,” Moosey said.

Moosey said that the legislature should not cause a problem for school starting in the fall. If legislators finish the session on their 30th day on Aug. 8, that gives WMS staff roughly one week to prepare for students.

“We think this is a great opportunity to show off the Mat-Su Borough,” Moosey said.

Legislators within 50 miles are not eligible to receive per diem pay, which is derived from an Internal Revenue Service ruling regarding being ‘away from home’ pertaining to tax free reimbursement eligibility. Before this year, legislators within 50 miles were able to receive 75% of their per diem, but it was taxed.

“We estimate that 27 legislators wouldn’t be eligible for per diem at a special session located in Wasilla. The distance is calculated by taking the home address of the legislator and the location of the meeting place of the special session,” said Jessica Geary, Executive Director of the Legislative Affairs Agency.

Special sessions have only been held outside of Juneau on three occasions, two separate one-day sessions in 2007 and 2009 at the Egan in Anchorage, and a 22-day special session at the Legislative Information Office in Anchorage.

“In all three instances, there were technical and other difficulties that resulted in a loss of historical record and stressed a system that is not designed for portability. By convening outside Juneau, staff are essentially asked to re-create the Capitol model in an unknown venue that lacks critical infrastructure and resources significant to supporting legislative sessions,” reads the LAA memo.

The memo details Alaska Statute 24.06.100(b) which was first enacted in 1982. It states that ultimately, the legislature has the power to decide the appropriate venue to hold legislative sessions in the location selected by the governor.

“We do not recall the governor attending offsite special session in years past. In fact, it is an extremely rare occurrence for any governor to appear in the gallery of either the House or Senate during legislative proceedings,” the memo states. “The fact that the needs of the administration have been addressed before some necessary requirements for a fully functional legislative session underscores the reason why the legislature, as an independent branch of government, controls its own process.”

Contact Frontiersman reporter Tim Rockey at tim.rockey@frontiersman.com.

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