Council OKs state campaign against polar bear protections

Sean Cockerham | Tribune Media Services

JUNEAU -- The Legislative Council has decided to push ahead with the state paying for a public relations effort to curb the Endangered Species Act and the listing of polar bears, despite lawmakers saying it could create a black eye for Alaska.

The council on Thursday also rejected a recommendation by lawmakers that it try to overturn the 90-day limit imposed by Alaska voters on how long the Legislature can be in session. And it debated whether to lift the ban on legislators using Facebook in their Capitol offices.

The council is a group of 14 state representatives and senators that handles legislative business. Some had misgivings about the state funding a $1.5 million conference and public relations effort aimed at the Endangered Species Act. But no one tried to stop it.

Senate Majority Leader Johnny Ellis said it could end up giving Alaska a black eye nationally.

"We should be very mindful there's great potential for PR damage that could come from this if we let politicians do the science instead of scientists do the science," the Anchorage Democrat said.

Chugiak Republican Rep. Bill Stoltze said he doesn't like how the Endangered Species Act is being applied but has doubts about this approach to fighting it.

"Just because we have money doesn't mean it's imperative that we spend it," he said.

Legislative Council Chairman John Harris said the idea behind the public relations effort is that the designation of polar bears as threatened and the listing of Cook Inlet beluga whales as endangered could result in economic damage.

"Are there entities out there that can help us defend ourselves?" said Harris, a Valdez Republican.

The effort was conceived as a national public relations campaign aimed at creating a "grass-roots" call for limits on the Endangered Species Act. The Legislative Council has solicited bids from public relations firms willing to organize a conference in Anchorage on the act, with the findings to be used in the public relations effort.

Eddie Grasser, a legislative staffer organizing the effort, said the public relations firm will need to invite people on both sides of the debate to the conference.

"If you don't do that you will have a black eye," Grasser said.

The council will now look at the bids from public relations firms and decide where to go next.

The Legislative Council Thursday also took up one of the most-talked-about issues among lawmakers: whether to overturn the 2006 ballot initiative reducing the length of the Legislature's annual regular session from 121 days to 90 days.

A task force of state representatives had recommended the council put in a bill to overturn the 90-day limit. They said it rushes lawmakers and leads to problems ranging from lack of sleep to potentially sloppy legislation being passed.

But the council declined to do so Thursday. It decided unanimously to just send a letter saying any legislator who wants to can pursue the matter.

Harris said after the meeting that he doesn't think there's enough interest in tossing out the voter-mandated 90-day session limit.

"I don't see it. I don't see it all," Harris said.

All three members of the subcommittee of House members that studied the issue felt the Legislative Council should to try to repeal the limit. But the Senate panel that examined the 90-day cutoff was divided on whether to overturn it.

Anchorage Democratic Rep. Max Gruenberg, a member of the House subcommittee that opposed the limit, said he's not giving up on repealing it.

Gruenberg has a draft bill and is shopping it around, hoping to get other lawmakers on board.

"It's just good government. Let us do our work," he said.

The Legislative Council also debated whether to lift the ban on using Facebook on state computers in legislative offices at the Capitol. Council staffer John Bitney said several legislative offices had asked to be allowed to use Facebook, saying the social networking site is a good way to communicate with their constituents.

But lawmakers opposed to lifting the ban said Facebook could easily turn into campaigning, which is against the law on state computers. Stoltze said he doesn't know much about Facebook, other than that Sarah Palin is using it to communicate, seemingly with a lot of success, but he thinks legislators and staff have better ways to spend time at the Capitol.

The council decided to postpone the debate, in addition to a dispute over some legislative staff being allowed to be rehired right after retiring, therefore collecting salary plus retirement pay.