State conservationists focus legislative goals

Priorities include renewable energy, habitat protection

Posted: Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Alaska's conservation community has narrowed its legislative focus this year to three top priorities, all of which have been introduced in bills before the Legislature, as of Monday.

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One would form a renewable energy fund, another would institute mining tax reform measures and the third would ensure protection of fish habitat from "mixing zone" area pollutants.

"In previous years, there were priorities established, but they were more general in nature," said Kate Troll, executive director for the Alaska Conservation Alliance, the umbrella organization for 40 environmental groups.

"When you are asking for legislative support (it is important) to be clear and to stay on message, and that is what we are trying to do this year," she said.

The group selected its top environmental issues on the basis of political viability, environmental sensitivity, potential for alliance-building and overall timeliness.

Two bills - one in the House, one in the Senate - would establish a special state fund using loans to finance projects that promote renewable energy. Both were introduced Monday.

"The sticky wicket is the funding," Troll said. "It will be up to the Legislature to decide how much that would be."

The conservation groups also would like to see mining tax reforms, which would bring the state more money from the growing industry.

Department of Revenue data show mining revenue to the state is less than 1 percent of mined resource value, with an additional 1 percent paid to municipalities.

In the House, Homer Republican Paul Seaton introduced legislation that includes a number of revenue-generating provisions. Some would increase the mining production tax over several years. The measure also would make production royalties cover gross income instead of net income.

Seaton has high hopes of support from colleagues who were critical in the past.

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"They understand it better. Like with the cruise ship industry and the (cruise ship tax) initiative, basically they want all industries to pay their fair share," Seaton said. "The question is, what is the fair share?"

Last month Seaton also introduced legislation restricting the authorization of "mixing zones" - or areas where discharge has higher than allowable rates of pollutants - in fish spawning beds. Similar legislation was introduced last year, but was never approved.

Seaton said it was pure coincidence that two of the bills he has sponsored were among the conservation communities' top three priorities for 2007.

"I am glad they like the bills, but of course mining tax reform really isn't necessarily conservation-related at all," he said. "It is related to diversifying the income base of the state."

Alaska legislators have often looked askance at bills carrying an "environmental" endorsement, said Sen. Kim Elton, D-Juneau.

"I do think it is unfortunate that when it is called an environmental agenda there are some filters that go up between some ears," he said.

Ultimately, he believes that each of these issues can be evaluated on their own.

"I don't think it will make a difference, no more than it has been in the past," he said.

"I think that most of the people inside the Capitol building recognize that there has been an environmental agenda, but maybe it hasn't been as formalized as this."

The priorities were narrowed from a dozen proposed during a December general membership meeting of the Alaska Conservation Alliance.

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