New Federal Rules Force Action In Alaska, Wisconsin

 

New federal regulations that arrive with the onset of the fiscal year, Friday, October 1, forced decisions by lawmakers in Wisconsin and Alaska this week. In Alaska, lawmakers let a deadline imposed by the U.S. Department of the Interior pass, letting the federal government assume control of fisheries. In Wisconsin, where the Assembly and Senate are still divided over a budget for the state fiscal year that began July 1, Gov. Tommy Thompson prompted lawmakers to appropriate $46 million in welfare money.

In Alaska, lawmakers faced a deadline imposed by the U.S. Department of the Interior. If the legislature failed to amend state law by Friday, federal regulators were planning to step in and begin enforcing fishing rights in the state.

In Wisconsin, where the Assembly and Senate are still divided over a budget for the state fiscal year that began July 1, the Governor prompted lawmakers to appropriate $46 million in welfare money. Friday brings new rules on how states can spend money appropriated under the federal program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

Late Thursday, the Alaska Senate adjourned without passing an amendment to the state constitution that Democratic Gov. Tony Knowles argued would have forestalled the federal takeover. For years, Alaska law on fishing rights for subsistence hunters and fishermen has conflicted with a federal conservation act. Nearly 20 years ago, Congress gave rural Alaskans priority when it came to fishing and hunting. The state constitution, however, provides for equal access to natural resources for all residents of the state.

In response to pressure from Native Americans to enforce the federal law, U.S. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt gave Alaska until October 1 to move to amend the constitution or lose its regulatory authority.

Almost two-thirds of the land in Alaska belongs to the federal government. Under federal law, officials of the Department of the Interior can extend their authority beyond federal property to include state fisheries. The prospect has greatly alarmed Alaska's commercial fishing industry.

On Tuesday, the Alaska House of Representatives voted to amend the Constitution to grant priority to rural residents. The next day, however, the measure lost in the Senate by two votes. Thursday, Senate supporters failed to muster the two-thirds majority required to amend the constitution and they adjourned without reconsidering the bill.

"A minority of eight senators thwarted thewill of the majority of Alaskans and a majority ofthe Legislature," Knowles said in a press release.

Both the governor and his adversaries in the Senate agree on one thing. They do not want federal regulators to enforce the fishing rights of Alaskans.

Senator Robin Taylor, a Republican from the southeast corner of the state, accused Knowles of forfeiting Alaskan sovereignty to the federal government. He believes the state's only option is to sue.

"A claim jumper in Alaska is a claim jumper and it doesn't matter if he's dressed up like Uncle Sam," Taylor said.

Bob King, Knowles' spokesman, says the governor is opposed to federal management, but believed the amendment would have allow the state to maintain its jurisdiction over its land. Knowles supports giving priority to rural Alaskans who rely on the land for subsistence. "We can manage for all parties," King said.

Taylor said the failure of the amendment will force the governor to bring a lawsuit.

"All our legal analysis indicates a lawsuit is going to fail," the governor's spokesman said.

In the race between Massachusetts and Wisconsin for the latest state budget, Massachusetts lawmakers remained mired in gridlock, while Wisconsin moved closer to a resolution. Wisconsin's Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson stepped into the fray again this week and publicly urged lawmakers to compromise.

He noted that the state stood to lose the right to spend $46 million in federal welfare money on a state tax credit for poor families.

Lawmakers responded Thursday by passing an emergency appropriation that saves the state from having to finance the credit from general revenues.

 
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