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Facing fiery opposition, Alaska Senate kills controversial HB77

Craig MedredAlaska Dispatch

Sharply controversial House Bill 77, designed to streamline the process for issuing water and land-use permits, died a quiet death Thursday in the Senate Resources Committee.

“What began as an efficiency permitting bill morphed into a heated debate and it’s driving Alaskans apart,” Sen. Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage, said in a press release. “It is clear that this bill raised a lot of concern among constituents and at this point there doesn’t seem to be a resolution.”

The bill triggered widespread reaction, much of it negative. Giessel, chairperson of the Senate Resources Committee, said she got more than 1,500 letters. Her committee took more than six hours of testimony. Now she’s decided to bottle it up in her committee.

House Bill 77 was aimed at speeding up permitting for development proposals, especially for small, seemingly innocuous, projects, often by limiting public review. But critics of the measure said they feared its effects would go way beyond what was stated. Fish and environmental groups were especially critical. After concerns were raised by Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, the bill was changed this year to address public concerns, but it continued to face strong public criticism.

“I can’t justify spending any more time considering this legislation this session,” Giessel said.

Senate President Charlie Huggins supported Giessel’s decision -- as did Gov. Sean Parnell, who requested that the bill be withdrawn. 

“We, as a Senate, need to be focusing on Alaska’s highest priorities right now, which are increasing oil production, creating affordable energy, cutting state spending and stopping federal overreach,” Huggins said. “So, with so much on the Senate’s plate right now, we have decided not to move forward on this legislation.”

The bill was initiated by Parnell, whose administration has warned that environmental groups could use Alaska's laws to prevent development unless those laws were changed.

But Laurie Daniel of Homer, one of the critics who testified before Giessel’s committee last month, called it the “silencing Alaskans act.”

One provision of the bill would have changed how water rights reservations are handled. The public can now file for an in-stream water right, to keep water available for fish habitat and other needs. The bill would have changed the law to have in-stream water rights being held by the state, rather than individuals, groups or tribes.

"This bill still takes power away from the people and holds it in the hand of state government," Daniel said.