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Lawmakers push back on 'federal overreach'

Posted: April 28, 2013 - 12:11am

JUNEAU — Fighting “federal overreach” was one of the early themes of this year’s legislative session, with lawmakers passing a handful of measures aimed at addressing conflicts between the state and federal governments.

It could remain a focus next year — depending on what comes out of Washington, legislators said.

Pushing back against the U.S. government’s perceived encroachment on Alaska’s authority has long been popular in this state, known for its libertarian bent and comprised largely of federal land. During the last legislative session, which ended April 14, several committee hearings were devoted to the issue — with the attorney general earning plaudits for his work in fighting federal overreach. Lawmakers passed several pieces of legislation on the topic, including addressing the feds’ role in gun control, resource management and the state’s authority to create bills nullifying federal laws.

Among the measures still in play for next session: resolutions that would establish a committee on federal overreach, call for a delay in implementing the federal health care law and urge President Barack Obama to rescind his executives actions from earlier this year on gun control.

“Alaskans overall sometimes get frustrated with the, this idea of being a colony,” House Majority Leader Lance Pruitt said. “We really want the federal government. We want to partner with them. But we really also want them to give us the chance to have Alaskans run Alaska.”

Gov. Sean Parnell has consistently encouraged those in state government to stand up for Alaska’s rights when the feds overstep their bounds. In 2010, the state joined a coalition that sued the federal government after it tried to designate 187,000 square miles as habitat for threatened polar bears. A judge earlier this year threw out the plan and sent it back to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to correct “substantive and procedural deficiencies.”

Whether the battle against encroachment becomes a priority next year depends on the actions the U.S. government takes that affect Alaska, said Pruitt, R-Anchorage.

But one veteran observer of Alaska politics says the federal overreach fight is a distraction — and a detrimental one considering legislators only have 90 days to get their job done every year.

“It’s almost entirely symbolic,” Jerry McBeath, a political science professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. “There isn’t much they can do about it except pass meaningless legislation.”

The Legislature, he said, should caution against making federal overreach a priority next year. If they are going to take on the feds, lawmakers should instead address it in a more tangible way.

“Many parts of federal activity in Alaska, federal programming regarding Alaska is objectionable and should be campaigned against. But it ought to be done in such a way that accomplishes an objective or two,” McBeath said.

The cleanup of abandoned federal wells in Alaska’s Arctic could be the next dispute that falls under the overreach umbrella.

For the past two sessions, the Legislature has passed resolutions calling on the federal government to clean up the abandoned well sites in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. Obama recently proposed that Alaska’s share of revenue from oil and gas development in the reserve be used toward helping clean up the abandoned wells.

House Speaker Mike Chenault called that a “real slap in the face.”

“In every aspect of our lives — especially here in Alaska — what the federal government and what people on the east coast and elsewhere would like to see is Alaska become nothing more than a visitor state with no development,” Chenault said.

The Nikiski Republican was the prime sponsor of HB69, which would make certain future federal legislation on gun control, like an assault weapons ban or mandatory registration, unenforceable in the state.

The initial version of HB69 was called “largely unconstitutional” by a legislative attorney, and an earlier version of the bill would have made it a felony for federal officers to enforce any future gun control law.

HB69 was heavily amended in the Senate, but questions still linger about the constitutionality of a bill that says a future federal law will not apply to Alaska.

“There might be a court challenge,” Pruitt said of HB69, which he voted for. “But I don’t think we should also limit ourselves just for fear that someone out there may try to challenge it.”

In an email to The Associated Press, U.S. Department of Justice spokesman Peter Carr would not say whether the federal government would challenge the bill in court.

“Under the Supremacy Clause of the United States Constitution, no state may pass a statute that seeks to prevent federal employees and officials from carrying out their official responsibilities,” Carr said.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms declined to comment on how HB69 would affect their operations in Alaska.

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Follow Joshua Berlinger on Twitter at https://twitter.com/j_berlinger

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