Despite revisions, opposition to permitting bill still vocal

Sen. Cathy Giessel participates in a discussion in a Senate Resources Committee meeting, Feb. 5, 2014. (Photo by  Skip Gray/Gavel Alaska)

Sen. Cathy Giessel participates in a discussion in a Senate Resources Committee meeting, Feb. 5, 2014. (Photo by Skip Gray/Gavel Alaska)

After nearly a year of waiting for a rewrite of HB77, members of the public had plenty to say about the changes. They got their first chance to speak to them at a Senate Resources Committee hearing on Wednesday. Most of the testimony on the Parnell administration’s permitting bill was as negative as it was brief.

The tone of the hearing was set with the first person to testify.

Bobby Andrew had flown in from Dillingham to speak on behalf of Nunamta Aulukestai, an association of tribes and village corporations in the Bristol Bay region. Last year, the group had taken the stance that the bill had gone too far in overhauling land management policy, and Andrew said the release of a new version on Monday had not changed their position. He testified that even though some of the more controversial parts of the bill had been rewritten, his association thought the legislation still gave too much authority to the natural resources commissioner and that it did not give the public enough opportunity to weigh in on certain permitting decisions.

That was as far as Andrew got before a timer went off, and Committee Chair Cathy Giessel told him to close his testimony.

Giessel: Bobby, your two minutes is up. Why don’t you summarize?
Andrew: That was quick.

The committee pushed through testimony at a screaming pace, not even stopping to let legislators ask questions. About 50 individuals got to speak, and a hundred more were told to submit their testimony in writing instead. Just two people came out in favor of the legislation: Mary Sattler, a manager with Donlin Gold, and Mike Satre, who spoke on behalf of the Council of Alaska Producers, a mining association.

Most of the people who spoke against the bill suggested it would limit public involvement. They focused on language setting a higher bar for legal standing to appeal a decision. They found problems with a section allowing the Department of Natural to issue general permits for a broad range of activities that multiple users can operate under, and they said a single 30-day comment period was not adequate time to address those kinds of permitting decisions. (The previous version of the bill did not require any public notice or comment period.)

But as the hearing wore on, testimony began to focus on the public process being used to move a bill dealing with public process.

Rosemary McGuire, a fisherman and writer from Cordova, described the situation as ironic.

“I think it’s perfectly ludicrous that we’re not getting enough time to comment on a bill that removes our ability to comment,” said McGuire.

Giessel, an Anchorage Republican, defended the way the testimony was handled immediately after the hearing adjourned. At that point, she had decided there would be no more oral testimony because of time constraints.

“We’re not hearing anything new. Did you hear anything new and unique in the testimony? I did not. And therefore, there’s really no productivity to hearing the same thing over and over again, especially when it can be submitted in writing.”

But Giessel softened shortly after the meeting, and she decided to schedule another hearing for public testimony on Friday afternoon because of the large public response to the bill. While testimony will still be limited to two minutes, Giessel has indicated that this time she will hear every person who signs up.

Sen. Click Bishop, a Fairbanks Republican who serves on the Resources Committee, thinks giving people more time to review the bill could affect public sentiment on it. The legislation is long and complex, and a number of sections have been substantially reworked. For example, where the old version prohibited individuals and tribal groups from petitioning for water reservations as a way of conserving fish habitat, the new version lets them submit applications but allows the streams to be used as those applications are pending.

“They’ve only had 48 hours to look at the bill, and I think – just a hypothetical on my part – that if some of those people had maybe more time to digest the language, maybe they would be a little softer on their stance,” said Bishop in an interview.

Bishop says that he too is still digesting the bill – his office is still reviewing it, and he needs more time with it to decide whether he will support it.

Bishop is seen as a critical vote for the bill to pass, as is Soldotna Republican Peter Micciche, who worked with the Parnell administration on the rewrite.

Bishop says public testimony will factor into his decision.

“Give the people their due — that’s the law of the land, that’s what we do in here,” said Bishop. “We write legislation. We listen to the people. And then we try to fix legislation.”

The Resources Committee plans to make further adjustments to the bill after testimony is complete. It is then expected to be sent to the Senate floor if it can secure the votes. The legislation already passed the House last year.

Watch the full hearing and testimony courtesy of Gavel Alaska:

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