A handful of Juneau residents served as a reminder to state legislators Wednesday that some of their biggest concerns don't involve lofty matters such as a multi-billion-dollar gas pipeline contract.
At the Wednesday's first Native Issues Forum of 2005 - an annual series held at the Alaska Native Brotherhood Hall during the legislative session - people raised questions for two of Juneau's legislators about the state ferry system, foster care, racism in schools and subsistence hunting and fishing.
Reps. Beth Kerttula and Bruce Weyhrauch spoke to the crowd, numbering more than 200, about their personal priorities for the 2005 session, then took the questions from several Juneau residents in the crowd.
Kerttula, a Democrat, touted the importance of the gas line negotiations, which she said could result in a project that stabilizes the Alaska economy. Both Kerttula and Weyhrauch, a Republican, said more funding is needed to bolster the state's ferry system.
Kerttula said she believes a federal negotiator needs to step in to resolve the labor dispute over the fast ferry Fairweather. She said recent actions by the state to dry-dock the ferry "smacks of unfair negotiations."
The next Native Issues Forum is scheduled for 11:30 a.m. on Feb. 2 at the Juneau ANB Hall. It will include conversations with Sen. Kim Elton, D-Juneau, and Rep. Bill Thomas, R-Haines.
Nancy Barnes, first vice president for the Tlingit-Haida Central Council, lodged concern about what she thinks is a decline in customer service by the Alaska Marine Highway System.
Barnes told the audience and legislators that she was stranded in Angoon for at least a week when the LeConte grounded on a reef last spring.
Since then, "I've been watching what's happening with the ferry system and getting very uneasy," Barnes said.
"I think that people who depend on the ferry feel the same way, to one degree or another," Barnes said during an interview later in the afternoon. "It seems like we don't have a basic plan to take care of customer needs."
Laurie Cropley, with Tlingit Haida Head Start, asked the legislators to take a hard look at foster care services in Alaska, which she said has a "slow and incompetent process" for licensing foster homes.
Weyhrauch agreed that the state "has a long way to go" on child protection, in general.
"We need to put more energy into it," he said.
Cropley also said she was concerned about advancing her grand-daughter to high school in Juneau because she is worried about racism at the school.
Weyhrauch said he hasn't seen evidence of racism in Juneau schools but, "I certainly know it exists."
Tlingit-Haida Central Council President Edward Thomas told the legislators that they should fight for an amendment to fix the constitution's conflict with federal law on subsistence use in Alaska.
By filing a lawsuit last month challenging federal jurisdiction over subsistence use on interior waterways and submerged land, "the governor is reopening a Pandora's box on subsistence fishing," Thomas said.
Instead of fighting over subsistence in the courts, the state should be working closer with tribes and addressing the constitutional conflict. Unlike federal law, which gives priority subsistence use to rural Alaskans, the Alaska Constitution gives that priority to all Alaskans.
"To be in conflict with federal law and do nothing about it is wrong," Thomas said.
Weyhrauch said that he attempted to pass legislation for a constitutional amendment two years ago but was unable to rouse interest from other legislators. He hasn't revived the bill this session.
"The Legislature has struggled with this for more than two decades," Weyhrauch said after the forum. He said many legislators are opposed to a constitutional change because it could give subsistence users priority over commercial and sports fishermen and hunters.
"It's one of the most contentious and long-lasting (disputes) in our young state's history," Weyhrauch said.
He said he didn't think there will be any progress on the constitutional conflict with federal law until the governor takes a leadership role in resolving the problem.