Growing Alaska's Legislature

When Alaska state Rep. Peggy Wilson wants to visit her constituents, she goes by boat. Wilson represents seven Alaska towns, most of which are on...
by | March 1, 2010 AT 10:00 AM

When Alaska state Rep. Peggy Wilson wants to visit her constituents, she goes by boat. Wilson represents seven Alaska towns, most of which are on different islands from one another. She gets around by ferry. One of the islands doesn't even have ferry service though. To get there, she has to charter a flight.

Some Alaska legislators have it even tougher than Wilson. "We actually have a Senate district," she says, "that's almost as big as the state of Indiana."

Unless something changes, Alaska's rural districts are about to get even more unwieldy. High energy prices in the Bush - the parts of the state that lack interconnected roads - are accelerating a population shift away from rural Alaska. When the once-a-decade redistricting process takes place after this year's census, there will be fewer rural districts and each will have to cover a larger area.

Wilson, though, has an idea for doing something about it: expand the size of the Legislature. She has sponsored a constitutional amendment that would give Alaska eight additional House members and four new senators. With a larger Legislature, each district's needed population would be smaller. Rural districts could stay roughly the same size.

To lawmakers in the Lower 48, the situation in Alaska may seem exotic. But it's only a more extreme case of a trend going on around the country. Population growth in the past decade has been concentrated in suburbs and exurbs. That means that after redistricting, power will be shifting away from rural lawmakers. Plus, the Alaska situation reflects a universal question: Just how big should a legislature be?

Over time, legislators around the country have been asked to represent more and more people. The nation has had roughly the same number of legislators for decades (currently 7,382), serving a larger and larger population. There's a case to be made that, as a result, citizens have less access to their elected leaders.

That dynamic might be expected to lead to more proposals like Wilson's. On occasion, it has. Alaska isn't the first state to talk about a bigger legislature in the context of redistricting. A decade ago, for example, New York added an additional Senate seat to preserve upstate representation-and to help Republicans keep their majority.

The dominant discussion, though, is actually in the exact opposite direction. States are talking about reducing the size of their legislatures. Going unicameral is becoming a trendy idea. Maine, for example, which has 151 state representatives and 35 state senators, seriously considered reducing the size of its Legislature last year. Ultimately the House wanted to abolish the Maine Senate, but the Senate rejected the idea.

These discussions are, to a large extent, about saving money. Every dollar that a state saves on paying salaries and benefits for legislators and their staff is another dollar that can be directed to schools, roads or tax cuts.

That's exactly why Wilson's proposal faces an uncertain future in the Alaska Legislature. Some lawmakers, especially those from the fast-growing parts of the state, have balked at the price tag. Nonetheless, Wilson hopes her colleagues will listen when she says that providing decent representation is becoming harder and harder. "We can't keep making our districts bigger and bigger," she says. "It's not fair to the constituents, and it's not fair to the legislators."

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman | Former Staff Writer |