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Coastal Management cost estimates challenged

Election director says initiative close to qualifying for ballot

Posted: February 7, 2012 - 1:02am
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Juneau Mayor Bruce Botehlo, sponsor for the Alaska Coastal Management Program Initiative, turns to leave after being questioned at a joint meeting of the House and Senate Judiciary committees at the Capitol on Monday.  Michael Penn/Juneau Empire
Michael Penn/Juneau Empire
Juneau Mayor Bruce Botehlo, sponsor for the Alaska Coastal Management Program Initiative, turns to leave after being questioned at a joint meeting of the House and Senate Judiciary committees at the Capitol on Monday.

Juneau Mayor Bruce Botelho told a legislative committee Monday the Parnell administration significantly overstated the cost of restoring the Coastal Management program in Alaska.

An initiative to do that looks increasingly likely to make the ballot later this year.

Botelho chairs the Alaska Sea Party, a group of coastal communities trying to resurrect the program the Legislature let die last year. He was invited to testify over the objections of some legislators.

Botelho told a joint meeting of the House and Senate Judiciary committees the state’s estimated fiscal impact of restoring the program was too high.

“I believe the fiscal note overstated the cost fairly dramatically, at least in the first few years of the program,” Botelho said.

The state’s official estimate said the state would have to absorb the full cost of the $5.4 million program initially, until partial federal funding would be likely to kick in.

Botelho said it would take some time, probably 2-3 years before the program could begin reviewing projects, which would be what much of its staff does. That would limit its initial cost.

An economist with the Office of Management and Budget, part of the Parnell administration, said because the timing and extent of the program are still in flux, cost estimates are difficult.

“Should the initiative pass it is likely that the actual costs will be different,” said OMB economist John Boucher.

Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, asked why the state was only projecting $2 million a year in federal support for the program, despite the state’s previously receiving $4 million a year.

Boucher said he’d have to look into it and respond to the committee later.

Rep. Carl Gatto, R-Palmer, questioned whether the state was being overly optimistic projecting the federal government would have enough money to fund Coastal Management in the future.

Boucher said he couldn’t speculate about the availability of the funds in the future, but they are part of federal law now.

One new aspect of the program is it creates a new board to oversee Coastal Management. Botelho said the state’s $700,000 cost for that board was high, far higher than similar statewide panels, such as the Board of Game.

State Elections Director Gail Fenumiai said the Elections Division was working its way through the process of confirming the initiative had received the required 24,875 valid signatures from registered voters, and was getting close to doing so.

Of the more than 33,000 signatures submitted, 24,350 have already been validated, with more than 8,800 left to check.

She also said the signatures came from enough districts to satisfy a requirement for initiative petitions. Under state law, a minimum number of signatures must come from at least 30 of 40 House districts. Fenumiai said the Alaska Sea Party had actually collected the minimum number of signatures in 37 of the state’s 40 districts, the first time the division has confirmed publicly that hurdle was met.

Monday’s committee hearing was required by a new state law mandating an initiative proposal be heard in at least one committee of each house of the Legislature before it goes to the ballot. The House and Senate Judiciary committees were designated to conduct the hearings.

Rep. Kyle Johansen, R-Ketchikan, chief sponsor of the initiative requiring the hearings, had urged the committees to only hear from the administration about how they’d implement the program.

At the hearing itself, one committee member, Rep. Lance Pruitt, R-Anchorage, told Botelho he was “uncomfortable with you being here” as they weren’t also hearing from initiative opponents.

The chairmen of the two committees, Gatto and Sen. Hollis French, D-Anchorage, said they decided whom to invite.

The Legislature can head off an election restoring Coastal Management by adopting a substantially similar program on its own. No such legislation has been proposed.

Also testifying were legislative attorneys who discussed the “substantially similar” requirement.

Doug Gardner, director of the Legislative Legal Services Division, said lawmakers would have wide latitude in putting together a substantially similar program, given Coastal Management’s complexity, the Associated Press reported.

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

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