Attempt to change university land grant bill fails

Amendment loses along party lines but idea may not be dead

Posted: Thursday, April 21, 2005

A bid to alter the governor's university land grant bill by replacing the 40,000 acres offered in Southeast Alaska with a potentially lucrative North Slope oil and gas field failed on the House floor Wednesday.

"Why are we so afraid to dream big, Mr. Speaker?" asked the amendment's sponsor, Rep. Eric Croft, D-Anchorage, during the House floor debate on his measure.

Though the amendment failed 22-15 along party lines, one majority legislator said that doesn't mean Croft's idea is dead.

"I would love to hook up to what (Croft) is talking about," said Rep. Mike Kelly, R-Fairbanks. The amendment shouldn't be added to the governor's bill this late in the legislative process but could be pursued later, he said.

Residents and communities have fought some of the Southeast Alaska land grants because the areas contain hunting and fishing grounds or other resources.

The University of Alaska appreciated Croft's proposal to provide more revenue for the university, said Joe Beedle, the university's vice president of finance.

Still, the university is "cautious about addressing such a significant opportunity without the support of the governor and the commissioner of the Department of Natural Resources," Beedle said.

Murkowski spokeswoman Becky Hultberg panned Croft's idea Wednesday, calling it a "bombshell" launched at the end of the process for political gain.

Hultberg refused to answer whether giving the university the state's 40,768-acre Point Thompson oil and gas field has merit. She insisted that the administration's bill is a "good one."

The House version of the bill is expected to get a final vote today. It is House Bill 130.

Before the House floor vote on his amendment Wednesday, Croft tried to convince fellow legislators that a North Slope land transfer made much more financial sense than giving the university "campgrounds" in Southeast Alaska.

He told legislators if the university successfully developed Point Thompson, it could reap $137 million annually, producing 75,000 barrels of oil per day and 1.5 billion cubic feet of gas per day that could be used by Alaskans.

In contrast, the governor's bill, expected to get a final vote by the House today, will provide an estimated $2.6 million annually to the university after a 20-year investment period. The university's total operating budget is in the $220 million range.

The Point Thompson tract has been leased to oil companies but undeveloped since 1978.

"We haven't been able to get Exxon to develop Point Thompson for almost 30 years," Croft said. "I want to get (University President) Mark Hamilton to help out by joining the fight."

The House took other action on the university lands bill Wednesday. It rejected an amendment by Rep. Beth Kerttula to delete the proposed transfer of the five-acre Sumdum parcel near Tracy Arm.

The parcel is "priceless" because of its historical significance to Tlingit residents and its archeological and mining heritage, Kerttula said. The Douglas Indian Association objects to the land transfer, she said.

As originally proposed, Murkowski's bill included 260,000 acres of parcels scattered throughout Alaska.

Nine parcels, eight in Southeast Alaska and one in Kodiak, are slated for deletion from the bill.

• Elizabeth Bluemink can be reached at elizabeth.bluemink@juneauempire.com.



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