Peering across the urban-rural gap

The fissure in the Legislature runs through a variety of issues

Posted: Friday, January 11, 2002

To Mary Kapsner, the urban-rural divide isn't about just any one thing.

The Democratic second-term state representative from Bethel in Western Alaska says the legislative process has exposed her to numerous derogatory references to Native Alaskans.

For example, she said one urban legislator quipped: "I always confuse indigent with indigenous."

"It's just, like, all the little comments," Kapsner said in an interview. "I'm starting to become desensitized to the insults."

But there are diverse legislative actions that have cemented the impression of an urban-rural divide, she said.

For example:

• The rewrite of the legal definition of "disaster" to exclude economic impacts, such as the successive years of poor fish runs in her district.

• The designation of English as the official language of Alaska, preventing the 11 percent of Yup'ik-only speakers in her district from participating fully in state and local government activities. "That seemed to a lot of people like a benign (law), like it was the state bird or something," Kapsner said. "But it drove a very, very big wedge."

• The legal mandate for students to attend schools even if the buildings have been designated fire hazards.

Throw in the long-unresolved subsistence controversy, and "95 to 99 percent of the people in my district would say there's definitely an urban-rural divide," Kapsner said.

But Richard Foster disagrees.

Foster, a long-time representative from Nome, is the only Democrat in the House majority caucus. In a recent guest editorial distributed statewide, he said aligning with Republicans rather than Democrats has benefited his western district.

"I have long enjoyed working with my friends on both sides of the aisle, but have found I can best serve the needs of my rural constituents by working with a Republican leadership," he wrote.

Foster said Republicans have done as well or better than past Democratic majorities in several areas:

• The Legislature created a $180 million endowment for the Power Cost Equalization program that subsidizes rural electrical bills. "Instead of an annual fight to fund PCE, villages now enjoy a reliable source of funding for this critical service to rural Alaska," he wrote.

• "Republican state lawmakers have consistently voted to appropriate the 25 percent state match that brings 75 percent federal funds for Village Safe Water programs, bringing my district alone $150 million since I took office. Now our public health and sanitation in our villages rivals that of Anchorage."

• The 2001 public-works budget allocated $6,743 per voter for infrastructure projects in rural Alaska, compared to about $1,160 in Anchorage and Fairbanks, he said.

Some legislative leaders acknowledge, though, that the urban-rural divide is real to many people.

"I hope we can put a package together that at least diminishes and hopefully neutralizes the perception that the urban legislators are insensitive to rural needs," said House Speaker Brian Porter, an Anchorage Republican.

Porter characterized as "rhetorical B.S." a complaint by Democrats that "the urban Republicans think that their children are worth twice as much as the kids in the Bush." But he said the House will consider a bill to reinstate full funding for enrollment growth in all rural schools until a cost-differential study can sort out which districts are being adequately funded by the education formula and which aren't.

"And it isn't backing off of what we think is an appropriate formula; it is just recognizing that we don't have the data necessary to do the whole package," he said.

Senate Minority Leader Johnny Ellis, an Anchorage Democrat, said the urban-rural divide is "one of the great heartaches in our state."

"The first step in resolving this split in the Alaska family, in my opinion, is to admit that it exists, and I think everyone on my side has admitted, knows that it exists from personal experience or observation," Ellis said. "There are many on the other political side that refuse to believe it exists or think that we're making this up or imagining this."

Senate Majority Leader Loren Leman, an Anchorage Republican who is running for lieutenant governor, blames the Knowles administration for the perception of inequities, saying the governor and his staff "actually created divisions and then exploited them for what they perceive to be political advantages." Ellis called that "patently ridiculous."

Senate President Rick Halford, a Chugiak Republican, said there is a legislative funding disparity, but not the one people think.

"When the state spending on education in some rural areas runs up close to $16,000 per student, and in Railbelt areas is closer to an average of $4,000 per student, the state's input is split in the opposite direction" of the supposed urban edge, he said. "When it comes down to what actually happens in outcomes in rural Alaska, we need to help people get a better education."

Halford acknowledged that the cost of living is much higher in the Bush, and he said he will continue to work on legislation addressing rural problems, as he did in 2001 with a bill to increase pay and expand duties for village public safety officers.

"Any place I feel that rural Alaskans, Alaska Natives are not treated with equality - I've always worked towards and I will work on those issues: alcohol issues, suicide issues. Any way I can help, I intend to try to help."

Ellis said the Legislature should follow through on the lead of the Anchorage School Board in making Alaska history part of the required high school curriculum. "I think that would probably do the greatest good among young people in our state."

That was one of the recommendations that came out of a Tolerance Commission appointed by Knowles. The commission, formed in response to the paintball attack on Natives in Anchorage, also recommended a constitutional amendment for a rural subsistence priority, an increase in the minimum wage and tougher sentences for hate crimes.

Bill McAllister can be reached at billm@juneauempire.com.



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