JUNEAU -- House Bill 77, the big pro-development permitting and water rights measure proposed by Gov. Sean Parnell, is dead for the current legislative session, Sen. Cathy Giessel announced Thursday evening.
Giessel, an Anchorage Republican who has strongly backed other development measures, said the bill had become too divisive and was a distraction at a time that other big issues were approaching critical votes.
The bill had run into withering criticism in hearings in Anchorage, around the Kenai, and in Juneau, and Giessel said she was still getting emails in opposition. The measure brought together sport and commercial fishermen, environmentalists, tribal rights activists and the owners of remote cabins who all feared it tipped the balance way too far in favor of developers. They said it would prevent them from preserving stream flows for fish or even learning about industrial plans for their areas until it was too late to complain.
One of the most vocal and effective critics was former Alaska Senate President Rick Halford, a Republican who now runs a lodge in the Dillingham region where the Pebble mine would be developed.
Fisheries consultant Lindsey Bloom, who helped organize the opposition, said she was grateful for Giessel's announcement.
"The large turnouts (at public gatherings) really demonstrated Alaskans' passion for land, fish and water," Bloom said in a telephone interview Thursday. "Our voice still has power in this state, and we appreciate that."
Opposition to the bill gathered slowly. HB 77 passed the House 23-14 on March 4, 2013, and had gotten through one Senate committee and was headed to the Senate floor when it suddenly became obvious it lacked the votes to pass. Sen. Lesil McGuire, R-Anchorage, grabbed it and held it in the Senate Rules Committee from last April until March, when it went to the Resources Committee chaired by Giessel. Parnell administration officials tried to overcome opposition by reworking it there.
Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, held hearings in December in Homer and Soldotna where opponents jammed the meeting rooms. He supported the effort to retool and said last month that the bill had improved.
But by then it was too late, he said Thursday. Opponents were so angered by the measure that almost nothing would change their minds. He said "77" had become like the 13th floor in a hotel -- a place where no one would go.
The bill was a 24-page package of items sought by the administration -- most of them small fixes for existing laws that never became controversial. Micciche said some of those provisions should come back to the Legislature next year.
"I think Alaskans can relax -- we can regroup and we can start a new discussion in the interim about what really needs to happen, what we need to do about permitting," he said.
Giessel said she would hold the bill "indefinitely" in the Resources Committee, where it would die at the end of session this month.
"There's just been so much controversy about it," she said by phone. "We weren't making the headway that needed to be made in terms of reconciling folks' concern on the opposition side as well as the concern on the supporter side."
"We've got some big stuff on the agenda," Giessel added. "This is just distracting and it is dividing people."
Parnell's spokeswoman Sharon Leighow said the governor agreed with Giessel's decision, though she added that it was "unfortunate" that there was "widespread misinformation on a couple of sections of the bill."
Reach Richard Mauer at firstname.lastname@example.org or (907) 500-7388.
By RICHARD MAUER