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Failure on Coastal Zone Management cedes Alaska sovereignty to Feds

Alaska Rep. Les Gara

EDITOR'S NOTE: Les Gara is an Alaska State House Representative. This commentary appeared in his legislative e-newsletter on June 29, 2011.

I’m not a big fan of failure, and not a big fan of spending money on wasted special sessions.  I’ve now voted three times, including yesterday, to pass the Coastal Zone Management bill that passed the bipartisan Senate Monday, but surprisingly failed by three votes in the House yesterday.  Failure to pass the bill gave away a big piece of state sovereignty to the federal government.  Click here for a link to my speech on the House Floor on why I believed the bill should pass, or read the text at the end of this newsletter.  

For all the talk we hear from the governor and others who say they want to stand up to the federal government, their opposition to this bill gave the Feds the farm. The bill, if it passed, met every FOX TV talking point we hear -- local control, state control instead of federal control, and quicker project permitting.  But most House Republicans voted against it. Here’s what was at stake, and what happened, and why I think Alaskans were “Lucy and the Footballed” -- again.

The Coastal Zone Management bill would have required state development laws to apply on coastal federal waters and lands; and would have required that local communities be given a voice at the table. By failing the bill, the federal government will now exclusively apply federal law to those projects, and those decisions will be made by bureaucrats who largely don’t live in Alaska, don’t understand Alaska fisheries and communities, and don’t necessarily share our interest in moving forward with responsible development. Communities won’t have their concerns aired before state representatives (under the bill's local comments, on fishing stream protection or other matters, could have been incorporated into a development project plan, but only if those concerns were consistent with state development and resource laws).  Now they’ll be allowed to comment, largely in writing, to federal officials who have the power to ignore their comments, and ignore state law.

When I was asked to go down for special session, I was told that we had 27 votes in the House for the special session on the very bill that failed.  I assumed that meant we had 27 votes. So did everyone in the Senate. I wouldn’t have gone down to Juneau if I knew we’d be playing “Lucy and the Football.” We went to kick the winning field goal, and the football was removed just in the nick of time to give away state control over these projects. 

It didn’t help that at the last minute oil industry members’ organization, “the Alliance” and the Alaska Miners Association wrote letters in opposition to the bill. I don’t know if that changed any votes, but these companies have now bought themselves slower permitting by federal bureaucrats instead of faster permitting under state law -- all because they didn’t want local communities to have a seat at the table. 

Maybe oil companies didn’t want to hear about strong oil spill contingency planning, or mining companies didn’t want to hear about project amendments aimed at protecting local fishing waters.

So -- basically, failing this bill gives Alaska’s destiny on development projects to the federal government, and cuts out the voices of local Alaskans, and the application of our state’s laws on development. In addition it will slow down development projects. Every Democrat and four Republicans voted for the bill. Eighteen Republicans voted to end the program. The bill failed on an 18-18 vote -- with four people who wouldn’t have changed the outcome absent.

Why will development now be slower? Because under the Coastal Zone law, all state permitting agencies acted together in reviewing permit applications. In essence, we had streamlined permitting, and development projects that would otherwise have moved ahead are now jeopardized. For example, state laws on oil spill cleanups and contingency plans have historically been stronger than federal laws in that area. When companies come up with proposals to drill for oil and gas off shore on federal lands, the state could have, with stronger oil spill and prevention laws, dulled opposition to those projects.

The reason some gave for voting against the bill was that after this bill failed during the last session, most Coastal Zone employees left to find new jobs, and that would temporarily slow down permitting. I don’t buy it. Those folks chose Coastal Zone Management careers and many would have come back. We could have easily hired any of many contractors. And under state law, if we are understaffed and don’t render a decision within 90 days on a completed development project application, the application is automatically approved. Finally, we could have addressed this transition period as we hired our staff back by regulation if we wanted. 

And this concern didn’t appear until the last minute. The House Republican leadership wrote the bill we voted on. If they were concerned about this transition period, the bill should have included language to address it.

The Senate, myself, and others, remain mystified about a bill House and Senate leaders negotiated, that seemed to have the votes when two-thirds of the members said they wanted to go to Juneau for a special session, and that suddenly was voted upon by folks with changed minds.

A special session that should have been a success turned out to be a waste of public money.  I’m happy to be home, but not happy with a vote tally that, in coming years, Alaskans and industry alike will regret.

Les Gara, a Democratic state representive for Anchorage's 23rd District, was born in New York and came to Alaska in 1988 fresh from Harvard Law School to clerk for Alaska Supreme Court Justice Jay Rabinowitz. He was a state assistant Attorney General before entering private practice. Since 2003, he has served as a state representative. He has won a “Defender of Democracy Award” for his efforts to open government meetings and limit the influence of money and lobbying in politics.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch. Alaska Dispatch welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.