Bill Popp

COMMENTARY: Initiative process is wrong way to change permitting system

As leaders of Alaska’s three largest economic development organizations, we know our cities want to see new economic opportunities come to our respective areas, and we align to oppose policies and address issues that diminish or take away those opportunities. Our position on Ballot Measure 1 is one such example: We stand united in opposition to the ballot initiative for one very simple reason: the threat it poses to our local economies, and our state’s economy. On the macro level, we agree that an issue as complex as permitting has no place on the ballot, especially when that regulation that seeks to prioritize the relative value of Alaska’s diverse natural resources. Complex issues should evolve in public, include robust and open public discussion, and occur under a thorough vetting process that involves all impacted parties. Ballot Measure 1 did not go through this process and leaves voters with one way to participate: a yes or no vote. We advocate for a no vote on this proposition. Actions like this also send a negative signal to investors — that Alaska is a particularly risky place to do business — and has a chilling effect on many of the companies and businesses we need to invest in our state. On the regional level, all three of our cities are facing serious negative consequences if Ballot Measure 1 passes. In Anchorage, we fear further job losses in resource development if current and new projects can’t get permitted or are repeatedly sued by activists determined to shut down our oil, gas, and mining industries. We are just starting to see good news again from these sectors, with big new projects either underway or in the advanced planning stages. On a more practical level, serious questions have been raised about the ability of our wastewater utility to maintain its current operations under the terms of this measure. The answer to whether Anchorage will be forced to pay for a multi-million dollar upgrade to our wastewater treatment system because of Ballot Measure 1 is unknown. The fact that we can’t determine from the ballot measure’s decidedly vague language whether such an expense is coming our way is cause for great concern. In Fairbanks, our concern stems mainly from Ballot Measure 1’s prioritization of one industry at the expense of all others. Our economy can be damaged in very real ways if this measure passes. For example, the Fairbanks community recently celebrated Fort Knox Gold Mine the announcement of its upcoming expansion — and extension of a resource base that may extend the mine’s operational life by a decade or more. Fort Knox is the largest contributor in tax revenue to the local municipality, paying more than $8.7 million in property taxes last year alone, and the mine pays wages that average in excess of $75,000 a year to its 100-plus local employees. The mine is one of the best, largest, and strongest private-sector employers in the Borough. The Fort Knox expansion is unlikely to move forward as currently defined — if at all — under the terms of Ballot Measure 1. Given the huge impact Fort Knox has on the Fairbanks economy (and it, in combination with mines like Pogo and Usibelli, have on the regional economy), risking this project and others like it is unacceptable. In Juneau, we also believe a ballot measure is a poor vehicle for this type of complex public policy. The fishing industry is a huge economic driver for us and all Southeast Alaska, and yet we are opposed to Ballot Measure 1. State officials have testified about the uncertainty surrounding hydroelectric projects, mining operations, tourism activities, and other components of our economy under this ballot measure. In everyday terms, many of the amenities we enjoy in Juneau were built on or near wetlands: Fred Meyer, Costco, Egan Drive, the airport expansion, our police station, and at least one of our fire stations likely would not have been eligible for construction had Ballot Measure 1 been in place or made so expensive that project economics would have ruled them out. To be clear, all three of our organizations believe in public process, support citizen input, and encourage Alaskans with concerns about fish habitat to get involved. We also understand that Alaska invested a great deal of time, thought, and effort creating what we and others recognize as a model system of permit application review and issuance. It is for this reason we urge all involved parties to come to the table and make specific, reasonable requests of our lawmakers and regulators using that existing, proven, balanced and effective public process. We all agree that our unique Alaskan ecosystems and resources are high-value and worth protecting. We also agree that broadly-shared prosperity and dynamic, local, regional, and statewide economies, achieved through the balanced development of all Alaska’s resources, is the goal. We believe we can all agree that passage of an under-considered, imbalanced, overly-broad and potentially devastating ballot measure is not the way to achieve that worthy goal. We encourage a NO vote on Ballot Measure 1 on Nov. 6. Bill Popp is the president of the Anchorage Economic Development Corp.; Brian Holst is the president of the Juneau Economic Development Corp.; and Jim Dodson is the president of the Fairbanks Economic Development Corp.
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