Coastal management bill gets first hearing

Even though Alaska has thousands of miles of shoreline, it’s the only state without a coastal management program. The program expired last year after the state legislature and the Parnell administration failed to reach a compromise on how much input communities should have over nearby projects on federal lands. But as KUCB’s Alexandra Gutierrez reports, supporters of coastal management are working on two separate ways to reinstate the program.

The state House of Representatives has opened consideration of a bill to revive Alaska’s coastal management program.

On Friday, Lieutenant Governor Mead Treadwell certified a citizen’s initiative allowing local input on projects like offshore oil drilling. But sponsors of a bill with a similar objective are hoping to reinstate the program through the legislative process instead.

Rep. Bob Herron of Bethel is a supporter of the coastal management program, and believes that passage of the bill would prevent an expensive fight over the ballot measure. He says the initiative may have popular support in coastal areas, but opponents of the program have more financial resources at their disposal.

“The part that I have a problem with is the financial campaign, whether you’re for or against it,” said Herron. “And I would say that the people that are against it will carpet bomb the airwaves, and it will be difficult for people that would support it to have that financial ability to compete.”

Proponents of the initiative, like Juneau Mayor Bruce Botelho have also said they prefer going through the legislature, because it would get the coastal management program up and running more quickly. When he testified before the House Resources Committee, he told them not to worry about whether any legislative changes are “substantially similar” to the initiative.

“If it is a good bill, and it incorporates among other elements the local voice, I suspect our party would not actively campaign for the initiative,” Botelho said.

One of the major differences between the previous program and the initiative is what’s called a D-E-C carve-out – a section changed in 2003 that took the Department of Environmental Conservation out of the process for Coastal Management activities. Botelho says it was added back in as part of the goal of offering a greater consolidation of coastal review.

If the carve-out is added back in and the bill passes, the lieutenant governor will have to decide whether that makes the bill so different that the initiative should still be put on the ballot.

Not every coastal legislator is offering immediate support for the bill. Last year, Rep. Bill Thomas of Haines voted against keeping the program alive, saying it gave too much weight to local knowledge, and there are other ways for communities to weigh in on nearby projects. He favors letting the initiative onto the ballot.

“I’m one of those that believe that the people want it, let them vote on it,” Thomas said. “See if we put it on the ballot. I think to play the political game in here, it’ll happen just like last time. Things’ll get pulled out, and tweaked out, and pulled around, and basically you won’t have the same bill.”

The legislature would need to act on the measure before the end of the session if they want to prevent the initiative from being put on the August ballot. The committee held the bill for amendments, and it is not scheduled for another hearing at this time.

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