Although he spends most of his time in Juneau, Alaska Lt. Gov. Loren Leman is becoming quite a familiar face on the Kenai Peninsula lately.
In the past week, Leman has put in appearances everywhere from the recent grand opening of the new Soldotna Gottschalks location to the Kenai Chamber of Commerce to the ribbon cutting ceremony for the new Kenai Youth Facility.
"I love it," the Ninilchik-raised Leman said in an interview Wednesday, just before heading to the Kenai Courthouse for the renaming ceremony for the Jonathan Link Atrium.
"I told my wife I could easily move back here," Leman said.
On Wednesday, Leman discussed a wide range of topics he's been involved with recently, including the Murkowski administration's push to streamline the oil and gas permitting process, partnerships between the state and faith-based organizations and recent court rulings having to do with the legalization of marijuana.
Leman said the administration set as one of its primary goals to ensure that resource development moves forward as the main economic force in the state. He said so far, the administration has taken numerous positive steps to ensure that resource development moves forward while also ensuring environmental protections are maintained.
"We want to make sure we're following environmental laws but ensuring we're giving straight answers to people in a timely manner," he said.
Leman said the shift of permitting responsibilities from the Department of Fish and Game to the Department of Natural Resources is one way the administration has done that.
"Those people who deal with permitting tell us it is working better," he said.
Getting Alaska's natural gas to market has been a major issue for the state. Leman said he's fully supportive of a North Slope natural gas line that takes into account both industry and local gas needs.
"I think realistically, a project is going to have to include spur lines to Valdez and Anchorage-Kenai Peninsula users as well," he said. "We have to provide reasonably priced gas to the rest of the state."
He said for rural users, one way to bring cheaper energy to consumers might lie just below the surface in many communities.
"I really believe shallow gas can be an answer for several communities in our state, in particular, some of the remote locations," he said.
Although natural resource extraction is often a contentious issue between industry and environmental groups, Leman said that doesn't always have to be the case. He pointed to the peninsula as a prime example of how the two can coexist.
"Right here on the Kenai Peninsula we've seen a peaceful coexistence and we've seen how it can be done," he said. "This is an environmentally sensitive area where we've shown through citizens groups like CIRCAC that we can have appropriate environmental input and industry can provide jobs as well."
Leman also spoke of his ongoing push to see that the government works more closely with faith-based and other community service groups to provide social services. He said a task force has been formed on the issue, with members coming from a wide range of religious and community backgrounds.
"So far, the reception has been very constructive," he said of the task force. "We've got a lot of collaboration and talking going on."
Right now, he said, the task force is focusing on ways to make it easier for individual groups to communicate with each other to create a more comprehensive network of social service providers.
"We've done a few things to make it easier for (service agencies) to talk to each other," he said.
He said the whole idea behind the initiative is to ensure that the groups that are best at providing social services often times religious groups are not left out when it comes to state support.
"Our first amendment doesn't say government can't be a friend to religion, it just says we can't establish religion," he said.
Having faith-based groups working with the government doesn't mean the government is supporting any particular faith, Leman said. Instead, he believes it's simply a way to do the job of helping people better and at a lower cost to taxpayers.
"Many of these groups provide services at a lower cost and do it better than government can," Leman said. "The fact that some of them may be faith-based shouldn't exclude them."
Leman also spoke briefly about his role in the recent appeals court ruling that said petitions submitted by supporters of a marijuana ballot initiative should be counted for purposes of placing the initiative on the ballot. Leman originally ruled the petitions invalid because there were discrepancies with the way signatures were collected.
He said that although he does not support legalization of marijuana, that had nothing to do with how his office handled the petition drive.
"The Division of Elections has to follow the law very carefully," Leman said. "We just can't be seen as partisan."
He said the petition originally submitted did not follow the letter of the law, and therefore he could not certify the petition.
"In that particular case, the folks did not follow the regulations," he said.
The appeals court, however, said the issues Leman used to disqualify the petition were not large enough to stop the initiative from being placed on the ballot. That's fine with him, Leman said, as long as there is a legal basis for doing so.
"I don't have the luxury of deciding what law is trivial and what isn't," he said.
He did say the case has changed the way division staff deals with how the process of certifying petitions is carried out.
"Sometimes it takes a case like this to cause you to take another look at how you do things," he said.
He said that unless the state decides to appeal the appeals court decision, it's likely the initiative will make it to the ballot. That's fine, too, he said, as he's always been a supporter of people's right to change their laws through the initiative process.
"I don't support that particular initiative," Leman said. "(But) as lieutenant governor I have to be very fair in dealing with the issues. I have said no to some (petitions) I agree with."
The bottom line, he said, is the people should have the final say in what the laws are going to be.
"I get one vote, just like everybody else," he said. "I fully support the right of the people to petition the government. We need to make sure we protect that right."
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