Knowles praises lawmakers, hints at special session on subsistence

Posted: Wednesday, May 10, 2000

JUNEAU (AP) -- Gov. Tony Knowles praised the Legislature on Tuesday for finding money for rural power subsidies and children's programs, chided lawmakers for neglecting rural school maintenance projects and hinted he may call another special session on subsistence.

Knowles review of the Republican-controlled Legislature was cordial and conciliatory. The regular session ended Wednesday, but lawmakers stayed in Juneau for a three-day special session to approve money for state employee contracts negotiated by the administration.

''It was done on a bipartisan basis, it was done with a minimum of rancor,'' Knowles said of the session's conclusion.


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Knowles, a Democrat, said he judged the session on how lawmakers dealt with education, children's issues, economic development and essential public services such as transportation and public safety.

''We've made considerable progress in all these areas,'' Knowles said.

He particularly highlighted a new endowment lawmakers established to pay rural electrical subsidies in the future. The money for the endowment will come from the sale of four state-owned hydroelectric projects and a special $100 million transfer from the Constitutional Budget Reserve.

Affordable power will promote economic development and improve quality of life for Bush residents, Knowles said.

Knowles also said lawmakers had earmarked money to expand key children's programs he favors, including child support enforcement, foster care, subsidized adoptions, and child care grants, subsidies and licensing.

Republican leaders were equally conciliatory in response.

''I think it's OK for him to raise his arms and take a victory lap with us,'' said Senate Finance Committee Co-Chairman Sean Parnell, R-Anchorage.

But Knowles was less complimentary about issues that divide urban and rural residents, including the distribution of school construction money and the long-running subsistence dilemma.

''Did we bring Alaskans together? In that area I don't believe we accomplished all that we should, indeed all that we must.''

He chided lawmakers for a bond package that he claims all but ignores school maintenance projects in rural districts. The package includes six new rural schools, but bypasses dozens of rural maintenance projects on the Department of Education and Early Development's priority list. Instead the package would reimburse urban districts that sell bonds to make their own improvements.

''There was an enormous gap that the Legislature left,'' Knowles said. ''The Legislature chose, as usual, to not go by that list whatsoever.''

A pending lawsuit accuses the Legislature of violating the state constitution and federal civil rights law by neglecting schools in rural areas populated mostly by Natives. Knowles said the bond package may not fend off that lawsuit.

Republican leaders contend the bond package, along with the capital budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1, contains what was needed to win passage in the Legislature.

''Sixty percent plus went to areas outside of Fairbanks and Anchorage,'' said Parnell. ''You have to look at the whole package to talk about balance and fairness.''

Knowles also hinted that he may call lawmakers back for another special session on subsistence. Federal authorities took over management of subsistence fishing on most Alaska waters last year to enforce a subsistence priority for rural residents.

The takeover came after eight Republican senators blocked a statewide vote to amend a rural priority into the state constitution, which guarantees equal access to fish and game.

Although Knowles reintroduced the amendment this year, lawmakers never gave it a hearing. Many in the Republican majority contend the rural priority discriminates against urban residents.

The issue moved back into the spotlight last week when the federal subsistence board ruled the entire Kenai Peninsula a rural area, raising concerns that a subsistence priority could be enforced on its popular rivers and streams.

''There's more of that to come,'' Knowles said. ''This issue has not been satisfactorily addressed.''

Although Knowles concedes that the votes in the Senate probably have not changed, he implied that a special session could spotlight subsistence as an issue for voters in this year's election.

''There's nothing like reminding them just before it takes place,'' Knowles said.

Majority Republicans said Knowles made little attempt to push his subsistence amendment during the regular session, but conceded that the Kenai decision could spur action.

''My gut feeling is that he probably will bring us back,'' said Senate Majority Leader Jerry Mackie, R-Craig. ''If you see subsistence users putting nets in the Kenai river ... you could see a huge political problem.''

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