JUNEAU (AP) -- A bill allowing regional nonprofit Native corporations to administer the state's public assistance program under contract with the state won approval in the House on Saturday.
Gov. Tony Knowles sponsored House Bill 98 and called it welfare reform for rural areas. The measure would allow regional nonprofit organizations to develop welfare programs that vary to meet needs of different Alaska communities.
The bill received the strong endorsement of rural legislators.
''This is a way for the Native community to be part of the solution,'' said Rep. Albert Kookesh, D-Angoon.
''It's about local control,'' said Rep. Carl Morgan, R-Aniak.
Native nonprofit corporations are in the best position to administer welfare programs, Morgan said, because they already have a presence in rural communities. The corporations provide services such as education, employment and general assistance programs and administer grants from the federal government.
Morgan said Native organizations could take a comprehensive approach to moving clients from welfare to work, do a better job, and reduce caseloads and costs. The state has been promoting one-stop service for families in cities, Morgan said, and adding welfare programs to responsibilities of the Native nonprofit corporations would do the same in villages.
Rep. John Coghill, R-North Pole, expressed reservations about the bill and said nothing within it prevents the state from contracting with Native regional nonprofit corporations to operate welfare programs in Alaska's urban areas.
On Friday, he offered an amendment that would have allowed people applying for state public assistance to opt out of administration by the nonprofit corporations and receive services directly from the state.
Coghill said programs developed with a cultural bent might not be appropriate for his constituents, such as residents of Fort Wainwright.
But supporters of the bill said Coghill's amendment could give clients a way to avoid a requirement the nonprofit corporation decided was important for a particular community, such as alcohol screening.
Rep. Andrew Halcro, R-Anchorage, said the bill was not intended to replace state administration of public assistance in heavily populated areas such as Fairbanks.
Coghill's amendment was defeated, but the House approved an amendment Saturday allowing clients to deal directly with state employees if they show ''a compelling interest to use the state program.''
The bill was approved 27-3.
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