• Senate Resources Committee Chair stalls controversial permitting bill indefinitely after strong opposition
By Hannah Heimbuch
After hearing significant public testimony and receiving more than 1,500 letters from all sides, Sen. Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage, chose to permanently hold House Bill 77 in committee last week.
“What began as an efficiency permitting bill has morphed into a heated debate and it’s driving Alaskans apart,” Giessel said in a release last week. “It is clear that this bill raised a lot of concern among constituents and at this point there doesn’t seem to be a resolution.”
The bill was a complex piece of legislation, introduced by Gov. Sean Parnell’s administration. It sought through multiple and varying provisions to streamline Alaska’s land and water use permitting process, an effort to encourage economic development, such as mining.
Supporters touted its intent to clear a large backlog of unprocessed Department of Natural Resources permits, and pave the way for more efficient permit issuing and use in the future. Those opposed, however, were concerned with the methods with which the complicated legislation proposed to do that. Namely those that limited public comment and review periods, or changed in-stream water rights to state-held resources — rather than individual-, group- or tribe-held. There was concern regarding the potential precedents set by a bill that weakened rules and public input, particularly when it came to publicly owned resources.
Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, said while he knows many of his constituents will be pleased with this end result, he has mixed feelings.
“My mixed feelings are due to the scores of hours my staff and I invested in improving the bill,” Micciche said, “and hoping to get it to the point of where it was viewed as an adequate compromise between fish and water people, and the pro-development folks on the other side. Both sides represent Alaskans and both are important to this discussion.”
Sen. Micciche held town hall meetings in both Homer and Soldotna to address concerns about HB 77 in March.
“Ultimately, I am proud for giving my constituents on both sides a voice that was heard loudly and clearly in Juneau,” Micciche said.
For Executive Director Bob Shavelson of Cook Inletkeeper, the bill’s ultimate fate was the correct one.
“I think it’s good that the Legislature finally heard the overwhelming opposition from Alaskans,” Shavelson said. “This was a poorly thought-out piece of legislation from Gov. Parnell. It cut Alaskans out of important natural resources decisions.”
The opposition has been significant, and diverse, Shavelson said, an indication of the degree to which Alaskans are opposed to the bill.
“It was sport fish, it was commercial fish, it was Alaska Natives, it was property owners, it was small businesses,” Shavelson said. “In the 19 years I’ve been doing this work, I’ve never seen that type of statewide, broad-based opposition to something.”
While the intentions of creating efficiency in government and promoting economic growth aren’t negative objectives, accomplishing it through limited public involvement isn’t the way to do it, he said.
Shavelson cited the Coastal Management Program as a better example of permitting efficiency, a program cut under the Parnell administration.
“All the evidence came out that it wasn’t unduly burdensome,” Shavelson said. “It gave local Alaskans an opportunity to engage in projects that would affect their local communities.”
Despite changes made to HB 77 mid-session, it was not destined to be Alaska’s answer to permitting efficiency. There did not seem to be a clear consensus on the bill’s future or significant change in public approval.
“Thanks to the public input we’ve received over the past year, I think major improvements were made to the bill,” Sen. Giessel said in the release. “However, I can’t justify spending any more time considering this legislation this session. I do believe the concept behind HB 77 was well intended.”
Several key shortcomings prevented the bill from garnering public approval, Micciche said, some of those related to process.
“First was the primary shortcoming associated with a lack of stakeholder input and feedback in the development of the bill,” Micciche said. “Second was the sheer size of the bill and the quantity of issues … Third was the absence of a front-end loading process that helped Alaskans understand the issues and that allowed for adjustment once feedback was provided by the public.”
It’s going to be necessary to revisit these topics in the future, Micciche said, though he hopes that significant lessons have been learned regarding the vital need to engage the public throughout bill development and the review process.
Shavelson too expects portions of it will appear in future legislative work, as lawmakers continue to try to address permitting efficiency.
“I think there’s definitely room to work within the current legislation,” Shavelson said. “I think now we’re in a very good spot to take a step back and have that larger discussion. What does an Alaskan permitting system look like, that’s not just going to rubber stamp projects for developers.”
Not only would he like to see improved consideration for the importance of public input, and protection of the rights of individuals, groups and tribes to obtain in-stream flow reservations, but there are several things the bill did not address that it should have, Shavelson said.
At the top of the list are changes to the Title 16 permitting process on activities that affect fish streams, Shavelson said.
“They see thousands of these permits a year, and there’s no public notice, and no public comment,” he said. “This continues to be an issue that has not garnered a lot of attention.”
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