With Permitting Bill Dead, Some Provisions May Be Resurrected

Earlier this month, lawmakers announced they were killing House Bill 77, saying that emotions had become so inflamed over the permitting bill that it was best left alone. But now, some of its less controversial provisions might be coming back in a different form.

Natural Resources Commissioner Joe Balash does not undersell the heartburn that HB77 caused. He’ll even refer to it as “toxic,” and jokes about it being “tightly bound” in a casket.
So, when asked what parts of the bill he wants to come back this session, he’s very clear.

“We had all kinds things that caught a lot of heat and light from the public: general permits, appeals, water provisions, temporary water uses, reservations. None of that is what we’re talking about.”

The Parnell administration is currently working with Rep. Cathy Muñoz, a Juneau Republican, to revive language provisions dealing with land exchanges and leases. The idea is to attach it to Senate Bill 106, which already deals with the selling of state land.

Balash says he asked the sponsor of that bill, Sen. Kevin Meyer, if that could work without hijacking the legislation. Meyer was friendly to the idea of SB109 being used as a vehicle.

“This is hitchhiking. He pulled over. Said get in,” says Balash. “We’re good.”

The pressing argument for reviving the land exchange language is to allow property swaps in places like Ketchikan, Anchor Point, and Juneau.

Rep. Cathy Muñoz says the Juneau land swap in question has dragged out for more than a decade under existing statute.

“The trail that accesses Point Bridget State Park is on private land. So there’s a great interest on the part of the State and also on the part of Echo Ranch in having an equal value trade so the State can have access to the park, and Echo Ranch will have access to their facility.”

Balash says there was language in HB77 that would have let that deal go through. He says before the administration began real work to bring back those provisions, they went back to see if those sections of the bill had ruffled any feathers.

“We’ve not gotten negative testimony on it. There were never any amendments offered to undo or take out these provisions,” says Balash. “So, no zombies here.”

Because of the sensitive nature of the bill, the administration has been going around to lawmakers’ offices to see if they’re comfortable with the idea.

Sen. Peter Micciche, a Soldotna Republican, was among those who got briefed on the matter. Micciche had a number of reservations with the original bill, and he worked with the administration to try to rewrite it in a way that better balanced the interests of conservation and development.

Micciche says he agrees with Balash that some parts of the bill that should pass, and that he’s open to what the administration’s proposing on land exchanges. But he’s not willing to touch anything that generated negative public testimony.

“If they try to go into some of the other sections, then it’s too late,” says Micciche. “It’s too late to talk about those things this year.”

For his part, Balash says the administration is willing to drop the issue if there’s any push-back.

“If it were to become controversial, it’s not worth taking any heat over,” says Balash.

The exact changes that are being considered have not become public. Balash says they could come in the form of a bill rewrite sometime this week, or as an amendment to the land sale bill.