Backers of a citizens’ initiative to re-establish an Alaska Coastal Management Program have submitted nearly 34,000 signatures to the state Division of Elections. The Alaska Sea Party held a news conference in Anchorage on Tuesday to announce the total, which is about 8,000 more than the group needs to place the measure on this year’s statewide ballot.
But as Casey Kelly reports, the Sea Party hopes the legislature is able to resolve the issue before it goes to a vote.
Alaska Sea Party Chairman and Juneau Mayor Bruce Botelho says about 250 volunteers spread across the state collected the signatures in record time.
“We received our booklets 27 days ago, and the task that we had before us was an arduous one,” says Botelho.
The Division of Elections now has 60 days to determine if there are at least 25,875 signatures of valid Alaska voters. The Division will also make sure the Sea Party collected signatures from at least 7 percent of registered voters in 30 of the state’s 40 House districts. Botelho expressed confidence that both thresholds will be met.
“I would put it this way: We would not have filed if we thought that we did not have the requisite distribution,” he says.
The Sea Party set out to collect the required signatures before the legislature convened, in order to give lawmakers an opportunity to pass “substantially similar” legislation during the 2012 session. Botelho – a former state attorney general – said Lieutenant Governor Mead Treadwell will make the initial decision on what “substantially similar” means. But the Sea Party expects any bill would have the same basic elements as the initiative.
Botelho said that includes a policy board made up of coastal residents.
“Which makes sure that there’s a role for local districts in the formulation of that statewide policy,” he says.
The initiative also would make the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation part of the coastal management structure. Former Governor Frank Murkowski removed DEC from the program to make the regulatory process easier on industry. Botelho said the Sea Party wants a comprehensive program.
“We would expect all regulatory agencies that work within the coastal zone to be a part and at the table in the implementation of coastal management,” says Botelho.
Before closing down last year, coastal management helped developers navigate the complicated state and federal permitting process. It also allowed the state to comment on proposed federal regulations or projects that affect Alaska residents and businesses. Initiative co-sponsor and Kodiak Island Borough Mayor Jerome Selby said Alaska’s small businesses suffer most from the lack of a program.
“I found it pretty interesting the number of people that I talked to – contractors, small business people, others – who are already encountering difficulty in getting their federal permitting and the coordination that’s missing without this program,” says Selby.
If the legislature adjourns in 90 days without passing a similar bill, the measure will go on the August primary ballot. If the legislature takes longer than 90 days to adjourn, the initiative will appear on the November ballot.
Last year, the Parnell administration and some House Republicans fought efforts by rural lawmakers and Democrats to give local communities a voice in the program when it came up for reauthorization. House Speaker Mike Chenault – a Nikiski Republican – isn’t sure about the prospect of “substantially similar” legislation passing this session.
“We can make decisions today based on if there’s enough signatures or if there’s not enough signatures. But what decision can we make?” Chenault says. “There may be two or three different ways to go at coastal zone, and we’ll just have to look and see what options are available.”
But Juneau Democrat and House Minority Leader Beth Kerttula, says lawmakers need to recognize the Sea Party’s impressive feat and the 34-thousand Alaskans who signed the petition.
“It’s going to be to people’s detriment if they don’t recognize that. So, I hope that we do our job and lead on this issue and bring the program back,” she says.
Governor Parnell’s Spokeswoman Sharon Leighow said the administration would have no comment on the initiative today. In the past, Parnell has said the state can live without a coastal management program.
The administration estimates it would cost about 5-million dollars a year once it’s up and running. A significant portion of that would be paid for by federal grants. Any program requires federal approval, a process that could take up to two years after it is submitted by the state.