‘It should be easier to protect our waterways than pollute them.’ AKLEG Day 21 Recap

(Photo by Alaska Region U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service/Flickr)

The fourth week of the legislative session is underway and it’s already shaping up to be another jam-packed week. House budget subcommittees are aiming to start wrap-up this week.

Waterways bill

The House Resources Committee heard Rep. Chuck Kopp’s House Bill 138 on Monday, which would finally set up a formal process for the state to designate Outstanding National Resource Waters under the federal Clean Water Act. These designations, which are considered tier three designations, recognize what are essentially pristine and unpolluted waters, requiring that any activities on the water don’t permanently harm the waterway (read: mining and other resource development doesn’t like them).

The Department of Environmental Conservation has dragged its heels on making any ONRW designations (though the state has made plenty of more industry-friendly tier one and tier two designations), arguing that the Legislature should be involved while the Legislature’s attorneys have argued that it’s well within the department’s powers to review the nominations.

Kopp’s HB 138 was pitched as a science-based way to depoliticize the process although every single testifier on Monday afternoon argued that it would do precisely the opposite.

The bill would require the governor to appoint a seven-member advisory commission (which wouldn’t be subject to legislative confirmation) that would be tasked with receiving and reviewing ONRW nominations from Alaska residents (who would be responsible for the cost to analyze the application) and send recommendations to the governor who would be required to submit a bill to the Legislature and the Legislature could either take up the bill and send it back to the governor (who could veto it) or ignore it (which opponents said would be the most likely outcome).

“The idea that it would have to go through the Legislature and that it wouldn’t be a political process does not pass the blush test,” said Southeast Alaska Conservation Council scientist Guy Archibald during public testimony.

Testimony on Monday didn’t feature any pro-development organizations though several have submitted written testimony, including a coalition of chambers of commerce, trade groups and even the Alaska Municipal League. The group’s letter argues that ONRW designations are a tool of environmentalists.

“An unfortunate reality is that a Tier 3 water designation has become a potential tool for special interests to use against the development of resource or industrial development projects,” argues the letter. “This has already been the case in other states, and it is evident in many of the nominations before DEC currently. The intent may be to block or delay development, but the implications go much further.”

The group argues that the protections would prohibit motorized vessels, residential septic systems, stormwater permits, seafood processors and timber harvesting. Opponents who testified on Monday said that was essentially trumped up scare tactics.

Some testimony on Monday was frustrated that the Legislature has continually placed the mining and resource extraction industries above protecting the environment.

“It should be easier to protect our waterways than pollute them,” said testifier Andrea Hernandez.

Don’t move the municipal elections

The House had two elections-related bills on the floor on Monday, which made for an opportunity for Republicans to offer a flurry of amendments that would fiddle with the state’s election process. Several were offered by Rep. David Eastman and all were rejected.

The most significant amendment, though, came from Rep. Sara Rasmussen, R-Anchorage, that would have proposed forcing municipal elections to align with the federal elections. Well, at least that was the idea. Eastman pointed out that her amendment said that municipal elections shall be moved to the first Tuesday of November when federal elections are held on the first Tuesday after the first Monday of November.

Eastman even offered an amendment to clean up her amendment, but the Wasilla Republican couldn’t even get that passed.

Several legislators opposed the amendment, saying that such a radical change of forcing municipalities to move their elections shouldn’t be made on the House floor without the opportunity to hear from municipalities. Legislators with experience in local elections like Rep. Grier Hopkins, D-Fairbanks, also noted that there wouldn’t really be the bandwidth—like TV, radio or print space—for local elections to get any attention if they have to go up against statewide and national races.

The amendment failed on a 23N-15Y margin.

And that was for a House Bill 115 that would have made it possible for people to permanently opt to receive by-mail absentee ballots. Currently, most voters have to request a by-mail ballot for every election.

The amendment process for that bill ate up so much time that it began to run over the afternoon committee meetings, so the House ended up returning for an evening session for another round of Republican amendments to House Bill 83, which would prohibit voters from returning their ballots by fax out of security concerns. Last election only six people returned their ballots by fax.

Eastman did secure a win in this round of amendments, getting a carve-out that would allow deployed military members to return their ballots via fax (though it’s not clear if any military members used the fax option).

School fly-in

The Senate Education Committee spent the afternoon hearing from students and teachers participating in the school district fly-in. A lot of the testimony focused on the failed state of the Alaska Marine Highway System, which is down through at least early March (though it could be longer), and how it’s impacting students in everything from school trips to being able to eat.

Later in the day, the Department of Transportation announced that it has issued a request for information to provide interim passenger and freight service through private contracts.

“AMHS is working with the responding companies to establish options for interim passenger and freight service for the Northern Panhandle in the near future. Once dates are set, AMHS will work with communities to give them enough time to plan,” explained the announcement. “The RFI was issued to identify companies that could provide service after AMHS vessels were unexpectedly sidelined. The aging fleet of ferries requires more costly and time-consuming repairs.”

The state had been hesitant to set precedent with this kind of contracting, telling a committee that chartering private sailings to return students who were stranded in Juneau after the M/V Matanuska broke down cost the state about $11,000.

No word on the state of vehicles owned by legislators and legislative aides that have been stuck in Haines since before the session started.

Speaking of which, supporters of the Alaska Marine Highway are holding a rally outside the Capitol today at noon with several satellite rallies around the state.

Violate the ethics act, you gotta pay the state back-t

The House Judiciary Committee heard several bills on Monday, including Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux’s HB 201. The legislation takes aim at a controversial proposed regulation that would allow the governor and attorney general to approve free (and confidential) legal help in the face of ethics complaints. LeDoux said it’s not necessarily a problem for the state to cover these costs if they’re innocent, but says it’s wrong for the state to pick up the tab for someone who’s ultimately found guilty.

Read the full story about the bill here: Bill would halt no-strings-attached legal defense of governor, attorney general

Trump takes aim at Denali Commission

President Trump released his Medicaid- and Social Security-gutting budget on Monday, including a proposal to eliminate the Denali Commission, an organization that helps steer federal money to projects in rural Alaska. The budget cites the Alaska Permanent Fund Dividend as reason to cut support.

“(The) rationale for a unique and additional federal subsidy to Alaska is difficult to justify given that the state of Alaska’s oil revenues allow it to pay an annual dividend ($1,600 in 2018) to each of its residents,” argues the budget document, according to a report by the Anchorage Daily News.

Trump has attempted to gut the commission in previous budgets and Alaska’s delegation has continually argued in support of it.

Speaking of which, U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski is set to deliver her annual address to the Alaska Legislature at 11 a.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 18.

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