This week the Senate Resources Committee held public hearings on HB 115 – “The Alaska Sovereignty and Transfer of Federal Public Land to Alaska Act.” Even if passed by the legislature and signed by the Governor, its sole function will be to fill space beside other legal statutes that have never been enforced. Unfortunately for Alaskans, the so-called party of personal responsibility holding power in our legislature seems to prefer this dead-end style of governing.
HB 115 is a variant of a state statute passed in 1982 that proved useless. The attorney general’s opinion then was AS 38.05.500 violated Article XII of our state constitution. Under that and the Statehood Act we’d given up all rights to the 165,000 acres of federal land that this bill now demands be transferred to the state.
Last year I criticized House Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, for sponsoring this legislation partly because he modeled it after a Utah law that the federal government has ignored. And that’s exactly what the feds would do with HB 115. The next step for the legislature would be to file what they’d call a frivolous lawsuit if any citizen took such a sure-to-lose cause to court.
Despite its fatal shortcomings, every Republican and a few Democrats voted for it last year. So now Senate President Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage, seems to think it’s fine to waste more legislative time holding hearings in the upper chamber.
That’s not surprising though if you consider the Senate Majority’s online poll question about income tax. It asks if we “support or oppose enacting a statewide income tax at 25 percent of federal income tax liability.”
If they were serious about the peoples’ views on reestablishing a state income tax, that figure should have been closer to the 6 percent of federal liability as proposed by Governor Bill Walker. Instead, they seem to prefer playing games with the most serious issue of the session.
HB 115 is a game in the way it sidesteps contentious public debate over federal land management policies. One of those is the significant government subsidy that’s historically supported almost all of the large-scale logging on the Tongass National Forest. That and other decade-long disputes aren’t simply going to disappear just because the state became the owner of the national forest.
And just as the Senate Majority isn’t seriously considering new revenue sources to address the budget crisis, the House members ignored the budget implications of passing HB 115. According to the fiscal note accompanying the bill, if the state did actually acquire all lands such as the Tongass, the state Department of Natural Resources would need a lot more money and staff to manage them.
In HB 115, the legislative majority is modeling a work ethic that glamorizes ideology instead of governing efficiently. And they’re doing it at a time when they’ve been most critically demanding our state government reduce wasteful spending.
A similar type of political grandstanding was on display in the armed occupation of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge last month. Ammon Bundy had no chance of actually getting the federal government to relinquish title to the land. But not only because he went about it the wrong way. Like Chennault, he refused to consider the historical context in which the federal lands he’s fighting over came into existence.
Unlike Bundy, Chennault may have followed a lawful democratic process. And he had the backing of reputable groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the American Lands Council and Alaska Miners Association.
But both of them overestimated the public support behind this cause. That might be okay for candidates trying to mobilize their base during a political campaign, but it’s totally counterproductive to getting things done in a pluralistic society.
If it becomes law, HB 115 will be no more effective than Bundy’s misguided takeover of the Oregon refuge. It’ll just deepen the resentment over the federal government’s control of public lands.
It’s failures like these that empower hard-line ideologues who are more satisfied flexing their righteous muscles than seeking the necessary compromises to make government work in people’s best interests. But the bigger irony is the elected officials who whine the most about government ineptness are proving their point by trying to pass a law that will accomplish nothing at all.
• Rich Moniak is a Juneau resident and retired civil engineer with more than 25 years of experience working in the public sector.