Union opposed to shift in habitat permitting

Posted: Tuesday, February 11, 2003

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Officials with a union that represents state workers said Gov. Frank Murkowski will have a fight on his hands if he follows through with plans to streamline habitat permitting.

Mike Robbins, business agent for Alaska State Employees Association AFCME Local 52, said union officials met with staffers from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game Habitat Division on Friday to discuss the governor's plan transfer project permitting authority to the Department of Natural Resources. The plan could include to lay off up to 50 biologists and other workers.

Murkowski outlined parts of the plan in his State of the State speech and in a press conference last week.

State habitat biologists block or delay development projects because they have hidden environmental agendas, Murkowski claimed. Shifting the division's permitting authority to the Natural Resources Department would help stimulate the economy and streamline the permit process, he said.

It would be the first time since statehood that the fish and game commissioner would lack authority over fish permitting, several former commissioners have said.

Murkowski's statements about the biologists' actions are retaliatory and ''are totally without merit,'' Robbins said Friday.

The union has reviewed several projects the governor cited as examples of obstructionism and faulted his conclusions. If he gets terminates employees based on those type of allegations, it would be a breach of employee labor contracts, Robbins said.

The union also took issue with a gag order state biologists have been under since Murkowski took office in January. Biologists have been instructed not to talk to reporters and to direct all inquiries to the governor's press secretary, John Manly.

''It's a violation of their free-speech rights,'' said Robbins. The biologists have been unable to defend themselves against Murkowski's allegations.

Carl Rosier, one of five former fish and game commissioners who have publicly opposed the governor's plans for Habitat, spent Friday working the halls of the Legislature trying to build support for an alternative.

''We're working on a position that will be somewhere between the extremes of leaving things as they are versus ripping the heart out'' of the Habitat Division, Rosier said. ''The leadership was interested in what we had to say.''

Senate President Gene Therriault, R-Fairbanks, and Bruce Weyhrauch, R-Juneau, chairman of the House State Affairs Committee, have agreed to hold oversight hearings on the plan, Rosier said.

''We're trying to work something out at the present time that doesn't embarrass anybody,'' he said.

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