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Legislature rejects keeping Coastal management alive

Last-minute public opposition from Parnell seals program's fate

Posted: June 28, 2011 - 9:31pm
House Minority Leader Rep. Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau, reacts as she watches the vote count on the bill to continue the Alaska Coastal Management Program at the Capitol Tuesday during the second day of the Special Session. The bill was reject with a vote of 18-18. Other Representatives shown are from left: Rep. Kyle Johansen, R-Ketchikan, Rep. Paul Seaton, R-Homer, and Berta Gardner, D-Anchorage.   Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
House Minority Leader Rep. Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau, reacts as she watches the vote count on the bill to continue the Alaska Coastal Management Program at the Capitol Tuesday during the second day of the Special Session. The bill was reject with a vote of 18-18. Other Representatives shown are from left: Rep. Kyle Johansen, R-Ketchikan, Rep. Paul Seaton, R-Homer, and Berta Gardner, D-Anchorage.

Alaska, the state with the nation’s largest coastline, will be the only state on the ocean not to have its own Coastal Management program after tomorrow.

The Legislature, meeting in a special session, rejected a last-ditch effort to resurrect the program that expires on June 30, the end of the fiscal year.

“It seems as if we’re stepping into an abyss here,” said Rep. Bryce Edgmon, D-Dillingham, who sought to preserve the program over Parnell administration objections.

The end of the program arrived after the administration came out explicitly against keeping the program going after legislators called themselves into special session in an attempt to revive the program.

The federal government requires its agencies to comply with state laws when states have an approved Coastal Management program. That requirement will be lifted after Thursday.

After legislators flew to Juneau, the Parnell administration told them that they’d already effectively gotten rid of the program ahead of the deadline.

“The reality is (Coastal Management) is decimated,” Attorney General John Burns told the House Finance Committee Tuesday.

Staff has moved on, files stored or disposed of, computers, desks and office space given up. Trying to keep the program going now would be impossible, and project reviews would likely delay many worthy projects, they said.

The staff has also stopped reviewing projects, Burns said, meaning there would be a big surge in work without adequate staff if Coastal Management suddenly kept going.

“It’s not a matter of just keeping up, it’s also a matter of digging yourself out of a pretty deep hole,” Burns said.

Rep. Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau, who sat in with the House Finance Committee to hear Burns’ presentation and lead support for the program, disputed Burns’ claim it was too late.

Many of the division’s employees saw Coastal Management as a career, and would return to a renewed program, she said. Contractors, some of whom are former division employees, could be brought in to help with the extra work, she said, as could staff from other state agencies.

Rep. Mike Hawker, R-Anchorage, one of the Republicans’ key negotiators on Coastal Management, said he wanted to preserve the program, but it was simply too late.

“The situation we find ourselves in today is our clock has run out,” Hawker said.

The Republican-controlled House of Representatives voted largely along party lines against a measure that would have extended the program, though Reps. Cathy Muñoz, R-Juneau, and Peggy Wilson, R-Wrangell, were among coastal legislators trying to keep the program alive.

The final vote was tied at 18, with four members absent. Twenty-one votes were needed for passage.

Rep. Alan Dick, R-Stony River, had earlier in the year voted to keep Coastal Management, but voted against it Tuesday.

The Senate Monday passed a bill continuing the program then adjourned and mostly left town. Senate President Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, said the Senate had an agreement to return and support a bill.

Some House Republicans said they came to Juneau expecting to support the program as well, but were persuaded not to by the Parnell administration’s presentation.

“I came down here planning to vote ‘yes,’ I was a sure ‘yes,’ but when I saw all of the obstacles it was painful,” Dick said.

He said there was convincing evidence he’d been unaware of that Coastal Management had been too far dismantled to keep going without major delays in project approvals and lost construction jobs.

“If I was confident that we could put Humpty-Dumpty back together again without slowing down the permitting process I would have been ‘yes’ for sure,” he said.

Juneau-based marine ecologist Michelle Ridgeway urged the state to resurrect the program, and said any logistical difficulties were much less important than local communities’ loss of voice.

“Turn the moving trucks around and roll the files into some building — there are many available,” she said.

Some legislators, and some members of the public who testified on the bill, said the Parnell administration didn’t seem to support the program, despite assertions to the contrary.

“Perhaps the governor was trying to kill the program from the beginning,” said Celeste Novak, a coastal planner in Bristol Bay.

One Republican seemed to agree.

“I don’t feel that this program was fully supported by the administration all along,” said Rep. Mark Neuman, R-Big Lake.

And Rep. Bryce Edgmon, D-Dillingham wanted to know why the program was dismantled without legislators being told.

“Why didn’t we know about this much earlier so that the clarion call could have been sounded much earlier?” he asked.

Burns denied the administration’s support for the program was only lukewarm.

“If it was lukewarm I assure you I would have spent much less time on this,” he said.

Parnell got some support from Rep. Mike Hawker, R-Anchorage, who said the administration had acted “very responsibly” in winding up the program.

The governor got support from the oil and gas and other industries in his opposition to the program.

Restoring the program at this late date would stall project approvals, and unleash a “potential economic tsunami” on costal communities, said Bill Jeffers of the Alaska Miners Association.

It’s not clear what effect it had, but a tweet from the Associated Press brought news to legislators mid-afternoon that Parnell had said in Anchorage he would veto the Coastal Management bill if it passed.

Muñoz said five of Coastal Management’s 33 staff have yet to find new jobs.

• Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 523-2250 or at patrick.forgey@juneauempire.com.

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