The state legislature will enter session in just over one month. There are a number of hot topics awaiting representatives and senators when they get to Juneau, including education, the state capital budget, energy, and the controversial bill to streamline DNR’s permitting processes. Senator Mike Dunleavy says that one of his priorities is to talk to his constituents in the Mat-Su Valley in order to get a feel for what capital projects are most needed. With less revenue and a constrained capital budget, he says it’s important to prioritize.
“I’ve made a point, and its a philosophy of mine, to ensure that we fund, at least in our district, basic needs: sewer and water, roads, schools, emergency equipment, firefighting equipment, emergency shelters, et cetera. And I’ll continue to do that.”
One of the capital projects that took a major budget hit is the Susitna-Watana Hydroelectric Project. At a press conference, Governor Parnell cited land access agreements as a major factor in providing AEA with $10 million when over $100 million will be needed to finish preparations for a FERC license. Senator Dunleavy says that the revenue numbers mean that more money is unlikely to be put into the budget for the project this year.
“I do think it’s important to keep the studies going, and I’m glad that [Governor Parnell] has got some money in there to do that. We’ll have to take a look at how things pan out toward the end of the session, but I’d be surprised if any new money materializes to increase that budget for this year. Does that mean the dam project–the studies–are dead? Not necessarily. I don’t believe they are, but, this year, I’d be surprised if that budget were increased.”
In addition to the state budget, House Bill 77, which the Governor and DNR say would streamline permitting for land use, has received increasing attention. The bill was held up last year when it was decided that there were not enough votes in the Senate to pass it. Senator Dunleavy says that concerns over public process are a big part of what has some Alaskans speaking out.
“Some folks felt that bill–the original language that was put forth last year–swung the pendulum too far in a direction that some would construe as not giving Alaskans input into the permitting process. That’s one of the reasons why the bill was slowed down, and why it’s being worked on by the administration, to address those concerns.”
Senator Dunleavy referenced recent public meetings where state officials explained and defended House Bill 77. Collectively, those meetings were attended by hundreds of people who do not like the bill as it is currently written. Senator Dunleavy says he would like to have a similar meeting in the Upper Valley with DNR Deputy Commissioner Ed Fogels. He also says he’s open to compromise on the bill.
“I’m pretty confident, in the end, that with the discussions and input, a bill will be crafted that can be passed by both houses and signed by the Governor that basically does what we want. That is: protects the environment, maintains the ability for folks in Alaska to have input into the permitting process, and doesn’t necessarily lock out the ability for businesses to develop our resources.”
Session opens on January 21st in Juneau, where these topics and many more will be set before the House and Senate.