My Turn: Addressing the subsistence issue

Posted: Thursday, April 25, 2002

"A system which provides subsistence opportunities for all Alaskans, but which affords a priority for some residents in time of limited resources, may achieve greater justice ... if it is created prudently and administered responsibly," say the Catholic Bishops of Alaska in their April 12 pastoral letter.

I might be able to go for that. It may even be consistent with the Alaska Supreme Court's "McDowell" decision and the court's interpretation of "equal protection" under our Constitution. Read that decision. The high court does not call for "cookie-cutter equality." Rather, the court said that the rural-urban divide was an "extremely crude" method of achieving what seemed a laudable goal. The court suggested using individual characteristics rather than "closed class" or territorial characteristics in order to provide for the needs of certain people.

In addressing the subsistence issue, the pastoral letter introduces and suggests the use of five principles of Catholic social teaching: 1) The obligation of society to care for the poor and the vulnerable; 2) solidarity; 3) stewardship, the care of creation; 4) the dignity of work; and 5) subsidiarity.

Subsidiarity? You probably won't find it in your dictionary, but it's a great principle. The pastoral letter defines subsidiarity as "an understanding that the people most directly affected by decisions should make those decisions," rather than calling upon a "community of higher order" to do so. The bishops correctly conclude that a recognition of this principle "favors a return of management to state government with local participation."

But wait, there should be more. The pastoral letter does not recognize that this principle of subsidiarity also means that Alaskans, Native and non-Native, urban and rural, should resolve the issue. Instead, the U.S. Congress, a "community of higher order," crested and has maintained the conflict for 25 years.

Congress and the Department of the Interior have been calling the shots on this issue ever since 1980 when Congress inflamed the rural-urban divide by passing the rural priority. Now the governor wants us to enshrine that divide in our state constitution. The governor will only consider proposals that comply with federal law. Of our 60 legislators, so far only about 25 have been willing to even consider following the principle of "subsidiarity," i.e., consider something other than compliance with federal law. About 18 have been stalwarts of the principle.

For example, Rep. Dyson has a proposal, HJR 29, which merits our consideration, but it certainly does not comply with federal law. There have been other worthy proposals over the past 15 years, all trampled by opponents of "subsidiarity."

The five principles are worthy. Now that the Catholic bishops have gotten their feet wet, I encourage them to become more involved, correct the factual errors within their pastoral letter, become better informed and to follow the principle of "subsidiarity." It's a yellow brick road, and Dorothy finally did get home. Let's get on with it.

Over the past 40 years Mary Bishop of Fairbanks has lived with her family in "Bush" and urban Alaska. She has participated in several forums on the subsistence priority issue.

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