ASEA will try to block habitat permitting shift

Posted: Tuesday, February 11, 2003

ANCHORAGE - Officials with a union that represents state workers said Gov. Frank Murkowski will have a fight on his hands if he follows through with plans to streamline habitat permitting. Meanwhile, a former fisheries official is trying to work out a compromise to the conflict.

Mike Robbins, business agent for Alaska State Employees Association AFSCME Local 52, said union officials met with staffers from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game's Habitat Division on Friday to discuss the governor's plan to transfer project permitting authority to the Department of Natural Resources. The plan could include to lay off up to 50 biologists and other workers.

Murkowski has claimed habitat biologists block or delay development projects because they have hidden environmental agendas. He has said shifting the division's permitting authority to the Natural Resources Department would help stimulate the economy and streamline the permit process.

Murkowski's statements about the biologists' actions are retaliatory and "are totally without merit," Robbins said.

The union has reviewed several projects the governor cited as examples of obstructionism and faulted his conclusions. If he terminates employees based on those type of allegations, it would be a breach of employee labor contracts, Robbins said.

The union also took issue with a gag order state biologists have been under since Murkowski took office in January. Biologists have been instructed not to talk to reporters and to direct inquiries to the governor's press secretary, John Manly.

"It's a violation of their free-speech rights," said Robbins, charging the biologists have been unable to defend themselves against Murkowski's allegations.

ASEA is the largest of about a dozen unions representing state workers.

Meanwhile, Carl Rosier, one of five former fish and game commissioners who publicly opposed the governor's plans, spent Friday working the halls of the Legislature trying to build support for an alternative.

"We're working on a position that will be somewhere between the extremes of leaving things as they are versus ripping the heart out" of the Habitat Division, Rosier said. "The leadership was interested in what we had to say."

Senate President Gene Therriault, a Fairbanks Republican, and Bruce Weyhrauch, a Juneau Republican, chairman of the House State Affairs Committee, have agreed to hold oversight hearings on the plan, Rosier said.

"We're trying to work something out at the present time that doesn't embarrass anybody," Rosier said.

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