JUNEAU — An attorney to the Alaska Legislature said Monday that it’s entirely possible that bills passed in the House and Senate last year would be considered substantially similar to a ballot initiative that would re-establish a coastal management program in the state. But Alpheus Bullard also conceded that it’s tough to say how the courts would view that.
Bullard told the House Resources Committee that Alaska courts have dealt with two cases related to the issue of substantial similarity, and neither was as complex as this one.
Last week, Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell certified an initiative that would re-establish a coastal management program to appear on this year’s ballot. The Legislature can pre-empt initiatives by passing substantially similar legislation.
It also can pass a bill that it doesn’t intend to be substantially similar, let the vote on the initiative go forward, and let the chips fall where they may.
The committee was holding its first hearing on HB325, which its lead sponsor, Rep. Alan Austerman, said tracks closely with the initiative.
The opt-in coastal management program lets states put conditions on certain activities on federal lands and waters. Alaska’s program was overhauled — some say gutted — years ago under then-Gov. Frank Murkowski. It lapsed last year, after several failed attempts by lawmakers to revamp and save it.
During last year’s legislative debate, one of the biggest challenges came in trying to find a balance between letting local communities have a say in development decisions that could affect their way of life, particularly with the future potential for offshore oil and gas drilling, and in not obstructing development that the state deemed to be in its interest.
The program spelled out by the initiative calls for a coastal policy board that provides local input in evaluating the effectiveness of district coastal management plans. The board would approve district plans if, among other things, the plans address a coastal use or resource of concern as demonstrated by local knowledge or supported by scientific evidence. Questions about what role local knowledge and scientific evidence should play were major sticking points during last year’s debate.
Bullard, in a memo earlier this year, said drafting a bill that provides greater local control and participation than the former program did — or that HB106, the bill that cleared the House last year would have — could only help the effort of having it deemed substantially similar.
Bruce Botelho, a leader of the ballot group, told the committee Monday the Legislature should focus less on the issue of substantial similarity and more on passing a good bill.
HB106 passed the House unanimously last session though several lawmakers expressed reservations about it and hopes that the Senate would fix it. Both the regular and first special sessions ended last year without the House and Senate coming to an agreement on a coastal management bill. A second special session, called specifically with the goal of salvaging the program, ended with the House rejecting a Senate-passed bill.
It’s not clear what kind of traction HB325 might get in the Legislature this year.
Austerman, R-Kodiak, said his goal in introducing the measure was to get a conversation on the issue going. He acknowledged, in speaking with reporters earlier in the day, that there is “angst” in the Capitol about whether program is needed, or whether the initiative process is the way to go.
Gov. Sean Parnell and some lawmakers, like Rep. Bill Thomas, favor simply letting the people decide the issue.
Rep. Bob Herron, D-Bethel, and a co-sponsor of HB325, said one of his big questions is how far the ballot group is willing to bend in accepting a program crafted by the Legislature. Herron, who was part of efforts to try to reach a compromise last year, said it’s unlikely the House will accept the bill as it stands now.
He said he also is concerned that opponents of the initiative will “carpet-bomb the airwaves” in efforts to prevent its passage.