Legislature mulls allocating money to address clean water initiatives

Posted: Sunday, April 13, 2008

ANCHORAGE - The Alaska Legislature may enter the fractious debate over the Pebble Mine.

The capital budget under consideration in Juneau includes $25,000 for the governor's office to educate the public on Alaska mining and regulation.

Until Saturday, the budget item said the money was "to influence the outcome of an election on initiatives affecting those mining activities."

On Saturday, however, the House amended the measure to say it "may" influence the election.

The measure highlighted the thorny question of whether legislators should be appropriating money to influence citizen initiatives.

Alaska voters in November may be asked to vote on clean water initiatives that could affect the proposed Pebble copper and gold mine in southwest Alaska.

In a statement Saturday, Gov. Sarah Palin said the budget item did not originate from her office and that it would not be her intention to influence a ballot initiative.

"If lawmakers decide to allocate public money for this, we will ensure the Department of Natural Resources provides objective, factual information about the impacts of mining-related initiatives for voters to consider," she said.

At a hearing Thursday, some members of the House Finance Committee bristled at the word "influence," saying the state should not wade into the possible vote that Pebble opponents are pushing.

Initiative opponents say its total ban on toxic pollution releases into waters important for drinking or fish could threaten the entire mining industry.

Rep. John Coghill, R-North Pole, and House Majority Leader Ralph Samuels, R-Anchorage, added the $25,000 budget item to give state officials authority to talk about science and what effect the initiative's passage or failure would have on the mining industry, said Coghill aide Rynnieva Moss.

Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage, said the state should not get involved in initiative elections even with a small amount of money.

"Sometimes very small things give you a black eye," he said.

Others, however, said state officials could give impartial, factual information to help people sort out dueling ad campaigns.

"It is the responsibility of the state to be able to go out and provide factual information whether it tilts it one way or the other," said Rep. Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski.

State officials could counter "some idiot that is making absolutely insane claims" that influence the election, said Rep. Mike Kelly, R-Fairbanks.

"And I would say, good on us where we straightened out something that was absolutely untruthful, inaccurate and inflammatory," Kelly said.

Ed Fogels, who supervises mine permitting in the state Department of Natural Resources, said Thursday that he and other state officials are in an awkward position because they are not allowed to take a position on an initiative that could have profound effects on the mining.

Regulators are doing a good job as watchdogs of the state's mines, he said.

"We've got a good track record in Alaska. All the mines are in compliance, we have healthy fish downstream and good water quality," Fogels said.

For the earmark to take effect, the Legislature must pass and the governor must sign the capital budget. Lawmakers are scheduled to adjourn today.

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