JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) — The Alaska Senate on Friday passed legislation officially recognizing tribes in Alaska, which supporters say is a late step that would create opportunities for the state and tribes to work together .
The measure passed 15-0 and will return to the House, which passed a similar version last year. If the House accepts the Senate version, the bill will go to the governor.
If the bill passes into law, its passage would likely remove a similar tribal recognition initiative from this year’s ballot, according to a memo from a legislative attorney. Initiatives that qualify for the ballot can be advanced if the legislature first passes substantially similar legislation. If the bill were to stall, however, and not pass — the regular session is set to end on Wednesday — the initiative would still be on the ballot.
The campaign group behind the initiative, Alaskans for Better Government, said on its website that its goal was “to secure state recognition of Alaska’s federally recognized tribes, whether it be accomplished through the legislature or the ballot box”.
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Having legal recognition would allow for continuity across state administrations so that Alaska could work toward long-term solutions to issues with the tribes, the group said.
“Without a solid foundation between governments, it’s like building on sand – trust is temporary, relationships erode quickly and efficiencies achieved in collaboration are not sustainable,” according to the voting group.
Rep. Tiffany Zulkosky, a Bethel Democrat, sponsored the bill, HB123. There are more than 220 federally recognized tribes in Alaska.
Barbara ‘Wáahlaal Gíidaak Blake, co-chair of the initiative, said Friday’s Senate vote was “definitely worth celebrating,” but also a step in the process.
“We’ll be keeping a watchful eye until all the boxes have been checked, so to speak,” she said.
Meanwhile, the State House again canceled its floor session on Friday, with a vote on a state spending package pending. The House must decide whether to accept a package that was passed by the Senate earlier this week that would provide payments of about $5,500 to residents this year.
For years, lawmakers have struggled to determine the size of the dividend to be paid to residents of Alaska’s oil wealth fund. The check proposed by the Senate would be in line with a long-standing formula last used in 2015 and is estimated to be around $4,200. Many legislators came to view this formula as unsustainable, but the legislature did not agree to a new formula and instead set the annual amount, resulting in often drawn-out and divisive debates.
The Senate bill also includes $1,300 “energy reduction” checks. The cost between the dividend and the energy check would be around 3.6 billion dollars.
Some lawmakers say the state benefits from high oil prices and can afford to help Alaskans struggling with higher fuel and supply costs. But critics of the payment proposed in the Senate bill say oil prices are volatile and the price of oil projected in the state’s revenue forecast for the coming fiscal year cannot be guaranteed.
Almost all legislative seats are up for election this year. Gov. Mike Dunleavy said he was seeking re-election.
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