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Public Rightly Rebukes HB77, the ‘Silencing Alaskans Act’

Bill Sherwonit

We all have to pick our battles and until now I’ve stayed on the sidelines while HB77 has moved through (and for a considerable while, was stalled in) the Alaska Legislature. Introduced by Gov. Parnell in the last legislative session—and pushed hard by the administration—HB77 has been framed by Parnell and his appointees as a way to improve the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) permitting process. But as its opponents have pointed out, this awful legislation is really nothing more than a power grab that largely leaves Alaskans out of the permitting process. Unless you happen to be a corporation or other entity seeking to mine or otherwise develop Alaska’s state lands and waters. For that reason, some opponents have taken to calling HB77 the “Silencing Alaskans Act,” one that is “anti-salmon, anti-Democracy, anti-Alaskan.” I think that pretty much nails it.

Those who’ve followed this battle will recall that HB77 moved swiftly through the House but stalled in the Senate last session, when there were insufficient votes to pass it. Now DNR has brought back a revised HB77 that is hardly improved from the original. And in some ways may be worse.

As opponents have noted, the Parnell administration waited 10 months before revealing its changes to HB77, while refusing to work with critics to forge a compromise. When the revised bill was finally released, Alaskans were given less than 48 hours to study it, before a public hearing was scheduled by the Senate Resources Committee. That too became something of a travesty, when committee chair Cathy Giessel (R-Anchorage) ended the hearing without giving dozens of people the opportunity to testify. (She also apparently cut people off while rigidly upholding the allotted two-minute time and refused to allow others on the committee to ask questions, prompting some to question just how open she was to public feedback.)

Giessel initially indicated this would be the end of public testimony before the committee, with only written comments to be taken. But at some point she had a change of mind (if not heart) and scheduled a second hearing for today (Friday, March 14). For those who’d like to know more about Wednesday’s fiasco, I’d recommend the Alaska Dispatch’s story, “HB 77 testimony: Revised water rights bill soundly panned, except by mining interests.”

This latest episode pushed me over the edge, so I too wrote out some thoughts that I emailed to Giessel. Those comments follow, along with my encouragement to other Alaskans to speak out and refuse to be silenced. (You can contact Giessel by email at Senator.Cathy.Giessel@akleg.gov.)

“I would like to add my voice to those of many other Alaskans who feel disenfranchised -- and dismissed -- by the contents of House Bill 77. From what I have been able to learn, the revised HB77 still has lots of problems and does not address core issues that have prompted many of us Alaskans to oppose this legislation. Also troubling is the public process—or rather the lack of it. The public was given little chance to study the changes to the revised bill before public testimony was scheduled. And as widely reported, this week's earlier hearing was a slap in the face to many of the people who took time out of their day and lives to testify in opposition to the bill, and were then rather rudely turned away. While I appreciate the fact that a second public hearing was scheduled, it's likely that many who attended Wednesday's hearing will be unable to do so again on Friday (today). Like others, I urge the Alaska Legislature to fully vet this bill in front of multiple committees and not merely give the appearance that the public is being included in the process by limited, insufficient hearings.

“As for the troubles with HB 77: as expressed by many who have already testified against it, this power grab of a bill would provide for new expanded DNR powers, erode Alaskans rights to appeal DNR decisions, and damage the existing process for water reservations. Additionally, even with new revisions, HB 77 undermines tribes and individual Alaskans' ability to keep water in streams and seriously undermine their ability to participate in natural resource decisions on state land in other ways.

“Despite the attempts to fix this bad bill, recent proposed amendments to it do not address concerns raised by the public at statewide public forums and in petitions and letters, and in fact, some of the changes make the bill even worse.

“I find it sadly ironic that the same people who continually accuse the federal government of overreach -- notably the Parnell administration and many legislators -- would in fact blatantly overreach themselves, as demonstrated by this bad legislation, which cuts Alaskans out of what should be a public process and takes away their rights to participate in land- and water-use decisions.

“Thank you for considering my comments. Sincerely, Bill Sherwonit”


By Bill Sherwonit
Anchorage Daily News Bloggers