Lawmakers may break before taking up subsistence

Posted: Monday, May 20, 2002

JUNEAU (AP) -- Lawmakers may take a break from Juneau for a while before taking action on a subsistence constitutional amendment.

Senate Resources Committee Chairman John Torgerson said Sunday the sides are too far apart to come up with a solution in a day or two, and lawmakers are tired and distracted by other pressing issues, including coming up with a compromise on budget and school bond bills.

But Torgerson held out hope that a solution might be found if lawmakers come back and take up the issue later, with a work group possibly meeting in between.

Torgerson met Sunday morning with both advocates and opponents of a rural preference for subsistence. Also in the meeting were Senate President Rick Halford, Sen. Georgianna Lincoln, D-Rampart, and Attorney General Bruce Botelho.

''What we heard today is the users, the participants, are ready to give it another look and see what we come up with,'' Torgerson said. ''Nobody wants to just walk away and say to hell with it. We're going to try to do it.''

Senate President Halford, R-Chugiak, said it would be up to the Republican majority caucus to decide whether to delay action on the subsistence issue and return later to deal with it. As of 9 p.m. Sunday, he had no firm answer on what the caucus would do.

Knowles had called lawmakers into special session on subsistence, but they had to call themselves into special session at the same time when they failed to come to a session-ending agreement on budget and bond bills, despite extending the regular session for two days.

''People's minds are all over the place working on other issues,'' Torgerson said. ''They just want to go home for a little while.''

Lincoln said if the constitutional amendment is voted on now, it will fail. Putting a constitutional amendment before voters requires a two-thirds majority in both the House and Senate.

''We don't have the votes now,'' Lincoln said.

If there's hope of a compromise, a negative vote now would not be helpful, Torgerson said.

Alaska's constitution conflicts with a federal law requiring a priority for rural subsistence users in Alaska. That conflict led to a federal takeover of fish and game management on federal land in Alaska.

Knowles has proposed a constitutional amendment that would create a rural priority but also would give some urban residents with traditional ties to subsistence a similar priority.

Sen. Jerry Ward, R-Anchorage, is also offering a proposal this year. He suggests amending the constitution to say the Legislature ''may'' provide a preference in times of shortage for residents living near rural fish and wildlife resources who have customarily and traditionally used those resources.

That's in contrast to the requirement that the Legislature ''shall'' adopt a rural preference in the governor's proposal.

The Alaska Federation of Natives has several concerns with Ward's approach, including the fact that it would require a change in the federal Alaska National Interest Lands Act. The AFN opposes reopening that law.

The Alaska Outdoor Council opposes any rural preference for subsistence, arguing that would discriminate against urban Alaskans.

Rep. Albert Kookesh, D-Angoon, said lawmakers are talking about the possibility of coming into session in two weeks to take up subsistence or waiting until September.

He would prefer meeting earlier because September would be too late to get an amendment on the fall election ballot, Kookesh said.

Kookesh also has some hope of a resolution this year. He sees the fact that the Senate leadership is talking with AFN and the fact that Ward has offered a proposal as good signs.

''He (Ward) could carry the Senate. He could help us resolve it,'' Kookesh said. ''I looked at his language, and it's a starting point.''

Kookesh added that he was speaking for himself on the Ward proposal and was not speaking for the Alaska Federation of Natives.

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