- Associated Press - Thursday, February 27, 2014

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) - Funding that would allow the state to move toward taking over certain environmental permitting from the federal government was cut by a House subcommittee on Thursday.

The Legislature last year approved allowing the state to evaluate the benefits, costs and consequences of taking the lead role from the Army Corps of Engineers in the dredge-and-fill permitting program. Those permits seek to regulate the discharge of materials dredged from waters or materials placed in waters.

The Alaska bill allowed the departments of Environmental Conservation and Natural Resources to take “reasonable steps” to assume primacy.

Rep. Cathy Munoz, the subcommittee chairwoman, called it a worthwhile effort but an expensive process. She said the cost for fiscal year 2016 was expected to be about $1.8 million. The cost for the program, should it be taken over, would be about $6 million to $8 million a year, she said. The request for next year - which her subcommittee voted to cut - was $1.4 million.

“Given the fiscal situation we’re at right now, it really is imperative that all of us look at ways to hold in the growth of government until we get to a point where our revenue picture improves,” Munoz said.

She said the House Finance Committee requested that its subcommittees look for cuts of between $20 million and $25 million among all departments beyond what Gov. Sean Parnell proposed without harming the critical services of departments.

Environmental Conservation Commissioner Larry Hartig called the decision unfortunate.

During the hearing, Hartig said the department had already given up $400,000 for the program for next year, recognizing the state’s tight budget situation, and effectively had a flat-line budget overall under Parnell’s proposal. He said if he tried to find $1.4 million in cuts, there would be “a lot of pain.”

While the state has not yet decided whether to take over permitting, he said he didn’t think an opportunity like this would come around again anytime soon, noting budget pressures and that some of the people working on the project have decades of experience with permitting and are nearing retirement.

It’s possible that funding for the program still could still be restored as the budget is finalized. Abandoning it at this point, Hartig said in an interview, would be a “major loss to the state.”

The department, in information provided to the panel, listed as benefits of primacy program accountability to the Legislature and Alaskans, faster permitting for major projects at a reduced cost and state, rather than federal, management of water and land-use priorities.

Critics of the state taking over the program have said the state will still have to meet federal requirements, but instead of the feds bearing the costs, the state would.

Rep. Geran Tarr, D-Anchorage, said she was most comfortable with this cut in the budget. She said she wasn’t convinced that there was a problem that needed to be fixed.

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