Alaska Senate passes tribal recognition bill

An Alaska Native woman stands up and speaks in a open room with others at their desks
Rep. Tiffany Zulkosky, D-Bethel, speaks during a House floor session in the Capitol in Juneau on March 16, 2020. Zulkosky sponsored the the bill to formally recognize tribes in Alaska. (Skip Gray/KTOO)

The Alaska Senate passed legislation Friday to formally recognize tribes in Alaska, which supporters say is an overdue 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 agrees to the Senate version, the bill will go to the governor.

If the bill is enacted, its passage would likely bump from this year’s ballot a similar tribal recognition initiative, according to a memo from a legislative attorney. Initiatives that qualify for the ballot can be preempted if the Legislature passes substantially similar legislation first. If the bill were to stall, however, and not pass — the regular session is set to end on Wednesday — the initiative still would be on the ballot.

The campaign group behind the initiative, Alaskans for Better Government, said on its website that its goal is to “secure State recognition of Alaska’s federally-recognized Tribes, regardless of whether this is accomplished via the legislature or the ballot box.”

Having a recognition in law would allow for continuity from one state administration to the next so that Alaska could work toward long-term solutions to issues with tribes, the group said.

“Without a strong foundation between governments it’s like building on sand — trust is temporary, relationships erode quickly, and efficiencies that are collaboratively achieved are unsustainable,” according to the ballot 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, a co-chair of the initiative, said Friday’s Senate vote was “definitely worth celebrating” but also one step in the process.

“We’ll keep a watchful eye until all of the boxes have been checked, so to speak,” she said.

Meanwhile, the state House canceled its floor session again Friday, with a vote on a state spending package pending. The House must decide if it wants to agree to a package that passed the Senate earlier this week that would provide payments of about $5,500 to residents this year.

For years, lawmakers have fought over what size dividend to pay residents from 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 around $4,200. Many lawmakers have come to consider that formula unsustainable but the Legislature has not agreed to a new formula and instead has been setting the yearly amount, resulting in often drawn-out, divisive debates.

The Senate bill also includes $1,300 “energy relief” checks. The cost between the dividend and energy check would be about $3.6 billion.

Some lawmakers say the state is benefitting from high oil prices and can afford to help Alaskans who are struggling with higher fuel and supply costs. But critics of the payout proposed in the Senate bill say oil prices are volatile and that the oil price projected in a state revenue forecast for the upcoming fiscal year can’t be assured.

Nearly all legislative seats are up for election this year. Gov. Mike Dunleavy has said that he is seeking reelection.

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