Knowles to call Legislature into special session for subsistence

Posted: Sunday, April 07, 2002

JUNEAU (AP) -- Gov. Tony Knowles plans to call the Legislature into special session in May to tackle subsistence, he said Friday.

Knowles made the announcement in Anchorage, where local voters approved an advisory question Tuesday urging the Legislature to act on the long-boiling problem.

''I want to put the Legislature, and all Alaskans, on notice that this issue must and will be taken up,'' Knowles said.

The governor will ask the Legislature to approve a constitutional amendment, which would then go before voters in November, to resolve a decade-long conflict between state and federal laws.

Despite a low turnout in the Anchorage municipal election, an advisory question urging a constitutional amendment received support from 72 percent of the voters. Knowles cited that vote as a clear signal to the Legislature to act.

Alaska's constitution conflicts with a federal law requiring a priority for rural subsistence users.

Federal managers took over subsistence on federal lands -- which make up two-thirds of Alaska -- in the 1990s after legislators failed to change the constitution.

Five special sessions under three governors have deadlocked on the issue. The state House approved a subsistence amendment in 1999, but the measure narrowly died in the Senate.

Since then, the Legislature has been unable to get a three-quarters vote to put such a measure on the ballot, and the division between lawmakers remains deep.

In his final year in office, Knowles has made resolving the state's subsistence conflict a top legislative priority. Some lawmakers think he's reaching too far.

''I think it's one of those college try things. They have nothing to lose,'' said Sen. Randy Phillips, R-Eagle River, an opponent of a rural priority.

Knowles has served two terms and is barred by law from seeking a third consecutive term.

Earlier this year, he proposed a constitutional amendment that creates a rural priority but also allows some urban residents with traditional ties to subsistence to get a similar priority.

That measure received its first hearing on Friday, along with several other subsistence proposals.

Many lawmakers oppose changing the state's constitution, arguing it establishes a discriminatory system based on ''ZIP codes.'' State's rights advocates instead want Alaska to challenge the federal rural priority.

''The bottom line is, a lot of us feel this is a violation of our oath of office, the state constitution and the U.S. Constitution,'' Phillips said.

Debate over the issue often prompts fundamental arguments over two historic events in Alaska: Statehood and the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.

Natives gave up aboriginal hunting and fishing rights under ANCSA to clear the way for an oil pipeline. In return, Congress guaranteed Native subsistence would be protected.

A rural priority was enacted in 1980 with a nod to Alaska Natives -- who are a majority of rural residents -- without creating a special class of protected people.

But the state Supreme Court ruled in 1989 the state could not comply with the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act. Equal access provisions in the state constitution don't allow a rural priority, the court said.

A year later, the Legislature came one vote short of approving a measure to amend the constitution. The state Board of Game declared all Alaskans ''subsistence users,'' and two regional Native corporations countered by closing their lands to reserve fish and game for shareholders.

Alaska's leaders say there's a divergence between urban and rural residents with racial undercurrents. A Tolerance Commission convened by Knowles last year noted the widening gap.

''For more than a decade, we have paid a high price for not allowing Alaskans to be heard. The urban-rural divide continues to grow, and our failure to protect subsistence is a major reason why,'' Knowles said Friday.

The special session would begin May 15, unless the Legislature resolves the issue before that, or extends its regular session.

House Speaker Brian Porter, R-Anchorage, said Knowles consulted with legislative leaders before Friday's announcement.

Lawmakers have been consumed this session with closing an estimated $1 billion deficit in next year's budget. Porter said it's unclear how Knowles' amendment will fare with lawmakers.

But other key groups have shown increasing frustration with the delay. The Alaska Federation of Natives agreed to back Knowles' plan, but not to surrender any control they now have under the federal system.

Natives are largely happy with the federal system of management, and some don't want to bargain with the state, AFN board member and state Rep. Albert Kookesh has said.

Kookesh could not be reached for comment on Friday.

Senate President Rick Halford, R-Chugiak, said earlier this week that he is willing to consider a subsistence priority based on proximity to the resource. But he also noted that many of the groups involved are deeply entrenched.

But Knowles is quick to say he does not think Halford's proposal would comply with the federal law on subsistence.

Senate leaders also have said the Anchorage vote isn't likely to influence the debate. Turnout was low and the proposition didn't mention what solution should be taken, only that a vote be held, they say.

But Knowles chided the Legislature for not taking up the issue -- noting that his legislation is only now receiving a hearing and that a ''small minority'' of lawmakers in the Senate stand in the way of a solution.

Knowles said lawmakers should heed the Anchorage vote and past polls that say Alaskans support a constitutional amendment. A new redistricting map could require all but three in the 60-member Legislature to seek re-election in November.

''If people dismiss the public and say that vote doesn't make any difference to me, let them pay the price at the ballot this year,'' Knowles said.

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