House bill proposes adding CFEC to Fish and Game

A bill that would make the Alaska Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission a division of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game got an introductory hearing in the Legislature April 19, with the expectation that commercial fishermen and other stakeholders will consider the idea for possible enactment next session.

Before then the Legislature’s Audit Division will “audit” the two agencies to identify overlapping activities, entry commission duties that may not easily be merged into Fish and Game, and possible costs and savings from the consolidation.

House Bill 386 was introduced at the request of the House Special Committee on Fisheries as a proactive effort to prepare for dramatic reductions in fisheries spending with the least impact on direct management activities.

“When it comes to taking sonars and weirs out, reducing managers’ inseason ability to maximize use of our fisheries for the people of Alaska, then we are in a position of having to look at all of government,” said fish committee chair Paul Seaton, R-Homer, referencing the tools ADFG uses to count salmon returning to their natal streams.

The CFEC is listed in the Directory of State Officials as a branch of ADFG but the administrative relationship is no thicker than the paper it’s written on. CFEC manages licenses, not fish stocks. It issues commercial fishing vessel licenses and harvest permits for the state fisheries, oversees emergency temporary and permanent permit transfers and sales. It is self-supporting through licenses and permit sales.

ADFG runs an entirely separate licensing section for sport fishing, hunting and trapping and each agency has its own computer system. The fisheries committee hearing included no cost savings estimates from the bill, but Seaton said the parallel activities are an obvious place to start looking.

A “limited” fishery is one for which a set number of participant permits has been designated through a lengthy socio-economic analysis. Current state law allows the fish and game commissioner to petition the Board of Fisheries to limit a fishery. If the board approves the request, CFEC determines the harvest capacity a fishery can sustainably handle and determines the appropriate number of permits.

Its more difficult job is determining who gets them, a decision based primarily on an applicant’s past participation in the subject fishery and the degree of their economic dependence on it. CFEC hearing officers make decisions on permit applications and transfers. What is supposed to be a three-member commission reviews all of those decisions and serves as a court of appeals if an application is rejected.

Commissioners are paid almost $190,000 in salary and benefits annually. Since Peter Froelich resigned from the commission almost two years ago, Gov. Sean Parnell has left one seat vacant, without explanation, but the CFEC’s workload has decreased by an order of magnitude since it was created.

From a high of over 900 pending cases in the early 1990s, CFEC’s current docket includes 30 cases, including 23 under hearing officer review, CFEC Commissioner Bruce Twomley said at an earlier hearing.

HB 386 eliminates the commissioners. Appeals of CFEC license and permit decisions would go before an administrative law judge in the Office of Administrative Hearings, or OAH, a section of the Department of Administration. They could be carried on to Superior Court, as is the current process.

The OAH was established by legislation passed in 2003, originally as an independent hearing office in response to tax payers’ complaints that hearings on tax disputes held before Deptartment of Revenue officers didn’t seem fair.

Twomley, who was confirmed April 17 to a record ninth term on the commission, called the bill a “conversation starter.” He said it lacks sufficient standards for CFEC operations. He found support among committee members in his caution that a consolidation review must determine the risks of upsetting what has been a very successful licensing program before it can estimate any cost savings.

In a long-standing ruling, the Alaska Supreme Court determined that any of its decisions on a limited entry question apply retroactively. That means a decision against CFEC on a current case could potentially reopen hundreds of previously settled permit decisions.

Twomley noted that CFEC has suffered only two “partial reversals” by the state high court in its history.

Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, D-Sitka, suggested significant downsizing of CFEC staff to fit its current workload might be preferable to reorganization of the entire program.

“If it’s not broken, why fix it?” asked Rep. Bob Herron, D-Bethel.

Twomley also noted that the CFEC is exempt from state personnel law “so we can do more creative, more productive things than agencies under the act, or union shops.” The bill converts CFEC employees to ADFG employees.

Twomley added that CFEC has been reduced from an authorized staff of 41 employees in 1986 to 28 today.

“We’re reduced to a point where you see largely muscle and bone when you look at the commission,” Twomley said. “What I draw from our situation is that we’re not the most likely source for meaningful budget cuts that will help to address the state’s problem today,” he added.

Kevin Brooks, ADFG administration director, said he could not comment on combination of the agencies without more research, but acknowledged that the bill could have possibilities.

“There are similarities. We issue licenses. We issue them to people. They issue them to vessels and skippers,” he said at the hearing.

Assistant Attorney General Vanessa Lamantia attended the hearing to provide legal advice but was not questioned by the committee.

“I can almost guarantee there will be a lawsuit” challenging rule changes that affect ongoing permit sales or appeals, she said following the session.

The bill says any ongoing permit transactions may be completed under the laws and regulations in effect when it was begun.

No public testimony was taken at the hearing. Afterward Jerry McCune, president of the United Fishermen of Alaska, said analysis of the consolidation is a good idea but expressed concern that HB 386 would consolidate too much power in the fish and game commissioner.

Bob Tkacz is a correspondent for the Journal. He can be reached at [email protected].

11/21/2016 - 11:04am