Hearing on coastal management initiative planned by Legislature

JUNEAU – The Judiciary committees of both the state House and Senate will conduct a joint hearing on a pending ballot proposition to reestablish a state coastal management program, Rep. Carl Gatto, R-Palmer, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said in a Jan. 23 briefing by House leaders.

The hearing is required by law, Gatto said. Statue statutes require the Legislature to conduct a hearing on a possible ballot proposition within 30 days of petitions for a citizen initiative being turned into the Lieutenant Governor.

No date has yet been set for the hearing but it will allow for public testimony, Gatto said.

The Alaska Sea Party, a group pushing the ballot proposition, turned in petitions with nearly 36,000 signatures on Jan. 17, the first day of the 2012 legislative session.

Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell must certify the initiative within 60 days of the petitions being turned in, a process to ensure that signatures are valid and that the petitions were gathered in different parts of the state as required by law.

Petition organizers appear to have surpassed the minimum total requirement of about 25,000 signatures, although those must still be validated, but House Minority Leader Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau, said there are concerns whether the organizers, led by municipal officials including Juneau Mayor Bruce Botelho, were able to meet another requirement, getting the required number of signatures in 30 out of the 60 state House districts.

In the same briefing Rep. Alan Austerman, R-Kodiak, said the House Majority has not yet taken a position on the ballot proposition, and will wait until the final decision on certification is made by the lieutenant governor. This will not prevent individual legislators from introducing bills to reestablish the program, said Austerman, the Majority Leader in the House.

Under state law the Legislature can pass a bill enacting a law substantially similar to that proposed in a pending ballot proposition, resulting in the removal of the proposition. If no law is enacted and the ballot proposition passes in the election it goes on the books as law.

The Legislature can amend a law enacted by a ballot proposition but it must generally wait two years, although there is a case where the Legislature made substantial changes in a state minimum wage law enacted by ballot proposition one year after it was passed by voters. A state court upheld the Legislature’s action in that case.

Gov. Sean Parnell and major resource industries in the state like petroleum and mining firms are concerned about the ballot proposition because it would reenact the coastal zone management program, which “sunset,” or ended, last June, in a form existing prior to major structural changes made by former Gov. Frank Murkowski.

The worry is that, reestablished in that form, the program would impose a complex new set of permit requirements on resource development projects that would be controlled, or at least heavily influenced, by coastal communities.

If the proposition goes to the ballot and is passed by voters, it may be difficult to change once on the books. Legislators are generally reluctant to make substantial changes in laws enacted by citizen votes, particularly if the public vote is substantially in favor.

Tim Bradner can be reached at tim.bradner@alaskajournal.com.

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