Alaska News

Miller Kicks Off Campaign in Wasilla

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2014-04-22 01:06

Joe Miller, with family in front row on stage.

U.S. Senate candidate Joe Miller kicked off his campaign last night in Wasilla before a few hundred cheering supporters.  Amid prayer and patriotic songs, Miller and those introducing him talked about God, guns and government mistrust.  Miller drew cheers as he hit on popular Tea Party themes, such as abolishing the IRS and ending state surveillance.

“They need to understand that the people have had it That’s why you’re here today,” he said, to applause. “This is about ‘we the people.’ It’s not about Joe Miller. It’s about restoring you to your rightful position, where government is the servant and you are the master!”

This is Miller’s second run for U.S. Senate. He didn’t mention the dramatic undoing of his earlier campaign, except for a passing reference to the time his security team shackled a journalist trying to interview him. Miller, a father of eight, made the aside as he was introducing the four younger children, who were on the stage with him in Wasilla.

“They’re all martial arts experts. We learned that from the 2010 race. We needed in-house security. So I don’t have t0

Standing for the national anthem at the Joe Miller kick-off.

bring my handcuffs any more,” he said.

Other speakers at the event included a Big Lake church pastor, a Gun Owners of America director and also conservative radio talk show host Lars Larson. Despite a low campaign profile in recent months, Miller has been raising money. On that score, he’s in third place in the three-way Republican race, but not far behind Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell.

Categories: Alaska News

Lawmakers Search For Education Bill Solution

APRN Alaska News - Mon, 2014-04-21 17:25

Full House: The House of Representatives and the Senate met in a Joint Session in the House Chambers on April 17, 2014. They confirmed all of the governor’s appointees to boards and commissions. (Photo by Skip Gray/Gavel Alaska)

Last night, the Alaska State Legislature failed to meet their 90-day deadline after the House and Senate couldn’t reach an agreement on a major education bill. Lawmakers stayed on the floor until 4am trying to wrap up their work, but it was not enough. Now, they’re back at the Capitol for a 91st day of session trying to hammer out a deal.

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APRN’s Alexandra Gutierrez is there with them right now. Hello, Alexandra.

Hello, Lori.

Has any progress been made on the education bill?

The Senate just finished their debate and passed their version 16-4, with Anchorage Democrats opposing the legislation. The bill before them was introduced by the governor and is a major priority for him. It’s a pretty sprawling piece of legislation, and it includes provisions to that make it easier to establish charters school, gets rid of the high school exit exam, all sorts of things. But the big hang-up has been the education funding question.

The governor started the session with an $85 increase to the base student allocation in it, with future increases promised. That’s the amount of money a school gets for each student, and every $100 increase is worth about $25 million. The House more than doubled that number, with an education package worth about $250 million over three years. The Senate went even higher – up to $330 million — but they offered that money as one-time funding.

That’s where things blew up.

Many education advocates have been screaming for that money to be put into the base student allocation because it gives schools a lot more security. If the money is a one-time thing, there’s no guarantee the school districts won’t have to come back and ask for it again to help make up their budget gaps and avoid teacher layoffs.

The debate that happened in the Senate is kind of a pro forma thing. Democrats offered amendments to the bill, but none were adopted. The real fight will happen when the bill gets sent back to the House, because it could trigger a pretty unusual negotiating process called a free conference committee.

Can you explain what that does?

Last night, as everyone was kind of slaphappy and it was clear that the Senate and House just did not see eye to eye on education funding, I heard one legislator describe it as a committee with super powers. The House will send a few of their people, the Senate will send theirs, and then they hammer out their differences in a way that hopefully works for both bodies. In a normal conference committee, you pick and choose the bits that each side like. But in free conference, you have the power to add completely new stuff and dramatically change the bill. 

It’s something that’s really only used when there’s a major impasse. But because the committee has the power to add entirely new language to the bill, there’s a risk for things to get messy.

Are there any other hang ups beyond funding?

There are a few. The House doesn’t like that the Senate took out language that lengthens the probationary period from three years to five years before  urban teachers can get tenure. They also don’t like that the Senate version requires municipalities to take on a bigger burden in funding education. That provision could result increased property taxes in some communities, which doesn’t really play well in an election year.

So, how long can session go at this point?

Even though voters put a 90-day limit on the legislative session a few years back, the Legislature can meet up to 121 days without running afoul of the Constitution. Obviously, people want to get out as quickly as possible, but since they’ve already blown the deadline, they may as well try to get things done as best they can and finish work on other bills that were at risk of dying.

How much work is left unfinished, aside from education?

Well, the two other big priority bills did pass this weekend. At the beginning of session, Gov. Sean Parnell asked the Legislature to put a few billion dollars toward the pension system and to pass a bill that allows a massive natural gas pipeline to be built. The Legislature did that. That’s done. That’s off their plate.

But there are still dozens of lawmakers’ personal bills that got close to passing, but were then held up either as leverage in negotiations or were just caught up in the logjam as things fell apart this past week. Those cover everything from a popular crime reform bill to legislation allowing the DMV to offer license plates with bears on them. 

Categories: Alaska News

‘Demo Dose’ Lab Tests Find Bacteria

APRN Alaska News - Mon, 2014-04-21 17:24

Lab testing of a synthetic saline solution wrongly used in a University of Alaska Fairbanks medical class shows bacteria. A Houston based laboratory was hired by the university to analyze samples of “Demo Dose.” The solution, which is not intended for humans, was used by UAF Community and Technical College Clinical Procedures Class students to practice injections on themselves and one another.

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Categories: Alaska News

Gasline Official Says In-State Project Is No Pipedream

APRN Alaska News - Mon, 2014-04-21 17:23

With an oversupply of natural gas in the country, Alaska is exploring the construction of a relatively small, low-pressure gasline within the state’s borders – while still holding out hope for a much larger project should prices improve.

Dan Fauske is the president of the Alaska Gasline Development Corporation – or AGDC. He spoke to Sitka’s Chamber of Commerce last week about when and where Alaskans may see gas.

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Dan Fauske. Photo by Ellen Lockyer.

The AGDC is the latest attempt by the state to put something — anything — together to promote the construction of a gasline from the North Slope. The Alaska Gasline Development Corporation was established by the legislature in 2010 to explore in-state options for gas while a more high-profile effort — Gov. Sarah Palin’s Alaska Gasline Inducement Act, or AGIA — was trying to connect North Slope gas to markets in the lower 48 through a gasline in Canada.

Earlier this year, Gov. Parnell announced that the state and TransCanada had called it quits, putting an end to AGIA.

Now, the Alaska Gasline Development Corporation is the only game in town. And Dan Fauske knows this game has been played time and time again.

“We have a plaque in our office. It says, Fairbanks to get Gas. It’s from the 1954 Daily News-Miner. So this debate’s been going on a while.”

The problem is economic. Natural gas is sold in volumes of 1,000 cubic feet at a price — right now — somewhere between $3 and $4. To sell gas, it has to be delivered in pressurized pipelines, or be super-cooled and liquefied.

If you’re close to the gas, it can be a great deal. The city of Anchorage has been served for decades by low-cost gas from oil refineries next door in Cook Inlet.

On the North Slope, where the state has vast reserves of natural gas, Fauske says it’s considered a byproduct.

“For years, the gas a Prudhoe Bay has been reinjected into the ground to force the oil out. The petroleum engineers will tell you that we’ve looked at this gas three and four times. They’ve recycled it.”

The AGDC is exploring a 700-mile gasline from Prudhoe Bay to Nikiski, which would be about one-hundred miles shorter than a gasline to Valdez, where the TransAlaska Oil Pipeline terminates. There are two options on the table. A 36 -inch low-pressure pipeline that would carry so-called “lean gas” — or gas ready for delivery directly to consumers. The other option is a 42-inch pipeline delivering much higher volumes of gas under much higher pressure. The smaller pipeline would cost almost $8-billion and serve primarily Alaskans. The larger pipeline would cost $65-billion, and supply Alaska and the global export market.

The big three oil producers — Exxon Mobil, ConocoPhillips, BP — and even TransCanada would partner with the state in the big pipeline, if it ever pencils out. Fauske says this is a big “if.”

“Oil companies are not charged with taking care of Alaskan citizens. Oil companies do things for their shareholders. I’m not defending them, I’m just saying no one’s going to invest in this kind of project so that 700,000 Alaskans can get a benefit. The reality is: They do things for their shareholders. The irony is that the Alaska Permanent Fund is a huge shareholder of Exxon stock. People say, They should have done this. It’s been looked at thirty times.”

The state invested $355 -million dollars in the Alaska Gasline Development Corporation to perform the preliminary engineering and design for the smaller gasline — called the Alaska Stand Alone Pipeline — which will take about 2 years. Fauske believes that sometime in that window, the two projects will meld and the state will ultimately have a 10-percent stake in a gasline that is operational by 2020.

Fauske spent 18 years as the director of the Alaska Housing Finance Corporation before taking over AGDC. He was on Gov. Palin’s AGIA team, which he says was a good idea, when gas was at $10. His expertise is in finance.

The discovery of shale gas in the northern plains of the US undermined AGIA, but Fauske believes this new gasline strategy, based on revenue bonds, is a workable solution for the state’s energy needs, as well as the largest construction project in the country.

But he says gas is nothing akin to the discovery of oil on the North Slope.

“Oil is king. Gas gives us security. From a revenue standpoint gas will never replace oil.”

Asked by a member of the chamber audience to give odds on which gasline would be built, Fauske pointed to the radio microphone and tv camera and declined. Instead, he quoted a line from the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, and said, “Something wonderful’s going to happen.”

Categories: Alaska News

Delta vs. Alaska: Dueling Airlines Benefit Juneau

APRN Alaska News - Mon, 2014-04-21 17:22

Delta Air Lines performs a test flight into Juneau on Wednesday in preparation for daily service to Seattle starting May 29. (Photo by Doug Wahto)

In preparation for daily flights between Juneau and Seattle starting May 29, Delta Air Lines performed test flights in the capital city on Wednesday. For a long time, Alaska Airlines has been the only one flying that route.

Juneau is set to benefit from the competing partner airlines.

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Alaska travel analyst Scott McMurren says the power of competition goes a long way in lowering airfares.

“The moment that Delta’s rubber hits the tarmac in Juneau, fares will be at historic lows. The moment Delta leaves the market, fares will immediately return to their previous level. This is a great opportunity for Juneau travelers, and that great opportunity will last as long as Delta flies there and not a moment longer,” McMurren says.

An online spot check of round-trip flights between Juneau and Seattle in early June showed the airlines offered the same fares, $487.40. In September when Delta service ends, flights on Alaska Air Lines jump $80.

Adding service to Juneau is part of Delta’s expansion in Seattle. Right now, the airline makes 35 daily departures out of Sea-Tac Airport. By August, Delta hopes to increase that to 86 departures.

“We are reaching out to markets that are key travel markets for us that allow us to carry passengers both into Seattle as well as connect them onto international flights. We’re adding a significant amount of international service. We just added London Heathrow at the end of March and we are going to add Hong Kong and Seoul in June,” says Anthony Black, Delta spokesman.

The airline already flies from Seattle to Amsterdam, Paris, Beijing, Shanghai and Tokyo.

Connecting to international destinations is what Black says will set Delta apart from Alaska Airlines, which only flies internationally to Canada and Mexico.

Between Juneau and Seattle, Delta will be flying a Boeing 757. Alaska Airlines uses 737s. Black says a 757 can carry more passengers and has more powerful engines.

He also says Delta’s prices are competitive and, so far, Delta is pleased with bookings.

Marilyn Romano, regional vice president for Alaska Airlines, says she feels very secure with Alaska’s position in Juneau. She says Delta’s one flight a day between Juneau and Seattle during the summer doesn’t compare with Alaska’s eight flights a day.

“That’s our standard operating business coming in and out of Juneau and that doesn’t include all the other flights that we have – Anchorage to Juneau, or Juneau to other cities in Southeast Alaska – so as far as competing, I think we feel like we’ve been operating daily service into Juneau for over four decades,” Romano says.

Plus, there’s free baggage if you’re a member of Club 49, the airline’s program for Alaska residents, and bonus mileage, like last summer. Travelers flying on Delta from Juneau to Seattle will still get Alaska Airlines miles, though.

While Alaska and Delta are now competing in Juneau, the two airlines are partners for other destinations.

“At times, the competitive nature of our business is bigger than at other times and this is probably one of those times. We’re doing what we need to do to grow our business and Delta will do what Delta feels they need to do to grow their business, and at the same time, we are partners, so it’s a unique situation,” Black says.

Juneau International Airport manager Patty deLaBruere says competition is good for Juneau’s economy.

“Alaska Airlines, I think, has taken very good care of people up here but Delta may add a different flair on what they’re going to do for the travelers. So choice is good,” says deLaBruere.

That also means more revenue for the airport, an enterprise of the City and Borough of Juneau. Renting space for a check-in counter and offices, flying in and out, and parking its plane overnight in Juneau for the summer will cost Delta about $90,000.

Categories: Alaska News

Earth Day Celebration Helps Mark Wilderness Act’s 50th Anniversary

APRN Alaska News - Mon, 2014-04-21 17:21

Earth Day will be celebrated with a concert in Fairbanks on Tuesday. It’s part of a summer long series of events marking the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act and other environmental laws.

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Categories: Alaska News

Alaska News Nightly: April 21, 2014

APRN Alaska News - Mon, 2014-04-21 17:12

Individual news stories are posted on the APRN news page. You can subscribe to APRN’s newsfeeds via emailpodcast and RSS. Follow us on Facebook at alaskapublic.org and on Twitter @aprn.

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Lawmakers Search For Education Bill Solution

Alexandra Gutierrez, APRN – Juneau

Last night, the Alaska State Legislature failed to meet their 90-day deadline after the House and Senate couldn’t reach an agreement on a major education bill. Lawmakers stayed on the floor until 4am trying to wrap up their work, but it was not enough. Now, they’re back at the Capitol for a 91st day of session trying to hammer out a deal.

Missed Deadline Pushes Initiatives To General Election

Alexandra Gutierrez, APRN – Juneau

Because the Legislature did not meet its midnight deadline, three citizen’s initiatives are expected to be moved from the August primary to the November general election.

Alaska Becomes The Second State To Officially Recognize Indigenous Languages

Casey Kelly, KTOO – Juneau

Supporters of a bill to make 20 Alaska Native languages official state languages organized a 15 hour sit-in protest at the Capitol on Sunday. Their dedication paid off early Monday morning, when the Alaska Senate passed the measure on an 18-2 vote.

It now heads to Governor Sean Parnell for his signature.

‘Demo Dose’ Lab Tests Find Bacteria

Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks

Lab testing of a synthetic saline solution wrongly used in a University of Alaska Fairbanks medical class shows bacteria.  A Houston based laboratory was hired by the university to analyze samples of  “Demo Dose.”  The solution, which is not intended for humans, was used by UAF Community and Technical College Clinical Procedures Class students to practice injections on themselves and one another.

Gasline Official Says In-State Project Is No Pipedream

Robert Woolsey, KCAW – Sitka

With an oversupply of natural gas in the country, Alaska is exploring the construction of a relatively small, low-pressure gasline within the state’s borders – while still holding out hope for a much larger project should prices improve.

Dan Fauske is the president of the Alaska Gasline Development Corporation – or AGDC. He spoke to Sitka’s Chamber of Commerce last week about when and where Alaskans may see gas.

Delta vs. Alaska: Dueling Airlines Benefit Juneau

Lisa Phu, KTOO – Juneau

In preparation for daily flights between Juneau and Seattle starting May 29, Delta Air Lines performed test flights in the capital city on Wednesday. For a long time, Alaska Airlines has been the only one flying that route.

Juneau is set to benefit from the competing partner airlines.

Earth Day Celebration Helps Mark Wilderness Act’s 50th Anniversary

Tim Ellis, KUAC – Fairbanks

Earth Day will be celebrated with a concert in Fairbanks on Tuesday. It’s part of a summer long series of events marking the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act and other environmental laws.

Categories: Alaska News

Alaska Becomes The Second State To Officially Recognize Indigenous Languages

APRN Alaska News - Mon, 2014-04-21 12:33

In the Senate gallery, an emotional Rep. Charisse Millett holds hands with Liz Medicine Crow while Senators debate the fate of the bill. The legislation, which passed moments later, makes 20 Alaska Native languages official state languages alongside English. (Photo by Skip Gray/Gavel Alaska)

Supporters of a bill to make 20 Alaska Native languages official state languages organized a 15 hour sit-in protest at the Capitol on Sunday. Their dedication paid off early this morning, when the measure passed the Alaska Senate on an 18-2 vote.

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House Bill 216 passed the Alaska House of Representatives last week, 38-0.

It now heads to Governor Sean Parnell for his signature.

Dozens of people of all ages and races, many wearing their Easter finest,  gathered in the hall outside Sen. Lesil McGuire’s office. The Anchorage Republican and chair of the Senate Rules Committee had the power to put House Bill 216 on the Senate’s calendar. But with end of the legislative session looming, the bill’s supporters worried it was getting caught up in last-minute, behind-the-scenes politics.

The group started their vigil just after noon, singing, dancing, and playing drums, and talking about why Alaska Native languages are so important.

“Our language is everything. It’s the air we breathe. It’s the blood that flows through our veins,” said Lance Twitchell, a professor of Native Languages at the University of Alaska Southeast.

HB 216 would add the state’s indigenous languages to a statute created by a 1998 voter initiative, which made English the official language of Alaska. While the bill is largely symbolic, Twitchell said it’s important to recognize all languages as equal.

“That’s all we want is equal value,” he said. “And there’s nothing wrong with standing up and saying that. It takes a lot of courage to do that. And it takes a lot of something else to try and go against that.”

Many elders who attended the sit-in recalled being punished as children for speaking their first languages. Irene Cadiente of Juneau said her teachers would hit her with a ruler when they caught her speaking Tlingit.

“Sometimes I wonder when my hand hurts, is it on account of me speaking Tlingit?” Cadiente asked. “My hands were rulered. Is that why it hurts? I never forget that.”

Cadiente said she’s proud that her great grandchildren are now learning to speak the language.

Heather Burge, a student in the Native Languages program at UAS, said she didn’t understand how HB 216 could become controversial.

Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tompins (center) celebrates by posing for a “selfie” with supporters of House Bill 216, his legislation making 20 Alaska Native languages official state languages alongside English. The bill had passed the Senate only moments earlier at 3 a.m., April 21, 2014. (Photo by Skip Gray/Gavel Alaska)

“We should be at the point where this should be a non-issue,” Burge said. “But it’s still scary to some people, which is a little disheartening. But hopefully we can get past this.”

After the group had been outside McGuire’s office for about 30 minutes, the senator’s Chief of Staff Brett Huber announced the bill would be scheduled for a floor vote. McGuire later made an appearance of her own.

“We just got the bill, so we’re going as fast as we can,” McGuire said. “But it’s nice to see all of you. Thank you for coming, and thank you for your passion. I know you have support.”

It was 3 a.m. by the time the measure finally reached the floor.

Sen. Donny Olson, D-Golovin, who’s Inupiaq, said the bill would not have made it through the legislature without a groundswell of support.

“The elders, the youth, Native and non-Native,” Olson said.

Senate Majority Leader John Coghill, R-North Pole, took responsibility for the delay in getting the bill to the floor. Coghill tried to explain what he hoped to achieve last week when he proposed amending the bill to create a new category in statute for “ceremonial languages.”

“I thought if you had them in that place of honor you would aspire to them and honor them,” Coghill said. “Where if you put them in this place, they’re more likely to be under tension that I think would be harder to get to the honor and easy to get to divisiveness.”

Coghill said he was an apologetic no vote. He added that he would be willing to own up to it if he ends up being proven wrong. Sen. Pete Kelly, a Fairbanks Republican, was the other Senator to vote against the bill.

After the bill passed, supporters gathered outside Senate chambers to embrace each other and shed tears of joy. Twitchell summed up the feeling with a Tlingit phrase.

“We succeeded. We obtained,” Twitchell said after first saying it in Tlingit.

The bill explicitly says the official language designation does not require the state or local governments to conduct business in languages other than English. But Twitchell said putting them in the same part of the law builds momentum for future generations of Native language speakers.

If Gov. Sean Parnell signs the bill into law, Alaska will become just the second state after Hawaii to officially recognize indigenous languages.

Categories: Alaska News

Legislature Passes Gov. Parnell’s LNG Pipeline Plan

APRN Alaska News - Mon, 2014-04-21 09:24

The Legislature did pass the Governor’s liquefied natural gas pipeline participation plan.

The House voted 36-4 on the measure Sunday. The Senate later voted 16-4 to agree to the House changes. Senate Bill 138 would set state participation at about 25 percent in a project also being pursued TransCanada, the Alaska Gas-line Development Corp., and the North Slope’s major players. It would allow the project to move to a stage of preliminary engineering and design and cost refinement.

It also would allow the state to negotiate project-enabling contracts but they would have to come back to lawmakers for consideration.

Categories: Alaska News

Missed Deadline Pushes Initiatives To General Election

APRN Alaska News - Mon, 2014-04-21 08:38

Because the Legislature did not meet its midnight deadline, three citizen’s initiatives are expected to be moved from the August primary to the November general election.

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The switch would happen because of a constitutional rule requiring a 120-day waiting period after a legislative session before an initiative can be put to a vote. It would affect ballot questions to slow down the proposed Pebble Mine, to regulate marijuana like alcohol, and to hike the minimum wage. The rule does not apply to referenda, so a measure to repeal the new oil tax law would stay on the August ballot.

The rescheduling of initiatives is expected to help the anti-repeal effort, which the oil industry has sunk millions of dollars into. That’s because the initiatives are expected to bring more liberal-leaning voters to the polls, and that increased turnout will no longer affect the primary.

This dynamic also triggered an ugly political fight in the Legislature, when a bloc of House Republicans passed a minimum wage bill earlier this month to preempt the initiative entirely. Republicans and Democrats accused each other of trying to game the elections, and initiative sponsors came out against the bill out of concern that the Legislature would quickly gut it.

While the House majority pushed their Senate counterparts to move the minimum wage bill through, they were met with resistance. The two bodies then engaged in a standoff, with each chamber holding unrelated pieces of legislation hostage to get leverage. But ultimately, the Senate did not back down.

Rules Chair Lesil McGuire said early Monday morning that the minimum wage bill is officially dead.

“The votes aren’t there. The votes haven’t been there all year.”

McGuire says some members of the Senate Majority oppose the bill because they see it as meddling with elections, while others simply are not in favor of the policy and believe it could have negative economic consequences.

With the addition of the initiatives, the November ballot will be especially packed because of the U.S. Senate race and the governor’s race.

Categories: Alaska News

With Education Standoff, Legislature Misses Deadline

APRN Alaska News - Mon, 2014-04-21 08:26

All session, legislative leadership had promised to gavel out early, to be home in time for the Easter holiday. That didn’t happen. In fact, the Legislature did not gavel out at all. With the House and Senate struggling to make a deal on education, lawmakers are forced into extra innings.

By 1 a.m., the second floor of the state capitol had erupted into chaos. The Legislature had blown its midnight deadline, with the capital budget still in committee and debate yet to begin on a sprawling education bill.

The halls were crowded with lobbyists trading gossip, staffers pumping out amendments from copy machines, and dozens of advocates chanting and beating drums after the Native languages bill they were supporting had been held up in the political crossfire (it later passed).

Unless you were part of the Republican leadership team huddled in a closed-door strategy meeting, you were left guessing as to what was going to happen and when you were going to leave the building.

And that applies to lawmakers, too, like Democratic Reps. Chris Tuck and Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins.

TUCK: Tonight? Well, tonight’s over, you know that? It’s morning. Depends on how many people speak under special orders. *laughter*
KREISS-TOMKINS: That’s what you call 1am humor.

When political leadership finally did emerge, details were scarce. Gov. Sean Parnell’s omnibus education bill had blown up because of a disagreement over education funding. The House had put extra money – about $75 million per year –  into the base student allocation, which enshrines it in the formula. The Senate’s version increased the number to $100 million. But the boost comes outside the BSA and is only guaranteed for three years, which has disappointed education advocates.

Sen. Charlie Huggins speaks to reporters during a Senate Majority press availability, March, 4, 2014. (Photo by Skip Gray/Gavel Alaska)

When Senate President Charlie Huggins emerged from the meeting, he ran straight to the bathroom before reporters could surround him. And when he emerged, details on the education plan were scarce.

BOB TKACZ: What’s the problem? Why are you guys hung up so much?
CHARLIE HUGGINS: There is no problem.
TKACZ: Well, it’s past midnight. You’re not done. You were going to get done 48 hours ago, Mr. President.
HUGGINS: Well, we’re waiting on the House. As soon as we get them lined up, we’ll be ready to go.

The House and Senate stayed in session until dawn, tending to the logjam of bills that had built up during the stalemate between the two bodies.

The House passed a popular crime reform bill, a bill that would allow a $250 million power plant at the University Alaska Fairbanks, and a bill that would seal criminal records that did not result in a guilty verdict. The Senate passed a measure requiring more public information on state regulations, and legislation to extend the senior benefits program.

But the education issue remained unresolved. Finally, at 4am, the Senate decided it was time for everyone to go home. Senate Rules Chair Lesil McGuire said it just made more sense to give people some rest before debating one of the session’s priority bills.

“The concern that we had was it’s not good decision making when people are tired,” said McGuire. “We have older members, and you can just kind of see people’s energy levels lowering, and you’re not as sharp as you would be.”

Lawmakers will be coming back in the afternoon, on the 91st day of the legislative session, to take up the education bill again.

 

Categories: Alaska News

Senate Passes Bill Transferring $3 Billion To Retirement System

APRN Alaska News - Sat, 2014-04-19 19:56

After wrestling with how to approach the state’s massive unfunded liability for months, the Alaska Senate unanimously agreed to put $3 billion toward the public employee pension system just hours after their plan was released.

The retirement bill was introduced by Gov. Sean Parnell last week, with the objective of shoring up the retirement trusts funds because the state’s unfunded liability is $12 billion. The House passed the legislation with no changes, but the Senate made two major modifications

Sen. Pete Kelly speaks on the Alaska Senate floor, March 24, 2014. (Photo by Skip Gray/Gavel Alaska)

While Parnell’s bill originally put $2 billion toward the public employee retirement system and $1 billion toward the teacher retirement system, the Senate version swaps those numbers because the teacher system is facing a proportionally larger funding gap.

The Senate also adopted a pension payment plan that involves smaller annual contributions in early years, with those contributions stretched out over a longer period of time. Parnell had proposed putting $500 million toward the retirement system each year for the next two decades. The Senate instead elected to go with funding plan that’s more responsive to how many state retirees are collecting benefits at any point in time. Under the Senate plan, the Legislature is expected to appropriate $350 million to the retirement fund next year, with those payments growing some each year as more retirees begin collecting benefits.

Senate Finance Co-Chair Pete Kelly, a Fairbanks Republican, said the pension plan should allow investment bond raters to experience a “sigh of relief” and help the state maintain a high credit rating. The bill also earned praise from Democrats, who have previously attempted to increase payments in to the retirement system.

The bill passed 20-0.

In a release, Gov. Sean Parnell offered support for the Senate’s version of the bill. The bill will now be sent back to the House for concurrence.

Categories: Alaska News

Effort To Revive Parts Of Controversial Permitting Bill Scrapped

APRN Alaska News - Sat, 2014-04-19 15:11

An effort to resurrect parts of a dead permitting bill was abandoned on Friday night.

Officials from the Department of Natural Resources had been working with Rep. Cathy Muñoz, a Juneau Republican, to attach land exchange language from House Bill 77 to a separate bill concerning land sales.

The exchange provision would have allowed the DNR to trade state land for private land, as long as the properties were of equal value or DNR determined the exchange was in the state’s best interest.

The Department of Natural Resources pitched it as an uncontroversial part of a very controversial and recently abandoned bill. When HB 77 was under consideration, the land exchange portion got scant attention compared to sections on water reservations, appeals, and general permits. But environmental advocates have now objected to the land exchange language, arguing that it removed public notice provisions and could allow for sweetheart deals for development projects.

“Rather than short-cutting the process, we should take care whenever public lands and resources are being traded away to a private entity,” says Lisa Weissler, a former assistant attorney general who opposes the language.

Rep. Muñoz had intended to offer land exchange language amendment to Senate Bill 106 either in a procedural committee or on the House floor. But when SB 106 came for a final vote on a Friday night, no amendment was offered.
Natural Resources Commissioner Joe Balash says the amendment was scrapped because of the immediate pushback.

“We were not going to ask anyone to take heat to do this, and there was a little bit of a heat generated by certain groups. So, no harm, no foul,” says Balash. “Hopefully we’ll have an opportunity in the future to look at some of these things, and specifically the land exchange piece, in a cooler time.”

Balash expects the language to come back next year in a standalone bill.

Categories: Alaska News

Education Activists Wary of Latest School Funding Bill

APRN Alaska News - Fri, 2014-04-18 17:16

Sen. Kevin Meyer (File photo by Skip Gray/Gavel Alaska)

In Juneau, the latest version of the education funding bill emerged today, and it isn’t what school advocates were hoping for. Senate Finance co-chairman Kevin Meyer says it’s a comprehensive bill that would add $100 million to education, and he says the Republican majority is committed to keeping that money in the budget for each of the next three years. He distributed copies of the bill in his committee room this afternoon.

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“Some things you’re going to like, some things you may not like, but hopefully overall it’s going to be a balanced package that everyone can support,” he said.

As they studied the pages, education advocates in the front row looked grim. Alyce Galvin, an Anchorage parent and activist, left the room to study it further.

“My first reaction is Ooo, this sounds a little scary, like we’re still going to have severe cuts, now and particularly even more so in the future because if it is flat, that means it’s not keeping up with any sort of inflation costs,” she said.

Sen. Meyer says the funding amounts to a $300 increase in the BSA, referring to the per-student allocation, but Meyer says the money would not come through the BSA. The bill describes a series of special programs, for Internet upgrades and charter schools, boarding schools and vocational education. Galvin says the special programs may look good, but they are funds the Legislature can give and take.  She says the BSA provides stable funds schools can rely on.

” I think that their methodology is different than what parents want to see,” she said. “I think they’re missing the boat, that most kids are in neighborhood schools, and most parents are seeing neighborhood schools get cuts.”

Meyer says only about a quarter of the $100 million would fund special programs and the rest will go to school districts to use as they like. The bill may undergo more changes and still has to be passed by both chambers.

Categories: Alaska News

Legislators Enter Session’s Home Stretch

APRN Alaska News - Fri, 2014-04-18 17:09

Education isn’t the only thing left on the Legislature’s plate. APRN’s Alexandra Gutierrez is our Capitol correspondent, and she’s joining us today to walk us through what lawmakers need to do in the 60 hours before they gavel out.

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Categories: Alaska News

Series Of Quakes Rattle Northwest Alaska

APRN Alaska News - Fri, 2014-04-18 17:08

A series of earthquakes rattled Northwest Alaska about 40 miles northeast of Kotzebue on Friday morning.

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The tremors began with a strong 5.6 magnitude earthquake at 10:44 Friday morning.

“It’s a very striking earthquake,” Michael West, a state seismologist and the director of the Alaska Earthquake Center in Fairbanks, said. “I’m not aware of anything in the last 30 years in the area anywhere close in size.”

He says the initial quake was the one of the largest on record for the region, and was followed by a series of less-powerful quakes, including a 5.3 magnitude aftershock that struck just 12 minutes later.

“We’ve recorded at least ten or so aftershocks in the last couple of hours, I’m quite sure there are many more that are a lot smaller,” West said.

The quakes occurred about 20 miles northeast of Noatak – a community of 500. The massive zinc mining operation at Red Dog is also 20 miles from the center of the series of quakes.

The centers of the quakes were about 20 miles northeast of the 500-strong community of Noatak, Also 20 away, the Red Dog Mine.

Staff at the Noatak school say it shook the whole building for nearly a minute. Ice fishermen on the Noatak River say it pushed water through their fishing hole and up on top of the ice.

“We have a VHF here and people were going on that,” Amy Mitchell, a health aide in training at the Noatak clinic, said. “Our other health aide and our supervisor were telling people to go under tables and under the doorframe – interesting and scary for me.”

Despite rattling buildings, no damage or injuries have been reported.

Seismologist West says there’s no evidence suggesting the quakes are a prelude to something bigger. Dozens of aftershocks continued through Friday but West says the seismic activity should die down by next week.

“Our alarms have been going crazy all morning with each one of these sort of updating into our system, but they’ll die off into the coming days,” West said.

The Earthquake Information Center says the quake was felt as far away as Kotzebue.

Categories: Alaska News

‘Recall Lindsey Holmes’ Group Takes Petition Dismissal To Court

APRN Alaska News - Fri, 2014-04-18 17:07

Representatives from the “Recall Lindsey Holmes” group and Alaska’s Division of Elections met in State Superior Court on Thursday.

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(Photo by Daysha Eaton, KSKA – Anchorage)

The two sides are arguing over the state’s rejection of a petition to recall Anchorage Representative Lindsey Holmes, who switched parties from Democrat to Republican just days before the 2013 Legislative session was set to gavel in.

Elizabeth Bakalar represents the Alaska Division of Elections. She says the recall process is aimed at dealing with issues of misconduct that arise during a representative’s time in office, and because the event took place before Holmes was sworn in, the circumstances deal more with the candidacy and primary process, which is separate.

“It’s a political discontent, not legal discontent, that’s reflected in the grievances, and the remedy lies with the voters at a regular election and not a special recall election and not with this court today,” Bakalar said.

The recall effort began shortly after Holmes made the announcement in early 2013. Over the next several months, the “Recall Lindsey Holmes” group gathered 904 signatures, turning them into the State Division of Elections in November – nearly 100 more than were necessary.

Rep. Lindsey Holmes speaks to reporters during a House Majority press availability, Feb. 27, 2014. (Photo by Skip Gray/Gavel Alaska)

Roughly a month later, the Division of Elections rejected the petition, saying the effort to recall Holmes did not meet the requirements laid out by the state constitution.

Louis Tozzi, who represents the “Recall Lindsey Holmes” group, disagrees with that assessment, arguing a “lack of fitness” on the part of Representative Holmes’, which would allow the recall effort to move forward.

“The issue is we believe that Ms. Holmes corrupted the intent of the closed primary and that she raised money disingenuously and made misrepresentations to the voters – and that the voters, especially the contributors, feel defrauded by that,” Tozzi said.

At the close of the hearing, Judge Gregory Miller said he would take the arguments into consideration and issue a written opinion at a later date.

Categories: Alaska News

Talkeetna Guides With Everest Experience Speak About Deadly Incident

APRN Alaska News - Fri, 2014-04-18 17:06

On Friday, a deadly incident claimed the lives of at least 12 people on Mount Everest.

Willi Prittie and Ellie Henke, both residents of Talkeetna, have extensive experience on Everest.

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Even with the most current gear and knowledgeable guides, mountain climbing carries inherent risk. Willi Prittie has led six expeditions on Mt. Everest, and currently works as a coordinator for a guide service on Denali. He says that major incidents remind people of the risks involved in trying to reach the world’s tallest peaks.

“It’s a roll of the dice whether you’re going to be there when something big moves or not, and people forget that,” Prittie said. “They forget that you are incurring risk any time you’re going through an area like this, just like you would when you get in your vehicle and you drive down the Parks Highway you’re incurring risk.”

“We forget that as well; we tend to have a very convenient memory as a species on these sorts of things.”

On Friday, reports conflicted regarding where the avalanche actually took place. Willi, says that the description that makes the most sense is that the “avalanche” was in the area of the Khumbu Icefall. An icefall occurs when a glacier, which is essentially a very slow river of ice, crosses steep terrain, causing stress fractures. Willi Prittie says that the Alaska Range also has a number of large icefalls, but that climbing routes avoid them because of differences in conditions.

“Something of that size and scale here in Alaska is far more active, and you’d have to have a death wish to walk into it,” Prittie said.

Speaking about Friday’s tragedy, Ellie Henke, who managed base camp for 10 seasons of Everest expeditions, says that using the word “avalanche” may be premature.

“Because it could have been something like a serac collapse,” Henke said. “It could have been ice-fall from way up on the West Ridge somewhere, coming quite a distance down.”

“At this point, I haven’t heard anything that tells exactly what this was.”

Mt. Everest is in a remote region, and even in the age of satellite phones and internet, there is still a human factor in reporting accurate information. Ellie says that one year, falling ice destroyed much of a large camp on the climbing route. Willi Prittie was the first one to reach the site, but had not reported back with accurate information. Still, Ellie says someone sent word to the outside world.

“Somebody in base camp put it out internationally, and next thing we know, BBC is carrying this story of, ‘The biggest disaster in Everest history: Dozens killed.’  Once the dust settled, nobody was killed,” Henke said. “BBC had to do a total retraction later on because it was so inaccurate.  That is really common that that kind of stuff happens.”

The story of the Everest incident resonates in Talkeetna, the launch point of nearly all expeditions on Denali. Willi Prittie says that while there are environmental hazards to contend with, the most popular route to North America’s tallest peak is very different from the climb up Mt. Everest. On much of Denali, the danger does not come as much from avalanches above climbers, but the cracks in the ice, or crevasses, below their feet.

“Generally, the majority of those crevasses will be covered over by wind and snowfall in the winter time,” Prittie said. “You’re often crossing many hundreds of those snow bridges without even knowing those crevasses are down there.”

“Quality of the snow on top of the snow bridges deteriorates as the season warms up, so hidden crevasses are probably the single biggest problem.”

Despite the dangers, Willi Prittie says that the reason stories like the Everest tragedy make news is that they are fairly uncommon.

“It’s not like climbers go up and have this death wish to kill themselves,” Prittie said. “For the most part, you can mitigate a lot of these risks, and you can stay safe in these areas.”

“Look at Everest; there has been many thousands of people up and down there in the last couple of decades or so, and this is the first one of these incidents that’s happened in a very long time, there.”

Conditions and the lack of an official agency, like the National Park Service in the U.S., mean that it could be awhile before the full details emerge of exactly what happened to claim the lives of the 12 or more Sherpas on the world’s highest mountain.

Categories: Alaska News

NTSB Releases Preliminary Report on Fatal Hageland Crash

APRN Alaska News - Fri, 2014-04-18 17:06

The National Transportation Safety Board has published a preliminary report about the crash that killed two pilots near Three Step Mountain.

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Investigators still don’t know what caused the Cessna 208 to crash, but they are digging through data sent from the aircraft that could give some clues. The data show that plane was flying at about 3,400 feet when its altitude changed.

Clint Johnson is the NTSB Regional Office Chief.

Wreckage of the Cessna 208. (Photo courtesy Alaska State Troopers)

“It would appear there was a deviation in altitude, probably two different deviations, immediately after that the plane went into a very, very steep dive, a very rapid dive and continued all the way until ground impact,” Johnson said.

Investigators on the ground found that the wreckage travelled about 180 feet before stopping in an area of heavy brush. A post-crash fire burned much of the fuselage.

The NTSB is investigating other crashes among the Ravn, formerly Era, family of companies. Johnson says they are individual investigations at this point, but they are looking for similarities between the accidents.

“But at this point right now, especially for this most recent accident we need to be able to center in on the on the facts that surround this accident. But that may come a little later on where we start connecting the dots and see if there is similarities throughout the accidents,” Johnson said. “Whereas, training, FAA oversight, maintenance procedures, there’s a whole litany of things. It’s a process of elimination. At this point, nothing has been eliminated.”

The plane was not equipped with cockpit voice or data recorders and was not required to have them. The plane’s wreckage is in Bethel and will be sent to Anchorage.

A full report from the NTSB is expected in about a year.

Categories: Alaska News

Alaska News Nightly: April 18, 2014

APRN Alaska News - Fri, 2014-04-18 17:05

Individual news stories are posted on the APRN news page. You can subscribe to APRN’s newsfeeds via emailpodcast and RSS. Follow us on Facebook at alaskapublic.org and on Twitter @aprn.

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School Advocates Unhappy With Education Bill’s Latest Rendering

Liz Ruskin, APRN – Washington DC

In Juneau, the latest version of the education funding bill emerged today, and it isn’t what school advocates were hoping for. Senate Finance co-chairman Kevin Meyer says it’s a comprehensive bill that would add $100 million to education, and he says the majority is committed to keeping those funds in the budget for each of the next three years.

Legislators Enter Session’s Home Stretch

Alexandra Gutierrez, APRN – Juneau

Education isn’t the only thing left on the Legislature’s plate. APRN’s Alexandra Gutierrez is our Capitol correspondent, and she’s joining us today to walk us through what lawmakers need to do in the 60 hours before they gavel out.

Series Of Quakes Rattle Northwest Alaska

Matthew Smith, KNOM – Nome

A series of earthquakes rattled Northwest Alaska about 40 miles northeast of Kotzebue Friday morning.

The tremors began with a strong 5.6 magnitude earthquake at 10:44 on Friday morning.

‘Recall Lindsey Holmes’ Group Takes Petition Dismissal To Court

Josh Edge, APRN – Anchorage

Representatives from the “Recall Lindsey Holmes” group and Alaska’s Division of Elections met in State Superior Court on Thursday.

NTSB Releases Preliminary Report on Fatal Hageland Crash

Ben Matheson, KNOM – Nome

The National Transportation Safety Board has published a preliminary report about the crash that killed two pilots near Three Step Mountain.

Talkeetna Guides With Everest Experience Speak About Deadly Incident

Phillip Manning, KTNA – Talkeetna

A deadly incident claimed the lives of at least twelve Sherpas today on Mount Everest. Willi Prittie and Ellie Henke, both residents of Talkeetna, have extensive experience on Everest.

AK: Hazing Birds

Emily Forman, KCAW – Sitka

At most major airports someone is paid to chase birds off the runway. But at Sitka’s airport, that job is especially challenging. That’s because 3/4 of Sitka’s runway is surrounded by water. Fish spawn along its banks, attracting hungry birds. That problem was highlighted four years ago when two Alaska Airline jets collided with eagles on takeoff.

300 Villages: Akiachak

This week, we’re heading to Akiachak, in Southwest Alaska. The village is the first in the state to formally decide to dissolve its local government in favor of traditional tribal representation. Jonathan Lomack is the executive director for Akiachak Native Community Tribal Government.

Categories: Alaska News

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