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Special session result: Wasted money, squandered influence

Posted: July 7, 2011 - 5:56pm

I was not too happy to go to a special session — where I was led to believe a majority of legislators were ready to take action on a compromise bill — only to see the opposite. The bipartisan Senate did its job and passed the bill. It then failed by three votes in the GOP-led House. The result? Alaska’s now given away state sovereignty that other coastal states, GOP or Democratic led, have decided to keep. Development will be slowed down. Jobs will be lost. And your money was wasted on a wasted special session.

Because the bill failed, federal law, not state law, will apply to development in federal areas. That’s a bad deal.

In June, after months of deadlock and debate, the Senate President and House Speaker sent around a compromise bill they asked if we’d vote for to break the deadlock. The bill had to pass before July 1 if we didn’t want the federal government to take over development decisions on federal waters and lands, and nullify state law and real local input.

Two thirds of legislators said they wanted to go back to special session for this bill. I was more than surprised to see lots of folks who called for the special session then vote “no” on the bill they were told we’d vote on.

If the bill passed, state law would have applied to development projects on federal lands and waters in Alaska. By failing the bill, the House cancelled the application of state law and will now leave these decisions up to federal bureaucrats who don’t live in Alaska. The vote went this way. It was supported by a bipartisan Senate. In the GOP-led House, every Democrat, and four Republicans supported keeping state sovereignty, and a pro-development, pro-local control law. That was three votes short of getting the bill passed.

By passing the bill, local residents in affected communities would have a voice that could help alter a project to, say, protect a fishing stream, or local whaling, or require strong state oil spill prevention plans.Now only federal law will apply, and Alaskans will be allowed to write meaningless letters to federal officials who will ignore them. The lack of enforceable state clean-up and contingency plans will likely add fuel to the fire to block offshore oil and gas development.

How’s that for politicians who always complain about being under the federal yoke, and who call for local control? They invited the federal yoke, and gave away local control.

The Alliance, an oil industry group, opposed the bill at the last minute. The governor opposed the bill. The last-minute argument? Many Coastal Zone employees were told a month ago by the governor that they were going to be fired.

The reality is that folks who chose these careers would have come back; we could have used contractors in the meantime, and if the state acted too slowly, Alaska law requires that permits be granted if a decision is not made within 90 days of a completed application. That’s faster than the feds will grant permits. The governor could have directed employees to honor that 90-day rule on good applications until staff was beefed up – a process that would have taken little time. Also, we lose coordinated permitting. The Coastal Zone law provided state resource agencies coordinate, quickly act together to review permits.

Under this law, we developed the North Slope, and mines across the state, responsibly. By failing the bill, Alaska gave away a big piece of state sovereignty that every other coastal state has decided to keep.

• Gara (D-Anchorage) can be contacted at rep.les.gara@legis.state.ak.us or 269-0106.

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