Coastal management bill introduced in state House

A bill re-establishing an Alaska Coastal Management Program has been introduced in the state House of Representatives.

House Bill 325 is largely the same as a citizen’s initiative on track for a statewide vote later this year. Lawmakers can pre-empt the measure by passing substantially similar legislation.

The bill was introduced by seven members of the House Majority caucus, including Kodiak Republican and Majority Leader Alan Austerman as primary sponsor. Austerman could not be reached for comment this afternoon (Friday).

Minority Leader, Juneau Democrat Beth Kerttula signed on as a co-sponsor as soon as the bill was introduced.

“For me, it’s maintaining people’s ability to be part of the process and for Alaskans to be able to have the right to speak up against federal government on its activities and projects in Alaska,” Kerttula says.

For more than 30 years, the coastal management program gave the state and local communities greater input into federal permitting decisions along Alaska’s coastline. It also helped developers by streamlining the regulatory processes of various state and federal agencies.

The program closed last year after lawmakers and the Parnell administration failed to reach a deal to reauthorize it. The administration and some House Republicans fought efforts by rural lawmakers and Democrats to expand the role of local communities.

Kerttula, who once worked as a coastal management lawyer for the state, says the program gave ordinary Alaskans a voice they now lack.

“It’s the program that makes all of the agencies and the people involved and communities sit down at that table and work things out. And while the huge companies might have a whole permitting department and it may not be quite so difficult for them. It’s pretty hard on the smaller companies or individuals who want to go get permits that affect the coastal zone,” says Kerttula.

Juneau Mayor Bruce Botelho is a prime sponsor of the coastal management citizen’s initiative and chairman of the Alaska Sea Party, which has been advocating for its passage. He says the group would prefer the legislature take action. If lawmakers wait to see if voters pass the initiative, Botelho says the proposed program would not get up and running until at least the summer of 2013.

“It speeds up the process by at least a year,” says Botelho. “Legislation that’s enacted now could be in place in the FY13 budget cycle, which is to say after July 1st 2012.”

Botelho admits the Sea Party also would like to avoid a costly and potentially divisive campaign to pass the initiative. He says the group would need to raise at least half a million dollars to challenge any opponents and convince voters of the need for a program.

While HB 325 closely mirrors the initiative’s language, lawmakers will have significant leeway to enact “substantially similar” legislation. Botelho expects some changes as the bill moves through the committee process, but says the Sea Party believes certain provisions must remain part of the final legislation.

“One is to make sure that all permitting agencies are part of the coastal management process,” says Botelho. “And second, we view the re-establishment of a coastal policy board as an important means by which local districts have meaningful input into the shaping of statewide standards.”

Governor Sean Parnell this week (Tuesday) said he prefers a public vote on the coastal management initiative.

Technically, the initiative is still under review by the Division of Elections. But Lieutenant Governor Mead Treadwell – who oversees elections – said recently the Sea Party appears to have collected enough valid signatures to certify the measure.

The Sea Party has challenged the administration’s cost estimate for the proposed program, which would increase the state budget by 5.4-million dollars per year. The previous coastal management program was largely funded by the federal government, but the administration says the state can only expect 2-million dollars per year in federal support for the new program.

Recent headlines