After a day of fits and starts, the Alaska Senate narrowly passed a contentious coastal management program, kicking it over to the House where it faces a hearing Tuesday morning.
The Senate then adjourned from the special session Monday evening, effectively leaving the program's fate up to the House and Gov. Sean Parnell. The House came into session as soon as the Senate finished and decided to assign the measure to the House Finance Committee for a hearing.
The state's coastal management program has been a hot political issue for the past several years. Coastal communities have been pushing for more input into decisions that are made about development in their areas. But Parnell has been hesitant to give them more clout, saying he doesn’t want them to have veto power over projects of statewide significance. A compromise was reached late in the last special session, creating a coastal policy board and clarifying the role of local knowledge vs. scientific evidence. But it failed by one vote to pass the House.
A new, slightly tweaked version was drawn up in recent days in an effort to keep the program from expiring this Friday. Although legislative leaders from both bodies had agreed to return to Juneau for the day to pass that bill, the House seemed to change its mind on Monday and some members complained that Parnell had been working members to get them to oppose it.
Senate President Gary Stevens told reporters at a press conference following the vote that Parnell had little involvement with the Senate discussion on the measure.
"I've not met with the governor at all for a good long time," Stevens said, adding that he didn’t want to blame anyone for the difficulty the Legislature has had resolving the measure.
He acknowledged that the governor's staff, following Parnell's lead, seemed to steer clear of the legislative angst over coastal management in the last couple weeks. "It's really a shame," he said, "and they should have been more involved but unfortunately that didn’t occur."
Late last week, the Alaska Miners Association sent a letter to the governor and lawmakers urging them to let the program die. The industry warned that the state coastal management office had already been dismantled and that trying to get it back at the last minute would mean major mining projects would be delayed this summer and dozens of jobs lost.
Parnell and lawmakers who opposed the measure echoed the miners' concerns on Monday.
Asked about some lawmakers' concerns that the governor has shown a lack of leadership on the issue, Parnell spokeswoman Sharon Leighow, said: "Governor Parnell has been meeting with lawmakers most of the day."
"During the first special session called by the governor, an extension of the Alaska Coastal Management Program could have been possible. Given where the state is today with the program winding down, the governor is concerned that reviving the program now would kill Alaska jobs and projects," Leighow said in an email.
But people who have been working to save the program said the state could easily review critical permits if it wanted to.
'I don’t believe he's governing'
"There's been a lot of discussion about how to do the transition so they can do it smoothly," said Rep. Beth Kerttula, who worked for the coastal management program for five years as an assistant attorney general.
"It's very, very angering to me that this administration has not been working toward saving this program and, in fact, seem to have wanted to have killed it from the beginning," she said.
Kerttula and others said they can't figure out why Parnell is staying in the shadows and not speaking his mind about his problems with the program.
"I don’t believe he's governing, I believe he's doing it for political reasons," Kerttula said. "This is not acceptable. The governor has shown a lack of leadership."
House and Senate leaders had been polling members for more than a week about calling themselves into special session. And some coastal lawmakers have been working since the last special session ended in mid-May to forge a compromise.
But Parnell apparently did not weigh in -- at least not directly, they say -- and legislative leaders ended up spending thousands of dollars to return to Juneau for a compromise agreement that at times on Monday looked on the verge of collapse. Its fate is still not guaranteed in the House, even though Senate leaders said Monday the deal the Senate passed and the way it was done -- pass it and get out of town -- was exactly what the two sides had agreed to do.
The governor has shown "zero leadership. Zero," said Sen. Bill Wielechowski, who guided the measure through the Senate on Monday. "It's odd, just very odd."
Wielechowski said Parnell has taken a hands-off position for weeks, including during the special session. Then on Monday, he began suggesting numerous language changes, Wielechowski said.
"He's the leader of the state," Wielechowski said, "If he has a problem with the bill, he should be saying it. If he doesn't like it, he should tell us."
Wielechowski also said the last-minute effort by the miners association to scrap the bill should have been addressed last week by the governor and his staff.
The concern over whether the state had acted too hastily in closing down the coastal management office factored into some senators' reluctance to vote for the compromise measure. Sen. Fred Dyson said he was a big supporter of the coastal program, but that the miners' lobbyists were telling him that projects would be lost because companies couldn't get permits or line up support services in time.
"I'm not against coastal zone management but only the box we have put ourselves in here," he said.
Wielechowski said state officials had, in effect, derailed some permit applications by telling developers to wait until the program had expired. He said there may well be lawsuits against the state for that premature advice, but that officials shouldn’t have taken that approach while the program was still in existence and there were efforts to get it back on track.
House Finance is scheduled to meet at 9 a.m. Tuesday on the bill. The House is expected back on the floor at 10:30 a.m.
Parnell is scheduled to address the luncheon meeting of the Resource Development Council in Anchorage at noon on Tuesday. The RDC has been an opponent of the rural lawmakers' vision of coastal management throughout the session. Leighow said the governor initially was going to talk about the capital budget but may now talk about coastal management instead.
Many senators were catching the last flight out of Juneau on Monday evening amid rumors that Parnell was planning to veto the bill.
Stevens told reporters the Senate did what it had agreed to do.
"Whatever the governor does is what the governor does," he said.
Contact Patti Epler at patti(at)alaskadispatch.com.