ALASKA DEFEATS ANOTHER QUESTIONABLE INITIATIVE
Once again a critical battle over legislative semantics affecting resource development challenged Alaskan residents in a recent ballot measure vote. Once again money and media fueled the communication fires. And, thankfully, once again future potential problems for mining, oil, gas, and related industries were thwarted--for the time being. This measure, labeled Initiative 2, attempted to create a state Coastal Zone Management plan (CZM) to replace the one that recently expired and failed to be renewed by the last state legislature. Natural resource industries campaigned heavily with the message that this initiative was not a renewal of the previous CZM, and, instead, created many potential legal problems due to its complexity and length, very similar to issues surrounding the so-called “Clean Water Initiative” defeated in 2008.
As the previous CZM plan was about to lapse, the State House of Representatives unanimously approved its continuation, but the State Senate failed to concur after lengthy debate, and the 2012 ninety day legislative session, begun in January, ended with no continuing state coastal management plan in place. This now leaves Alaska, with its 47,000 coastline miles, at the mercy of Federal agencies to step in and regulate all necessary permitting and related coastal matters, at least for now. However, as apparently frightening as that may seem, a bigger issue loomed: did that possibility outweigh authorizing a new law rife with interpretative challenges? I.e., is it better to have a bad law in place immediately or wait until the next opportunity (upcoming Legislative session) to create a more solid, focused statewide program? Apparently the voters believed the latter and defeated the measure by an almost 2-1 ratio, 62% opposed, 38% approved. Money must also have played a part as opponents spent over $760,000 in contrast to a comparatively meager $63,000 plus contributed by supporters. As Alaska State Senator Joe Thomas (Fairbanks) observed, “I think that was more a battle of advertising—whoever spent the most money on it probably convinced more people.”
Thomas continued explaining core facets of the issue, particularly the perceived inherent problems with this particular initiative: “We wanted to keep it simpler--the length of it, the somewhat uncertainty about what some of it meant. When we go through legislation we get it hashed out pretty well, and people have a fair understanding—like it or not—of what takes place. Not everybody agrees, obviously, on some of those interpretations. But this was a lengthy initiative, and I think that was cause for obvious concern.”
Concurring with this opinion, Alaska State House of Representative Scott Kawasaki (Fairbanks) added: “”The biggest [objection] for me was the vagueness of the language dealing with local control and input over the process...I think it would have left too much up to the regulation, which has to come from the law that passes…I think that’s really a part of it, that when the public is wanting an initiative, they see it as a black and white issue, but we’re talking in terms of legal issues. We have spent lots of hours of public testimony and public input to flush out exactly how it will work….It’s a real challenge to get input about what the public really wants. Do they want a Coastal Management program, but do they want a coastal management program that does this?” That last point suggests some possible misunderstandings during the campaign. Almost everyone, from both sides, agrees the state wants its own CZM plan, but was this particular proposal (i.e., Initiative 2) the best route to travel?
Temporarily not having a state plan in place may present some delays in permitting, as Kawasaki continued, “Now you’ve got to go to three different organizations, for example, Fish and Game, the DEC, DNC, instead of the ‘one-stop’ shopping with the CZM programming agency.” But when asked if he foresaw any major potential upcoming problems, he explained, “I don’t think so. I don’t think there is any case currently where a project has been held up because a CZM plan was not in place.” Hopefully the possibility of becoming overly “Federally-dependent” in this regard may not be as horrific as originally portrayed.
Now the issue settles back into the legislature’s lap. “That is where it should start and where it should end,” stressed Chad Gerondale, Fairbanks’ Chairman of the Alaska Miners Association. “It should go back to the legislature, back to the people the state elected to perform these duties. And where it should start is with the last bill that was passed by the House.”
One of the main reasons the Senate failed to approve the previous plan’s continuation was lack of consensus about community input. As Sen. Thomas described the debate: “…the idea of local knowledge. There were a few people who just were adamant that the language needed to be stronger regarding local input. I thought there was sufficient language, but that’s just my opinion, and everybody is entitled to their opinion.”
Soon after the news of the CZM plan’s continuation failure, the Alaska Sea Party, a statewide, grassroots organization, began circulating signature petitions to create Initiative 2. In Alaska, as in 23 other states, the initiative process allows citizens to bypass their state legislature by placing qualifying proposals directly on the ballot. If approved, that new law “must stay on the books for two years before it can be removed by the Legislature,” Kawasaki explained. Also in Alaska initiatives cannot be narrowly targeted; they must have statewide effect [Ref. AS15.45.010-245].
All this pre and post election debating and analyzing begs the question, what now? Due process was followed, the people have spoken, and both sides seem more enlightened or at least more educated. One aspect remains poignantly clear: most everyone agrees this state must have its own Coastal Zone Management program.
Both legislators agreed with Gerondale that our elected officials must resolve this situation, hopefully within the upcoming legislative session. Thomas stated, “I agree with the concept that you go back and basically start where you left off, not try to craft something new. [But] I think people in the Senate who were opposed to the previous plan are not really interested with the Federal Government having all the authority in this situation, and there is now the opportunity to work this out.” Though this initiative failed to pass, the entire process, through the signature gathering, campaigning, and election aftermath, should definitely instill critical motivation within the next Alaska State Legislature to create another viable state CZM plan.
Kathryn G. Arlen is freelance writer and communication consultant in Fairbanks, AK. and can be reached at email@example.com.