Legislative Update: Fisheries, transportation issues are under consideration

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Rep. Louise Stutes. R-Kodiak

Happy New Year and greetings from Juneau!

The second regular session convened on Jan. 16 and I am excited to be back in Juneau working on issues that are important to you. Specifically, as the chair of the Fisheries and Transportation Committees, I am looking forward to working on fisheries and marine highway issues that benefit Cordova and the state.

I know that Alaskans are disappointed with last year’s gridlock between the House and Senate in addressing the state’s fiscal deficit. I too was disappointed that we could not agree on a complete and balanced fiscal solution, but I can assure you that it wasn’t because of a lack of effort. The House passed a complete fiscal package last year and we are eagerly awaiting a decision by the Senate regarding whether they will act on those proposals or offer alternative solutions for new revenue.

We all want what is best for Alaskans and I still believe that is the common ground that will bring us together to find a solution. Both the House and Senate recognize the problem, but we disagree on the approach to solving it. House Leadership will continue to reach out to our colleagues in the Senate to find middle ground and get our economy back on track.

With legislation moving quickly during this second and final year of the 30th Legislature, a weekly update may not be enough to keep you up to date. I would like to encourage you to follow me on Facebook and Twitter for important issues that arise day to day.

My fisheries bills:

HB 199: The “Wild Salmon Legacy Act”

Last Tuesday, the Fisheries Committee introduced a new committee substitute for HB 199. Fish habitat permitting law in Title 16 has not been updated since statehood. My office drafted this bill in response to a letter written by the Board of Fisheries to the legislature, requesting an update to Title 16. Specifically, the board requested that the legislature adopt enforceable standards and more public process. The current statute states that a permit for a project must be approved unless the commissioner of the Department of Fish and Game finds that the plans and specifications are insufficient for the proper protection of fish and game.

 

The problem is that nowhere in statute does it define what the proper protection of fish and game is. The bill creates clear enforceable standards and adds public participation to the permitting process. My office spent a lot of time working on this bill this past year and met with industry, municipalities, the Administration, and other stakeholders to fine tune the bill to reach a balance between resource development and the protection of our fisheries.

 

I am proud to be leading the effort in the Legislature to improve the protections for salmon habitat and ensure that Alaska does not make the same mistakes that were made in the Lower 48.

 

If you have any questions about this bill, please reach out to me at 907-465-6856 or to my Fisheries Committee Aide, Matt Gruening at 907-465-3271. I or my staff would be happy to explain the bill in detail, the changes from the previous version, or email you documentation.

 

HB 87:  Conflict of Interest for Board of Fisheries and the Board of Game:

House Bill 87 changes the manner that the Board of Fisheries and Board of Game function. It allows members to deliberate on subjects for which they have a declared personal or financial interest. Currently, Board members are required to divulge a conflict of interest if they, or their families, are involved in the subject being deliberated on. The conflicted member can then no longer offer their input on the process and cannot vote on the matter at hand. This bill allows the conflicted member to offer remarks and input, but the member still cannot vote on the issue. The member is also precluded from voting on whether they have a conflict of interest.

Allowing members with expertise in particular fields to deliberate will help the boards make more informed decisions and lead to stronger resource management statewide.

This bill passed the House last year and is currently in the Senate State Affairs committee awaiting a hearing. It has broad support and I am hopeful that it will pass this year.

If you have any questions about this bill, please reach out to me at 907-465-6856 or to my Fisheries Committee Aide, Matt Gruening at 907-465-3271. I or my staff would be happy to explain the bill in detail, the changes from the previous version, or email you documentation.

Other bills of note in the Fisheries Committee:

HB 188: Regional Fisheries Trusts

Regional fisheries trusts, as envisioned by the sponsor of HB 188, would provide Alaska’s fishing communities with a tool to retain fishing permits and improve economic opportunity. Fisheries trusts can hold permits and lease them to Alaska fishermen for a limited period of time, offering a stepping stone between deck handing and individual permit ownership. Just as you would rent an apartment before you buy a house, fisheries trusts offer people with skills and know-how an opportunity to get experience skippering a boat, make mistakes, and save some money before making the decision to buy a permit.

If you have any questions about HB 188, please contact the sponsor, Rep. Kreiss-Tomkins at 907-465-3732.

Transportation issues:

Aircraft Registration Fees

In November of last year, the Department of Transportation and Public Facilities (DOT&PF) opened a public comment period for proposed aircraft registration fees. The proposal would have implemented an annual fee of $150 for non-commercial aircraft, and an annual fee of $250 for commercial aircraft. Good news came last week when DOT&PF announced that it would be drafting an amended proposal based on the feedback received during public comment. I will let you know when the new proposal is released, at which point DOT&PF will take further public comment.

 

Alaska Marine Highway System

The Alaska Marine Highway System (AMHS) is vital to our coastal communities. As the Legislature continues to try to resolve our fiscal crisis, it is imperative that AMHS be allowed to continue to provide the critical services and transportation to the countless communities which rely on it. This session, the House Transportation Committee will be hearing from those involved with the efforts to reform AMHS so that it may continue to serve our state. Forward funding AMHS so that we can have certainty in scheduling is an effort I have been working on over the last few years. My office is coordinating with legislators from other coastal districts to make forward funding a reality.

For questions or updates about these or other transportation issues, please contact my Transportation Committee Aide, Graham Judson at 907-465-4087.

 

Education:

There are two bills this year, one of which is sponsored by our own Sen. Gary Stevens, that would early-fund education each year in an effort to provide our schools with budget certainty and avoid our teachers getting layoff slips.

HB 287 and SB 131 are very similar bills that would require education funding to be approved in an independent bill earlier in the session. Traditionally, education is funded through the operating budget, which can be a problem when the budget does not pass early in the session.

To quote from Rep. Paul Seaton’s sponsor statement, “The bill is intended to pass … early in the session to prevent school districts from issuing mandatory teacher layoff notices. Many lawmakers agree that education funding cannot withstand further cuts without negatively effecting Alaskan children. An early, separate appropriation for education that has existing funding identified would prevent these problems and will allow school districts to finalize their budgets on time.”

I am a co-sponsor of HB 287 and a big supporter of this effort.

 

EPA suspends pulling proposed heightened protections for Bristol Bay:

There is some recent welcome news from Washington D.C.!

The Environmental Protection Agency announced that it would suspend the withdrawal of proposed restrictions on hard-rock mining in the Bristol Bay watershed.

Last year, the agency began a process to consider voiding the restrictions, which were based on conclusions in the 2014 Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment that large scale mining would have “unacceptable adverse impacts” on the watershed.

The proposed Pebble Mine would take place in the watershed of the most prolific sockeye run in the world and I believe a cautious approach is warranted.

I commend the EPA for crediting the extensive scientific evaluation that led the agency to this conclusion.

 

I want to hear your thoughts

There are many issues on the table this year, from cutting legislator per diem, to another revision of oil taxes. It is important that I know where you stand on these issues. Again, I would encourage you to follow me on social media to stay up to date.

I also want to make sure that you are aware of the weekly committee schedules and public testimony opportunities on important bills. Unfortunately, the time constraints of submission deadlines combined with weekly committee schedules preclude me from being able to provide an up-to-date hearing list in print. However, my office will be doing something new this year. We will be posting the weekly scheduled hearings for important bills, as well as which hearings will have public testimony opportunities on our Facebook page every Friday. I will also send an update to the online version of the paper that same day.

Please reach out to me with any suggestions or concerns you have. Whether your thoughts are on the budget, new revenue, fisheries or transportation issues, or something that is important to you and your family, I’m here for you and will always endeavor to work on your behalf.

Contact her at Rep.Louise.States@akleg.gov, 1-907-465-3271, via Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/RepLouiseStutes and twitter.com/RepLouiseStutes