House passes coast management plan

COMPROMISE: Rural communities wanted more say about usage.

April 16, 2011 

JUNEAU -- The Alaska House early Saturday passed what's intended to be a compromise on coastal management, giving communities a voice on resource development issues but not allowing them to impede oil, gas or mining projects that the state deems to be in Alaska's best interests.

The bill, produced days after talks between lawmakers and Gov. Sean Parnell broke down, was introduced in the House Finance Committee after 9 p.m. Friday. It passed out over an hour later -- time largely occupied by Attorney General John J. Burns' explanation of the bill -- and it was on the floor for a vote before midnight.

There's a sense of urgency on the issue: The current coastal management program is set to expire July 1, and the Senate stripped money for it from its version of the state operating budget. That means a bill must pass this session that at least extends the program, if not changes it, as many rural lawmakers want. The Legislature is currently scheduled to adjourn Sunday but is expected to run long amid a budget battle between the House and Senate.

The coastal management debate last year threatened to derail the Legislature in its last hectic days.

House Bill 106, which passed unanimously after little debate, now goes to the Senate. House Democratic Leader Beth Kerttula said that while she considered the bill a step forward, she also saw problems with it, including a provision that leave the coastal program out of air and water quality issues that fall under the purview of the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

"I don't think it's there yet," she said.

The bill would give coastal communities a say on resource development issues but they would not get veto power over projects and district plans could not "arbitrarily or unreasonably" restrict uses important to overall state interests.

Rep. Eric Feige, R-Chickaloon, said those involved in talks on the bills -- coastal communities, legislators, Parnell's administration -- "went over every single word, every single phrase" in the bill, several times. He said industry also had a chance to weigh in. "This is how legislation is supposed to be created," he said during the House Finance Committee meeting.

At issue is a desire by coastal communities to have a greater say in resource development decisions that could affect their way of life. Rural lawmakers said the current program doesn't allow for that and resisted the six-year extension that Parnell initially proposed.

Burns told the finance committee the measure is meant to address the concerns of communities and industry, as well as the state's desire for economic development.

Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage, questioned whether the governor should have the ability to appoint the members of the coastal policy board set up by the bill, saying a blindly pro-development governor could stack a council. Burns downplayed the potential, saying the regions would send the governor names for consideration.

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