Willow, Alaska — To move or not to move the state capital--that's the question Alaskans have been debating, voting on, and changing their minds about for years.
This November they'll vote on it once again, for the sixth time since the issue was first raised 22 years ago. Surprisingly, considering how long the move has lurked on the state's political horizon, it's as hotly debated today as it ever was.
On the surface, it's a straightforward matter. Should the capital be moved from Juneau, a small town tucked away in the faraway southeast corner of the state, and rebuilt--literally from the ground up--in Willow, an even smaller town (pop. 38) just 70 miles north of the state's main city, Anchorage?
After turning down capital-move proposals in 1960 and 1962, voters OK'ed a move in 1974. By 1976, they'd picked Willow as the future state seat. In 1978, however, they turned down a $966 million bond issue to finance the state's share of the transfer cost. At the same time they passed an initiative requiring voter approval of all bondable costs before one penny could be spent.
This year voters may finally settle The Great Move Debate--at least for the present. A cost estimate of the capital transfer, now being figured, will appear on the November ballot. If voters approve the expense, the capital will be moved , with construction work to start in Willow by 1988. If turned down, the capital stays put and the 1974 initiative authorizing a move becomes moot. The whole debate could start all over again, however, if pro-move activists muster enough support for another initiative.
In many ways, the capital controversy is a peculiarly Alaskan affair. No other state in the country stretches across four time zones. Nor does any other state have the accessibility problems that are commonplace here in the vast, largely unpaved lands of the nation's largest state.
Accessible, capital move proponents argue, is precisely what Juneau is not. Set in a time zone two hours ahead of Anchorage, and reached from there only by a $296 airplane trip or an hours-long car-and-ferry ride, Juneau is out of touch with the rest of the state, they say.
''The only good government is accessible government,'' says Frank Harris, chairman of the Capital Access Committee, an Anchorage-based group that is lobbying for the move.
Those in favor of not budging from Juneau counter that since 1978, satellites have made teleconferencing hookups possible, so Alaskans can testify at legislative hearings without leaving their own towns.
In addition, they say, government offices, including representatives of Republican Gov. Jay Hammond, have extended increasing numbers of branch offices into the rest of Alaska. Some opponents even go so far as to say the issue is a power struggle between urban Anchorage and the rest of the state. Moving the capital, they argue, would center too much power in Anchorage, which already wields considerable clout as home to half the population.
Perhaps the most persuasive argument in the November vote, however, will be the economics of the move. Proponents say it would be cheaper for the state to operate in Willow, on state-owned land and in state-owned buildings, than to continue leasing most of its office space, as it now does, in Juneau. Moving costs, they claim, could be offset by the sale of some of the 64,000 acres of land around Willow now under state ownership.
But those who oppose the move contend it is an extravagance Alaskans can ill afford at a time when some remote areas of the state have yet to have plumbing installed.
Governor Hammond has said that if Alaskans want the move, he will put the state seal under one arm, the lieutenant governor under the other, and go pitch a tent in Willow. But he has long opposed a capital transfer. His hand appears to be strengthened now as oil revenues, which are affected by the current world oil glut, continue to drop drastically, forcing the state to watch more closely every penny it spends.
''Given the current economic situation,'' a capital insider notes, ''the idea of building a new city in the wilderness is so laughable that not even Alaskans, as ridiculous as they are, would vote for that.''