JUNEAU -- The Alaska House on Tuesday defeated a measure that would have extended the state's coastal management program, a surprising end to a special session that had been called to try to save it.
The opt-in program, which allows states to put conditions on certain activities on federal lands and waters, will now expire Thursday night. On Monday, the Senate narrowly passed what had been billed as a compromise with the House, then adjourned, leaving the House with no real practical option besides taking the bill as-is or leaving it.
In the end, the House left it, with representatives like Mike Hawker of Anchorage believing the bill in front of them made good policy calls but failing to see how, practically, they could overcome the fact that the program had been gutted. The vote was 18-18.
After the Legislature failed to reach a compromise to extend the program during the first special session last month, the state began winding it down. Only five of the program's 33 workers remain, none of whom work at the policy level. Attorney General John J. Burns said it could take up to a year to hire new staff and ramp up the program again.
Gov. Sean Parnell said he'd veto the bill if it landed on his desk, branding it a jobs killer. He said the current staff would not be able to handle the workload, and projects would be delayed.
"It's not as easy as snapping your fingers and hiring new people," Parnell said in Anchorage. "These are very technical positions that involve complex review of federal laws and state laws and permitting applications. This is not something that you can just go hire someone off of the street."
Burns, who testified before the House Finance Committee on Tuesday, couldn't say whether some of the former workers were interested in coming back. Rep. Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau, questioned why experts from other departments or contractors couldn't help shoulder the burden. Several lawmakers wondered whether Parnell was committed to finding ways to save the program or happy to see it end.
Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, said the administration could have been more engaged earlier. He said the proposal -- which provided the basis for lawmakers returning to Juneau -- included pieces that he believed the administration was on board with. But the trip-up came with the transition -- how to ensure projects wouldn't be slowed down while the program was ramped back up.
Hawker said he believes even members of the administration were surprised by what it would take. He said the administration acted responsibly in winding the program down as it did.
The problem, he said, was situational. "The clock has run out on this program," he said.
The question now is what's next?
It's not clear just how the state will move ahead in a way that would ensure coastal communities had a strong voice in resource development decisions that could affect their way of life. Allowing for tha t voice was at the heart of this debate.
There is review process associated with federal projects but Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage, said it is "weak," offering little more than an opportunity to comment -- not a place at the table.
Burns said he believed not having a program would require the state to actively engage with coastal communities, to make sure the state can give voice to any concerns, but Rep. Reggie Joule, D-Kotzebue, said it's also possible the communities could bypass the state and go straight to the federal government.
Several lawmakers expect the debate to continue, arguing that the state is well-served by having a well-performing coastal management program.
Chenault said he expected bills addressing the issue to be introduced in the regular session next year.