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Sea Party OK with watered-down coastal program?

With a month remaining in session, a difficult road to new program lies ahead

Posted: March 13, 2012 - 12:01am

The Alaska Sea Party told legislators Monday they’d be willing to back off on some of the provisions in their coastal management initiative if that’s what it takes to get the Legislature to adopt a new program on its own.

Both Alaska Sea Party Chairman Bruce Botelho and legislative allies of coastal communities hoping to see the program restored said that might be a good outcome.

Botelho told the House Resources Committee the group would be satisfied if the Legislature passed a “good bill,” even if it didn’t contain all the elements in the initiative certified Friday for the ballot later this year.

“I’m quite confident that the Sea Party would not actively pursue the initiative,” in that event, Botelho told the committee.

Both supporters and opponents of Coastal Management, which gives local communities an official role in federal actions that affect coastal waters, may prefer to negotiate a new program.

Under state law, if the Legislature adopts a new Coastal Management program that is “substantially similar” to the initiative, the initiative would be pulled from the ballot.

If no similar program is created, the initiative would go before voters in either the primary or general election this year, depending upon the Legislature’s adjournment date.

Rep. Bob Herron, D-Bethel, is a Coastal Management supporter, but said despite the ease with which qualifying signatures were gathered, an election campaign poses risks.

“I’d say the people who are against it will carpet bomb the airwaves,” he said.

The initiative measure contains some provisions that weren’t in the existing Coastal Management program before it ended last June. Those changes make the initiative more like it was historically, before Gov. Frank Murkowski got the Legislature to change it to limit local influence.

One of the initiative’s provisions is the creation of a Coastal Policy Board, made of 13 representatives of local governments and the governor.

Another is inclusion of Department of Environmental Conservation permits under Coastal Management, repealing the so-called “DEC carve-out” that was in the recent version of the program.

Botelho said it is possible a Coastal Management program that didn’t have either of those elements might still be legally considered “substantially similar.”

Rep. Eric Feige, R-Chickaloon, asked Botelho why they rolled the back to a Coastal Management program from several years ago if they were looking to get a new program established, and why didn’t they just adopt the language of the Coastal Management renewal bill that passed the House of Representatives last year by a vote of 40-0?

“It obviously had broad support,” Feige said.

Botelho, also Juneau’s mayor, said the goal was to give local communities more of a role in shaping coastal policies.

“In our view we were rolling it forward,” he said.

The bill that passed the House last year changed in the Senate and in a conference committee.

That conference committee bill was rejected by the Republican-led House in a vote largely along party lines in a special session, and then the leadership adjourned the House preventing a further vote.

Botelho said that bill was likely not substantially similar, but the best thing for the Legislature to do was to create the best program it could, without regard for the initiative.

Legislative attorney Alpheus Bullard told the committee there was little case law on the “substantially similar” question, and the two Alaska Supreme Court cases that addressed it didn’t do so directly.

Still, he said they suggested the Legislature had fairly wide latitude in adopting its own bill.

“My suspicion is that if the Legislature passed a bill that didn’t have quite the same extent of local control and participation countenances in the initiative it would be found the same, but it’s just impossible to say that with any certainty,” Bullard said.

It may never come to that at all. Gov. Sean Parnell has said he’d prefer the voters decide the issue, though he has not threatened a veto.

Sen. John Coghill, R-North Pole, said he doubts a complicated and controversial question such as creation of a Coastal Management program can make it through the Resource and Finance committees in the month of session remaining.

“My guess is they’ll be preoccupied with oil issues, he said, listing progressivity, decoupling, separate accounting and tax credits as issues that will compete for committee time.

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

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