By Jenny Neyman
District O Sen. Peter Micciche, in a town hall meeting Saturday at the George A. Navarre Borough Building in Soldotna, said he was proud to have some of the most active and vocal constituents in the state, and that his door and ears continue to be open to discuss whatever is on constituents’ minds.
“I think I’ve proven that no matter how much you disagree with me I’m here to listen to you. And that’s OK if you want to talk about any of the tough issues you disagree with, conflicts that you think I have, you disagree with how I vote on something — I’m wide open. I’m always here,” he said.
Constituents took him up on that Saturday, listening to Micciche’s update from Juneau on a wide variety of topics and widening the scope of discussion even more in their questions.
HB 77 — water reservations
One of the hottest topics of the afternoon was House Bill 77, a Parnell administration revamp of land use management regulations. The bill stalled in the Senate last year, with Micciche being one of the ones hitting the brakes, and has garnered stiff public opposition. District O constituents at Micciche’s previous town hall meetings in Homer and Soldotna turned and spoke out in force against the bill, and addressed it again Saturday. A tweaked version of the bill was submitted Monday to the Senate Resources Committee and will come up for public testimony Wednesday.
Speakers on Saturday were skeptical that the new version would go far enough to address concerns that the bill was limiting the rights and involvement of Alaskans in the permitting process, and they were particularly leery of only getting two days to review the new version of the bill before public testimony.
“That bill, anybody who’s looked at it, you kind of need to be a lawyer or know one to understand it. I think it would be great if we had more time to look at it and comment on it,” said Dave Atcheson, of Sterling.
Micciche hadn’t seen the new version of the bill Saturday, but said he had been in a meeting with Alaska Department of Natural Resources officials who gave an idea of what changes were coming. On Monday, those predictions held true.
A few changes came in response to the most vehement of public opposition. The section dealing with issuing general permits — one permit allowing multiple instances of a similar activity — originally included a phrase, “notwithstanding any other provision of law,” that critics say opened the door to too much DNR discretionary power to widen the scope of what projects are allowed under a general permit. That phrase has been removed.
The original version also stated that general permits wouldn’t be allowed for projects that cause “significant and irreparable harm.” The new version says “significant or irreparable harm.”
“That’s a huge difference. ‘Significant and’ means not only would you have to prove you couldn’t fix the thing that you broke — whether it’s a stream or someone’s livelihood or business — you had to have both. In this case you can just have significant impacts — that could be aesthetic or noise issues or water quality issues. You’ll actually have a reasonable standard,” Micciche said.
The new version also rolls back a change that stipulated only state agencies could apply for water reservations, which are a designation requiring a certain amount of water remain in a stream to protect an important ecological resource or habitat. The new version allows individuals, groups and federally recognized tribes to undertake the years-long data-accumulating process of applying for a water reservation.
“Native Alaskans were very offended by being cut out of the ability to participate in that process,” Micciche said.
The new version still imposes limitations on the process, which DNR officials have said are meant to keep opponents of proposed developments from using the process to delay a project. Under the new version, the DNR commissioner decides when to process a water reservation application, and an application must come with five years of supporting data. The new version also stipulates that only those who “meaningfully participated” in the public comment process and who are substantially and adversely affected by a decision may submit an administrative appeal.
Those are among the issues causing continued concern with the bill.
“I don’t think the changes that have been made that I’ve seen thus far are far-enough reaching that they will actually protect us now and way into the future,” said Penny Vadla, of Kasilof.
“There’s a lot of problems,” Atcheson said. “I think there are people still disenfranchised — Alaskans — by that bill, and in a lot of cases, a company moving in that’s not an Alaskan company will get preferential (treatment) even with those amendments.”
“Who would adjudicate whether someone has proven significant or irreparable harm? Is it the same commissioner the governor appoints to rubber stamp those permits?” said Matt Cannava, of Soldotna.
Micciche said that if the new version of the bill has the changes he was expecting, he would likely support it.
“If it comes back and they’ve come to a point of compromise — we may not get absolutely everything we want, it may come to the point where we feel like we have adequate protection and there’s been a return to a robust public process — I’m going to be inclined to support the bill,” Micciche said.
He said he’d be checking in with the Kenai Watershed Forum to get its take on the changes, and that he had some amendments to the bill. One codifies a list of requirements before the commissioner can issue a water use permit, including, among others, that DNR consider the effect on fish and game resources, public health, public recreation opportunities and alternate uses of water. The other is calling for a study on the 12 salmon streams that the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has designated as rivers of high importance to king salmon runs (including the Kenai River). He’d like DNR to determine which of the 12 already have water reservations, which need further study in order to obtain a water reservation and an estimation of the cost to complete those studies, so that all 12 can be covered with water reservations.
Fisheries management was another hot topic of the afternoon, with several speakers — including Micciche — expressing frustration at this winter’s Board of Fisheries actions restricting commercial fishing opportunities in Cook Inlet.
“It’s time that we admit the Board of Fish process simply isn’t working for anyone. It’s not just for commercial guys, it’s not just for sport guys, it isn’t working for anyone,” Micciche said. “… I do not agree with almost any of their actions. I have a problem with the absolute lack of any kind of science being used. It seems like they’re just plucking solutions out of the air. There is clearly parochial political influence on everything that they do, it is just not a robust process.”
Along with his job as manager of the ConocoPhillips facility in Nikiski, Micciche is a Cook Inlet commercial drift fisherman and took a firm stance defending the importance of that industry.
“Until we get politicians in Alaska to realize that commercial fishing is the number-one employer in the state. … We’re the farmers in Alaska,” Micciche said. “You would never see a Republican in Iowa going against an Iowan farmer, you just wouldn’t see it, it wouldn’t happen, it’s not possible. Well here you can see thousands of blue-collar, independent fishermen that work hard every year continuously not being supported by our Legislature.”
“We need to help people to understand that this is a very imperative part of a diversified economy. We struggle for diversifying our economy every year. We can’t afford to take any segment out of it and eliminate its ability to be productive,” he said.
His personal fishing involvement aside, however, Micciche advocated for a balanced approach to fisheries management — he was, after all, he said, mayor of Soldotna for five years, a community with strong ties to the sportfishing industry. The only way forward is to balance commercial, sport and every other fishing interest, he said.
“Primarily my goal is to get everyone to admit that they care about every user group as equally as their own. And that’s really a challenge,” he said. “… That’s the only way we’re going to get better outcomes. We have to put public pressure on folks that are making parochial decisions so that people make better decisions for all the user groups.”
The financial health of the state also received a good chunk of time and discussion. Micciche campaigned on fiscal responsibility — cutting the state spending and boosting revenue. There’s been progress in trimming the budget, but more needs to be made, he said, showing a list of $17 billion in proposed state projects, such as the Knik Arm Bridge, in-state natural gas line and the Susitna-Watana hydroelectric dam.
“We have to prioritize projects. We have to get more comprehensive as a state about the direction we’re going in. And until that happens we’re going to continue to have financial issues. Some of those projects simply shouldn’t happen,” he said.
Cuts should be done carefully, rather than blanket dictates that each department should cut X amount of dollars — a tactic that resulted in a crippling funding cut to the Kachemak Bay Research Reserve, which Micciche said he is working to reinstate.
“We have to cut our budget,” he said. “We have a ridiculous budget for the quantity of Alaskans that we have. That’s something that I ran on, it’s something I intend to do, but I intend to do it with a scalpel, and not a cleaver.
“It takes a careful eye to make effective cuts. It takes awhile to turn that ship around. … I think we have it slowed down. But it’s going to take awhile to turn that ship around by doing things very carefully,” he said.
Part of the solution to saving things like the KBRR — or, locally, the Skyview pool, which sparked some comments as its operating costs are slated to be cut from the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District’s budget — will have to be shifting more of the financial burden to users, Micciche said.
“We’re going to have to start offsetting some of these costs by people that are willing to pay for some of these services. That’s tough for Alaskans because we are blessed in a state where we’ve really never had to pay for a lot of anything,” Micciche said.
Oil, gas and mining
The other aspect of shaping up the state’s financial ship is revenue. In that vein, Micciche was asked how the revamp of the state’s oil tax structure was working since the passage of Senate Bill 21, which replaced the previous tax structure under Alaska’s Clear and Equitable Share program. Micciche was an instrumental and controversial proponent of SB 21, given his employment by ConocoPhillips (though the ethics review he requested found no reproach of his actions, he said.)
He’s pleased with the results he’s seen so far, from changing the base tax rate and the tax credits and other incentives given to companies investing in production in Alaska.
“It didn’t make us, by far, the lowest — we’re still the highest tax rate in North America — but it put us in a band that is relatively competitive. The result — we’re hoping, and it looks like it’s working — is it’s bringing more people back interested in producing in Alaska,” he said.
The reproach from opponents is that state oil revenues have continued to decline, and that some of the projects that have begun since SB 21 were already in the works.
“The decline in revenues is because of the decline in oil production in all the units. It’s not anything else. It has nothing to do with Senate Bill 21,” Micciche said.
And, yes, some of the new developments and exploratory projects were already in the plans, he said, but now they’re in progress.
“I don’t want to make it sound like they hadn’t planned some of those things. But pulling the trigger is kind of the key. They are now spending that money,” he said.
“Everyone agrees that ACES doesn’t work, it was discouraging for investment and it paid out too much. I say give 21 a chance. I think it will result in positive results and get people interested in producing in Alaska again,” he said.
As for the prospects of a natural gas line, Micciche said he is generally supportive of Senate Bill 138, which outlines the state’s involvement with the Alaska liquefied natural gas project and prospective gas line builder TransCanada. He said he would rather have seen the project go out to a request for proposals before settling in with TransCanada. He said he’s also concerned with in-state gas and that the bill needs to ensure an influx of revenue to the Alaska Permanent Fund, as well as financial protection to communities by way of a payment in lieu of taxes stipulation.
The project could have huge ramifications on the Kenai Peninsula if an LNG terminus in Nikiski comes to fruition.
“You think about a $6 to $7 billion liquefaction facility being built in the Kenai Peninsula Borough, especially if we are successful in the municipalities negotiating their own tax rates. It will be very lucrative for this area. The negative things are we need to make sure that we plan for the impacts to our communities. There will be a lot of growth. There will be growth during the construction stages that we have to plan for — our schools, our roads, our emergency response and that sort of thing,” he said.
Beyond oil and gas, Micciche said he would like to see further diversification of the economy. Mining has been a tricky area, especially with vocal opposition to large-scale proposed projects, like the Pebble and Chuitna mines. But where, then, would mining be acceptable to Alaskans, Micciche wants to know.
“Mining is an imperative part of our economy and I would like to see an expansion of responsible mining. We have some great rocks and a lot of them are rocks we use every day, but I do think an exercise needs to go out to understand places where people support development,” he said.
Micciche also touched on his own finances, addressing a recent story in the Alaska Dispatch stating his income recently went from the $100,000 to $200,000 range to the next reporting bracket — $200,000 to $500,000.
“In the last few years I’ve crossed over from $199,000 to over $200,000 a year. But we’ve not reported numbers since I’ve been a senator — I became a senator in 2013. Those numbers don’t come out until March,” he said, to dispel any implication that his salary change might be related to SB 21 or some other ramification that might come from being a senator.
“I’m not going to play into that,” he said. “I work hard every day. I’m very proud of the things I do. If you don’t want me to go back next time, get someone to run and make sure they win. If you send me back, I’m going to represent you the very best I can every day. And I’m not embarrassed about where I work and I’m not embarrassed about the fact that I make a decent living.”
Education is another hot-button issue this session, financially and with a proposal to put a constitutional amendment out to a vote of the people in order to allow state funding to go to private schools.
Micciche said he supports an increase to the base-student allocation, the base amount the state provides per student. He said he supports a BSA higher than $85, which Gov. Sean Parnell is proposing, but less than $400, the Democrat-proposed amount which cash-strapped school districts would find a miracle.
“We haven’t increased money for education in a long time, but I think it shouldn’t come for free. I think we have some evaluation of our programs to do, find out what’s effective, what isn’t and see how we can make education as successful or more successful but a little bit more efficient,” he said.
On the issue of vouchers, Micciche said he supports choice, but doesn’t support the current proposal.
“I don’t fear choice. What I don’t like about where we are on this is that they haven’t outlined a program going forward. We have budget issues now, I’m very worried about what that could cost. If they would flesh it out and help Alaskans understand it, it’s maybe something I could support in the future,” he said.
Micciche touched on several other matters:
- He supports the state spending $3 billion to further address the unfunded liability of the state’s public employee and teacher retirement systems.
- His SB 148 has passed, which removed Homer Harbor from the surrounding Kachemak Bay Critical Habitat Area, as requested by the city of Homer and environmental groups in the area.
- He introduced SB 209 at the request of constituents, which proposes to institute smokefree workplaces throughout the state.
“Over 50 percent of the people in the state are currently living under this code (in areas not incorporated as a city, village or borough) and we want to get to the point where workers are protected. So I brought it up for a discussion topic. We’ll see how far it goes. … If you support it, let us know. If you don’t, we’d like to know that, too, but I think it’s time to start seriously considering protecting workers.”
- Micciche recently worked with DNR to institute a ban on sales of elodea in the state, a pernicious invasive weed that’s been found in lakes in Nikiski.
At the end of the two-hour meeting, Micciche encouraged attendees to stay involved and stay in touch, even with voting districts set to change, with District O losing Homer and gaining Nikiski and Seward.
“I am very proud of our constituency and I hope you keep it up even as the districts switch next year,” he said.