Alaska News

With Focus On Budget, Social Issues May Be Left Behind

APRN Alaska News - Sun, 2015-01-18 19:02

When the Legislature gavels in on Tuesday, there are a few things it must deal with. There’s the multi-billion dollar deficit the state faces. There’s also work to be done on Alaska’s marijuana laws, after voters decided to legalize and regulate the drug in November. This full agenda means other controversial subjects may take a backseat. APRN’s Alexandra Gutierrez reports that lawmakers expect bills on social issues, like abortion, to get less attention than last cycle.

When Republicans took control of both chambers of the Legislature two years ago, social conservatives viewed it as a win. Legislation restricting Medicaid payments for abortion, a long-standing priority for them, finally got hearings and was even signed into law before being enjoined by the courts.

But even though the composition of the Legislature is mostly the same, advocates for anti-abortion measures — like waiting periods and clinic regulations — aren’t expecting to get as much traction, due to the attention on the state’s budget.

Jim Minnery is the president of Alaska Family Action.

“It’s just one more session with just one more reason to put our issues on the backburner,” says Minnery. “We’re sort of the ugly stepchild in the room when it comes to issues down in Juneau. I mean even our allies sometimes have a hard time charging the hill.”

Beyond a climate where lawmakers are more focused on fiscal issues, leadership of some of the committees that traditionally address abortion bills has changed in a way that is less friendly to such legislation.

One of the Senate’s more moderate Republicans, Lesil McGuire, has taken over the Judiciary committee. She takes the reins from Sen. John Coghill, a socially conservative Republican from North Pole, who sponsored the Medicaid abortion bill and shepherded it through the Senate.

With the Health committees, both the House chair — Homer Republican Paul Seaton — and the Senate Chair — Sitka Republican Bert Stedman — have voted against legislation restricting abortion access.

Over the past 20 years, all but one bill concerning abortion has been sent to Judiciary, to Health and Social Services, or both. The one exception was legislation to create a “Choose Life” license plate.

Senate President Kevin Meyer says that trend will likely continue if an abortion bill is introduced this session.

“That seems like the appropriate places,” says Meyer.

Minnery sees that as an obstacle to abortion legislation moving forward.

“Certainly I can’t say we were pleased with Seaton and Stedman being given those chairs, because they’ve shown a repeated resistance to advancing our legislation,” says Minnery.

Planned Parenthood Votes Northwest is also looking at the committee chairs, but from the opposite policy perspective.

“We’re tracking who these committee chairs are,” says Jennifer Allen, a policy director with the group. “We haven’t seen them in action yet, so we don’t know what that’s going to look like. But again, we will simply keep talking to them about why they should be setting aside any anti-abortion bills and addressing the real issues that affect Alaska women’s health.”

House Health Chair Paul Seaton says would like to hold hearings on all bills assigned to his committee, no matter the subject matter. But he says that the Legislature’s biggest fight over abortion — how the term “medically necessary” should be defined for the purposes of Medicaid reimbursement — has already played out.

“On that issue particularly, there’s already been a bill on that. There’s already been regulations which are being challenged in court,” says Seaton. “So I think that’s already probably progressed as far as that’s going to be.”

But the way Medicaid treats abortion could get attention from the Legislature in another way, because of the nebulous status of that law. Last year, a judge issued an injunction against the law, which allows Medicaid reimbursements only in cases where a woman’s life or “physical health” is seriously at risk, after Planned Parenthood challenged its constitutionality.

Medicaid expansion is a top priority of Gov. Bill Walker, who campaigned heavily on the issue. The socially conservative lobby, led by Jim Minnery, is opposing the proposal on the grounds that it could expand abortion coverage.

So far, none of the early bills that have been filed address abortion, though there is legislation supported by social conservatives that would change the makeup of the state’s judicial council. Sen. John Coghill is working on bills to regulate abortion, but says that dealing with the state’s fiscal problems will come first.

Senate President Kevin Meyer agrees.

“Well, they won’t be a priority but that’s not to say that they won’t get through the process, get on the floor, and still get passed this year,” says Meyer.

If an abortion restriction bill makes it through the Legislature, it may put Walker in a difficult situation. Walker personally opposes abortion, and sought support from Alaska Family Action earlier in his political career when he was registered as a Republican. When he abandoned his party affiliation and merged his ticket with Democrat Byron Mallott, Walker said he would not advance an anti-abortion agenda and, at one point, stated he would veto anti-abortion bills before later rescinding that statement.

Minnery says Alaska Family Action hopes to “rekindle its relationship” with Walker.

Categories: Alaska News

Mat Su Borough Mulls Marijuana Regulation

APRN Alaska News - Fri, 2015-01-16 16:41

 There’s no shortage of ideas as to how to deal with legal pot in the Valley.  

The Matanuska Susitna Borough Assembly is considering drafting an ordinance establishing  marijuana regulations. To that end, the mayors of the three cities within the Borough and the Mat Su Borough mayor collectively called for public input on the proposed legislation. With many of the legal aspects of the state’s new marijuana law still to be defined, Palmer mayor DeLena Johnson cautioned:

“This is something we have to take control of before it gets away from us at a higher level”

The four mayors and Borough attorney listened for about two and a half hours, and may have been surprised at what they heard. Unlike the passionate pre-election arguments for or against legalization, those who spoke Thursday were focused on taking full advantage of marijuana -related business opportunities. Wasilla’s Sarah Williams:

“First thing that I’d like to address is that the committee or state allow for the co-existence of the cultivation, production and dispensary facilites under one roof. The reason for this is the control from seed to sale, for consumer protection.”.  Williams made a pitch for  product contaminant testing .

David Holt praised the Valley’s potential pot crop:

“We have an opportunity to make this safer, because it already exists. We have a thriving marijuana industry right now. The Valley is actually world – renowned for its marijuana.”]

Houston Lodge owner Ellie Locks wants limited entry:

“We need to make residency of Alaska and the different cities and boroughs very important before we release any permits.”]

But Justin Rowland took a laissez faire attitude:

“Why would we put a lottery on something and allow only so many permits, and only allow so many people to do it, when the whole point is to bring in as much tax revenue as possible, correct? So, please do not limit this. Please do not allow only so many permits. Let the consumers make the market and set the price.” 

  Questions were raised about insurance requirements and fair taxation for fledgling businesses, and many at the forum were adamant about keeping out – of- staters away from a potentially lucrative industry. Many exploring the possibility of pot- related businesses wanted an exclusive Alaska resident-only clause for future growers and dispensaries.  Businesswoman Holly Lee:

“Say, in Colorado, there was a lot of California cannabis brought in, and I want to see Alaskans be able to provide the hemp and the cannabis for our own state and our own industry.”

Conrad Daly with the Alaska Cannabis Growers Association wanted a distinction for rules governing “commercial” and “hobby” growers.  Bruce Shulte, with Coalition For Responsible Cannabis Legislation focused on hemp

“With regard to hemp, I think this part of the state is set up to capitalize on that commercial market. It is a different product, and my understanding is that a bill that will be brought forth in front of the legislature will address hemp as a separate activity, and I’m hoping it will pass, because I think that would be a great opportunity for some of the farmers in the Valley.”


This week, Senator Johnny Ellis (D Anchorage ) pre – filed a bill that would make hemp an agricultural product in Alaska.

The Borough Assembly takes up the proposed legislation along with a resolution creating a marijuana advisory committee at its meeting next week.

Categories: Alaska News

Legislators Prefile 23 More Bills

APRN Alaska News - Fri, 2015-01-16 15:59

Lawmakers submitted 23 early bills today, after having prefiled more than 60 pieces of legislation last week.

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A bill from Rep. Paul Seaton, a Homer Republican, could delay the sale of marijuana concentrates and food products that contain them to the end of 2016. The bill contains intent language noting the difficulty of regulating these substances in states that have already legalized marijuana.

Rep. Bob Lynn, an Anchorage Republican, has filed a voter ID bill that would require Alaskans to display a driver’s license or other photo ID when going to their polling station. Lynn has introduced two similar bills in the past, but neither have made it to the House floor for a vote.

The Legislature gavels in for business on Tuesday.

Categories: Alaska News

A Year in the Life of the Bowhead Whale

APRN Alaska News - Fri, 2015-01-16 15:58

A new film produced by the University’s Museum of the North in Fairbanks, seeks to reveal the secrets of the undersea migration life of bowhead whales. The animated film is called A Year in the Life of the Bowhead Whale. The film features English, Inupiaq and St Lawrence Island Yupik narration.

Roger Topp heads up digital media at the museum. He wrote and directed the film. He told APRN’s Lori Tow nsend the project started four years ago and was inspired by the linear passage of time.

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Categories: Alaska News

Kuskokwim 300 Mushers Ready to Race on Ice

APRN Alaska News - Fri, 2015-01-16 15:57

Musher Lance Mackey files paperwork with K300 Race Manager, Zack Fansler Thursday. – (Photo by Dean Swope)

Twenty-five mushers are set to race from Bethel to Aniak and back in the 36th running of the Kuskokwim 300. After a couple winter warmups, and little snow, this year’s trail follows the truck road on the river almost exclusively to Aniak and back, cutting out the loop near Whitefish Lake.

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That trail is expected to be icy and fast. Nenana musher Aaron Burmeister isn’t phased by a slick trail.

“One year it could be deep snow an a white out and a blizzard, the next year open water or glare ice. Right now from what I’m seeing, these are favorable conditions. I’ve been here seven times, this is one years of better conditions I’ve seen,” Burmeister said.

Crews from several Kuskokwim villages worked together to clear a large jumbled section of ice resulting from a November break up. Vehicle traffic has further improved the ice. In any case, defending champion Rohn Buser says after running in little snow around Big Lake, his team is ready for a hard trail.

“We’ve been training on that pretty much all year. Maybe not quite as icy, it will probably a little harder footing, but we’ve had pretty firm, pretty hard packed trails, so we’re used to running on that,” Buser said.

The race mileage was estimated at 260 to 270 miles at the musher’s meeting Thursday. Eight of the top 10 mushers from 2014 return, including 9-time champing Jeff King.

“I’m not sure my team is the fastest, in fact I’m quite sure it’s not, but there won’t be anyone with more depth of conditioning. I’ve got a big team, a physical team. They’re not little peewee ice dogs, man, these are musk ox, but they’re fast musk ox,” King said.

Veteran Yukon Quest and Iditarod musher Brent Sass is in Bethel for his first K300.

“I’m excited to see new county I don’t have a lot of concerns. I have to be aware that I don’t lose the trail, but it sounds like the trail is marked well. I’m going to rely on my dogs to stay on the trail, I’m just really excited to be here. I wanted to run this race for a long time and the opportunity arose and we’re here. We’re ready to race,” Sass said.

Fan favorites DeeDee Jonrowe and Lance Mackey are back for the Kusko, along with six YK Delta mushers. First on the trail will be Ken Anderson, departing alongside Brent Sass. Mushers will be limited to 12 dogs, down from 14 in past years.

Six teams are registered for the Bogus Creek 150. The Akiak Dash is Saturday.

The K300 is not allowing spectator vehicles on the ice at the start due to the condition of the ice. They urge travelers to be extra cautious this weekend sharing the truck trail with dog teams.

Categories: Alaska News

AK: Starring

APRN Alaska News - Fri, 2015-01-16 15:55

Members of Unalaska’s Holy Ascension Cathedral congregation spin traditional stars for Russian Christmas, or Slaaviq, which took place last week. (Photo by Annie Ropeik, KUCB – Unalaska)

Last week’s Russian Christmas in Unalaska looked a little different than elsewhere in the state. Over the years, the town has evolved from a Native village into an industrial hub. Now, it has miles of roads and thousands of residents from countless different faiths.

So the little congregation of the oldest Russian Orthodox Church on the continent has had to evolve, too. KUCB’s Annie Ropeik has more on how their Slaaviq has become a community celebration.

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In Unalaska’s historic downtown, Christmastime means almost every building is strung with lights – all but the Orthodox Church, which sits at the back of the neighborhood. Its green onion domes date back 200 years, standing out in a skyline of cargo cranes and seafood plants.

Outside the church, you wouldn’t know it’s Christmas – until early January, when a rare sound rings out across the island.

In the sanctuary, about 15 worshippers are singing a set of Russian and English carols. They’re grouped around a pair of spinning wooden stars, each a few feet across and strung with lights, bells and tinsel. This starring ceremony will repeat dozens of times in the next few nights, in kitchens and living rooms across town.

The congregation and other Unalaskans gather for a starring at Unalaska’s senior center. At far right, Father Evon Bereskin joins in the caroling. (Photo by Annie Ropeik, KUCB – Unalaska)

But the biggest, newest part of the holiday came earlier in the day. At least 100 people packed into the local senior center for a community Slaaviq potluck. The meal only dates back about 15 years, designed to give the elders a starring in the daytime.

“The meaning of the celebration of the nativity of Christ, the starring, is that we’re going out to proclaim the birth of Christ,” says Father Evon Bereskin, the Orthodox priest for Unalaska and several nearby villages.

“The stars that we’re spinning are the stars which the wise men followed,” he says. “So we’re spinning and singing and following the star, which leads us to Christ.”

From here, Bereskin says they’ll spend three days starring in people’s homes. These days, that can include longtime Unalaskans who aren’t actually part of the congregation.

But the list for the second night is all church-goers. The group that will bring the star to them is bigger than the one at the church. They meet at Father Bereskin’s apartment for coffee and brownies, then try to figure out who is next – and spread the word via text message.

Vince Tutiakoff, choir leader: Okay, listen up. We’re gonna go to Monty’s, Shirley’s, Vicki’s, Jenny’s…

Lifelong Unalaskan Sharon Svarny Livingston is one of the starring group. She says this part has changed a lot since she was little, when the town looked more like the villages that celebrate Slaaviq in the rest of Alaska.

“In all those other places, you walk with the star all over the whole town, you know? So that creates a different feeling. Here you’ve gotta drive,” Svarny Livingston says. “And if you’re working and you don’t get off until late, you’ve gotta try to find the star, which can be really difficult sometimes.

“It’s easier now with cell phones,” she adds, laughing.

The congregation after a starring ceremony in Father Bereskin’s kitchen. This white star is thought to be more than a century old. (Photo by Annie Ropeik, KUCB – Unalaska)

The congregation’s also had to condense some over the years. With many parents now raising their kids to celebrate two Christmases – American and Russian – Svarny Livingston says they’ve had to work harder to pass on the traditions.

“We kind of went through a period where we really had to teach the young kids the songs and stuff,” she says. “We all started to go in one group and we just kind of stayed that way. That’s what’s really changed.”

The single star they’re using now is thought to be their oldest – made about a century ago in the Native village of Kashega, which was abandoned during World War II.

Marie Schliebe, left, calls a friend to let them listen in on a home starring. At right, Sharon Svarny Livingston looks over her packet of Russian carol lyrics. (Photo by Annie Ropeik, KUCB – Unalaska)

Tonight, that star – as big as a small child – gets a ride in one of the SUVs caravanning up the road to the first houses on the list. Then, it crowds into Vicki Williams’ living room with its entourage of carolers singing in Russian.

The starring always ends the same way: with a blessing of long life.

Choir (singing): Many years to all, many years to all, to the people in this house. (In Russian and English) Merry Christmas, merry Christmas!

Williams: Thank you!

Vicki Williams wears a big smile, standing in the middle of the crowd and thanking all her friends for coming as they file out.

“I feel like I’m having my house blessed when they come here, you know, with the cross and the star and stuff,” she says, as she bids a “see you later” to a pair of young fishermen on their way out the door.

Around her, the room has emptied out as quickly as it filled. The starring group is heading back to their cars. They’ve got lots more houses to get to before the night is over.

Categories: Alaska News

300 Villages: Sleetmute

APRN Alaska News - Fri, 2015-01-16 15:54

This week, we’re heading to Sleetmute, a small community east of Bethel on the Kuskokwim River. Gladys Fredericks is the Tribal Council President in Sleetmute.

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Categories: Alaska News

Alaska News Nightly: January 16, 2015

APRN Alaska News - Fri, 2015-01-16 15:53

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

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Supreme Court Agrees To Hear Same-Sex Marriage Cases; Alaska’s Appeal On Hold

Anne Hillman, KSKA – Anchorage

The U.S. Supreme Court has decided to hear four same-sex marriage cases and will rule on the constitutionality of same-sex marriage bans by early summer.

Legislators Prefile 23 More Bills

Alexandra Gutierrez, APRN – Juneau

Pot, privacy, and Arctic policy are all issues the Alaska Legislature may take up this session.

As Work Continues On Spending Plan, Walker To Revive State Of The Budget Address

Alexandra Gutierrez, APRN – Juneau

It’s been almost a decade since a governor has delivered a State of the Budget address. With Alaska now in deficit-spending mode, Gov. Bill Walker plans to bring the speech back.

Mat-Su Borough Ponders Legal Pot

Ellen Lockyer, KSKA – Anchorage

An entrepreneurial spirit drove a public forum on a future Matanuska-Susitna Borough marijuana law Thursday night. There’s no shortage of ideas as to how to deal with legal pot in the Valley.

A Year in the Life of the Bowhead Whale

Lori Townsend, APRN – Anchorage

A new film produced by the University’s Museum of the North in Fairbanks, seeks to reveal the secrets of the undersea migration life of whales. The animated film is called A Year in the Life of the Bowhead Whale. The film features English, Inupiaq and St Lawrence Island Yupik narration.

Kuskokwim 300 Mushers Ready to Race on Ice

Ben Matheson, KYUK – Bethel

Twenty-five mushers are set to begin racing tonight from Bethel to Aniak and back in the 36th running of the Kuskokwim 300.

AK: Starring

Annie Ropeik, KUCB – Unalaska

Last week’s Russian Christmas in Unalaska looked a little different than elsewhere in the state. Over the years, the town has evolved from a Native village into an industrial hub. Now, it has miles of roads and thousands of residents from countless different faiths.

So the little congregation of the oldest Russian Orthodox Church on the continent has had to evolve, too.

300 Villages: Sleetmute

This week, we’re heading to Sleetmute, a small community east of Bethel on the Kuskokwim River. Gladys Fredericks is the Tribal Council President in Sleetmute.

Categories: Alaska News

Supreme Court agrees to hear same-sex marriage cases; Alaska’s appeal on hold

APRN Alaska News - Fri, 2015-01-16 14:59

The U.S. Supreme Court Building. Photo by Kjetil Ree, via Wikimedia Commons

The U.S. Supreme Court has decided to hear four same-sex marriage cases and will rule on the constitutionality of same-sex marriage bans by early summer. A federal court decision made same-sex marriage legal in Alaska in October. The Parnell administration started the appeals process for that decision. The Walker administration had been debating whether or not to continue with the appeal. But Cori Mills with the Department of Law says the Supreme Court’s decision to make a final ruling on same-sex marriage bans preempted the Walker administration. Attorney General Craig Richards issued a statement saying he will ask the 9th Circuit to put a hold on Alaska’s appeal until after the Supreme Court makes a final ruling.

Mills says same-sex couples in Alaska can continue to marry as the case proceeds through the court system. The Supreme Court denied the state’s request for a stay on same-sex marriages last fall.

Categories: Alaska News

Implementing Marijuana Regulation in Alaska

APRN Alaska News - Fri, 2015-01-16 12:00

Voters approved the legal the production, sale and use of marijuana for Alaskans over 21 years old in the November election. (Creative Commons photo by Brett Levin)

With a simple vote of the people, Alaska became a leader among states legalizing marijuana, but now it has to figure out how to do it. Is Alaska up to that leadership challenge? Some people would say it has been in the leadership on this particular issue for years.

HOST: Steve Heimel, Alaska Public Radio Network


  • Bruce Schulte, Coalition for Responsible Cannabis Legislation
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LIVE Broadcast: Tuesday, January 20, 2015 at 10:00 a.m. on APRN stations statewide.

SUBSCRIBE: Get Talk of Alaska updates automatically by e-mailRSS or podcast.


Categories: Alaska News

Lawmakers Prepare For 29th Legislative Session

APRN Alaska News - Fri, 2015-01-16 09:00

As the 29th legislative session looms closer, legislators are busy prefiling legislation they hope will become law over the course of the session. From the legalization of pot, to the proposed LNG pipeline, to the state’s uncertain budgetary future, legislators have a lot to address this session.

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HOST: Zachariah Hughes


  • Ellen Lockyer, KSKA 91.1FM
  • Alexandra Gutierrez, Alaska Public Radio Network

KSKA (FM 91.1) BROADCAST: Friday, January 16 at 2:00 p.m. and Saturday, January 17 at 6:00 p.m.

Alaska Public Television BROADCAST: Friday, January 16 at 7:30 p.m. and Saturday, January 17 at 4:30 p.m.

Categories: Alaska News

As Work Continues On Spending Plan, Walker To Revive State Of The Budget Address

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2015-01-15 18:27

It’s been almost a decade since a governor has delivered a State of the Budget address. With Alaska now in deficit-spending mode, Gov. Bill Walker plans to bring the speech back. APRN’s Alexandra Gutierrez reports.

The last State of the Budget address was delivered by Gov. Frank Murkowski in 2006. That year, Alaska was looking at a billion-dollar surplus, and lawmakers needed to decide what to do with the extra revenue. There was a chance to buy a stake in Trans-Alaska oil Pipeline, and put money toward a natural gas project.

Jim Clark was the governor’s chief of staff then, and he says their office was in an exceptional situation.

“We wanted to talk about that because we were closing in on a deal with the producers,” says Clark.

Now, the State of the Budget speech is being revived under a different sort of exceptional situation. Oil is less than half the value it was a year ago, and the state is looking at a multi-billion-dollar budget shortfall as a result.

“This kind of year is far worse than our administration had it,” says Clark.

The State of the Budget address can be delivered separately from the State of the State, but it is not done very often. It’s logistically more challenging, because it means getting the Legislature in one room on two nights, back to back. It also means hoping the public turns on the radio or television to hear speeches two nights in a row. In the past 15 years, it’s only been done once.

Grace Jang, a spokesperson for Gov. Walker, says the current budget realities make two speeches — one this coming Wednesday and one on Thursday — necessary.

“The state is facing an unprecedented fiscal challenge, and the governor wants to make sure that there’s enough time to address what’s coming and to communicate to Alaskans just how dire the situation is,” says Jang.

Jang won’t use the term “crisis” — the administration is trying to avoid panic language — but she says the State of the Budget address isn’t making a comeback just because the administration thought it was a nice tradition.

“Is it going to happen again? Is there going to be another State of the Budget speech in coming years? Hard to say,” says Jang.

Right now, Walker has currently offered the Legislature a placeholder budget. He submitted a version drafted by his predecessor, without changes and without endorsement, in December to meet a deadline. But he’s advised the Legislature that he will offer a seriously revised budget sometime before the drop-dead date of February 18. Walker has also asked his commissioners to look at how their agencies would manage cuts of up to 8 percent.

House Speaker Mike Chenault says legislative leadership is still waiting for that information.

“We have no idea right now. The administration hasn’t told us that they’re going to provide us with anything dealing with the budget yet,” says the Nikiski Republican.

His office had questions about Walker’s request to give a State of the Budget address without actually having provided the Legislature a budget with which to work. The Speaker also requested that the Legislature’s research staff produce a timeline of when the governor has provided separate speeches to find out how unusual the request was.

Chenault says the Legislature plans to start work on the budget shortly after they gavel in, adding that he would like direction on the governor’s budget sooner rather than later.

“We’ll wait to hear both the speeches and hopefully hear from the governor on which direction he would like to go,” says Chenault.

According to budget director Pat Pitney, the administration is not planning to have a finalized document ready by the State of the Budget address, but will have established target spending levels for each state agency.

Categories: Alaska News

Board Reverses Suspensions Of Former-Sen. Stevens Prosecutors

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2015-01-15 17:00

A review board has reversed the suspensions of two federal attorneys accused of withholding evidence in the prosecution of the late Sen. Ted Stevens. The Merit Systems Protection Board ruled this month that the Justice Department bungled the disciplinary process against the two prosecutors. Joseph Bottini was facing a 40-day suspension. James Goeke was to be suspended for 15 days.

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Stevens’ 2008 conviction was eventually tossed out amid charges the U.S. attorneys violated court rules of evidence as they pursued the senator.

Ironically, the attorney suspensions were tossed out because, the review board found, the Justice Department violated its own rules as they pursued the two prosecutors.

The board said the department’s procedural error occurred after an attorney assigned to review the case against Bottini and Goeke concluded they did not commit professional misconduct. Justice officials then re-assigned the case to another attorney, who decided the opposite and pursued the suspensions. The board said that violated the Justice Department’s disciplinary process. The Justice Department can appeal.

Categories: Alaska News

Plunging Oil Prices Cast Doubt on Arctic Drilling

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2015-01-15 16:58

As oil prices continue to plummet, some corporations are scaling back on expensive exploration projects — like drilling in Arctic waters. But, one company with a major stake in the region has yet to tip its hand.

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Within the last few months, a handful of oil companies have backed away from the Arctic. Chevron decided to stop seeking government approval to work north of Canada. And over in Greenland, Statoil gave back three of its four licenses to drill offshore.

But Royal Dutch Shell has been quiet about whether it’s still planning to go back to Alaska this summer for the first time in three years.

Spokesperson Megan Baldino wouldn’t comment on the role that oil prices might play in Shell’s decision. But Foster Mellen, a global oil and gas analyst with Ernst & Young, says it’s clear what they’re up against.

“Pretty much all companies — even the big, financially sound companies — are looking at very much reduced cash flows for the coming year,” Mellen says. “So discretionary spending such as high-risk, high-cost exploration is probably the first to be put on the shelf.”

Unless the price of oil is above $80 per barrel, Mellen says it doesn’t usually make sense to drill in the Arctic. Right now, the price is somewhere around $50.

But Shell’s investment in the Arctic might overshadow that. The company’s spent about $6 billion on its prospects in Alaska. And Malte Humpert, the executive director of the nonpartisan Arctic Institute, says that could spur Shell forward.

“They might really assume that prices go back up and it would take years anyways to develop the drills and get the oil out of the ground,” Humpert says. “But I think it would be a hard sell, to weigh those short-term roadblocks over long-term potential.”

Shell has walked away from the Alaskan Arctic once before, though. The company drilled several wells in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas in the 1980s.

But according to a fact sheet produced by the company, it was ”too expensive to operate given the technology and oil price regime that existed at the time.”

Shell didn’t turn its attention back to Alaska for more than a decade. In 2005, the company started buying up leases again — eventually spending more than $2 billion on sites in the Chukchi Sea.

Those leases have been the subject of a long-running legal challenge. And that could be the biggest hurdle Shell faces as they consider a return to the Arctic in 2015.

John Callahan is a spokesman for the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management in Anchorage.

“The court order prevents BOEM from formally processing — or what we call ‘deeming submitted’ — this exploration plan from Shell,” Callahan says. “However, this court order also explicitly allows BOEM to work with Shell, to get together and discuss ways the plan can be approved. And that’s what our people are doing.”

The formal review can’t start until the Secretary of the Interior decides whether to uphold the lease sale where Shell picked up big prospects in the Chukchi Sea. That decision is expected sometime in March.

That doesn’t leave a lot of time for oil markets to bounce back before Shell’s Arctic fleet would have to head north to start their drilling season.

The company’s expected to provide more details on its plans for the Arctic — and other ventures around the world — during a quarterly earnings call with investors on January 29.

Categories: Alaska News

Small Businesses Struggle To Comply With Health Insurance Requirement

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2015-01-15 16:56

Starting this month, businesses in Alaska with more than 100 full time workers have to provide health insurance. And under the Affordable Care Act “full time” is any employee who works more than 30 hours a week. Senator Lisa Murkowski is sponsoring legislation that would change that threshold to 40 hours. Many restaurants owners in Anchorage are watching the legislation closely.

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It just after the lunch rush at Crossbar in midtown Anchorage and Sous Chef Roy Martinez is grilling steak, plating french fries and trying to make out a confusing order slip. He wonders out loud if “on side add B” means bacon. A server tells him it’s actually code for brown gravy.

Martinez does not get health insurance through work. But his boss, Crossbar owner Ken Ryther would like to change that:

“I would love to offer my employees that benefit.”

Ryther worked at the Bear Tooth Theaterpub & Grill for 12 years, where he had employer sponsored health insurance. He knows health insurance helps retain employees and that in turn improves service and food quality. He also thinks it’s the right thing to do. So when he opened Crossbar a year ago health insurance was on his radar, but he says it just wasn’t feasible:

“There was no way we could afford healthcare in the beginning given start up costs and a new business and managing cash flow.”

Starting next January, Ryther may no longer have a choice. That’s when the Affordable Care Act will require businesses with more than 50 full time employees who work over 30 hours per week to provide insurance. Ryther says he’s close to that threshold right now.

The legislation Senator Murkowski’s proposing would bump the definition of “full time” to 40 hours per week. That would make a big difference for Ryther:

“It would definitely make life easier.”

Murkowski’s office has heard from more than two dozen Alaska businesses who are concerned about the requirement, from restaurants, school districts and plumbers. Murkowski says the full time definition is forcing businesses to cut employee hours to under 30 hours per week to avoid paying the penalty for not providing insurance. She says it doesn’t make sense:

“If you ask most Americans, if you ask most Alaskans, what they consider full time to be, they’ll say 40 hours.”

Some local restaurants already do provide health insurance. Moose’s Tooth Pub and Pizzeria, which owns the Bear Tooth and Broken Tooth Brewing has offered employees health insurance for more than a decade. Brooke VanVeckhoven is the human resources manager for the company, which has about 500 employees in Anchorage. VanVeckhoven says the owners who started Moose’s Tooth in 1996 considered health insurance an important benefit and offered it within a few years of opening. But she understands why other businesses, especially restaurants, struggle to do the same:

“We’ve been contacted by a lot of small local restaurants who would love to offer health insurance to their employees, even before the requirement by the government, and it’s just hard for them to find something that’s affordable that doesn’t eat every bit of their profits.”

That concern for the bottom line is very real for Crossbar owner Ken Ryther. As he considers potentially having to provide health insurance, he is also worrying about the minimum wage increase, which will take effect next month. He says at a certain point, the impact on his business becomes unsustainable:

“Folks are going to be having to pay a whole lot more to go out to eat, which then they’re probably not going to go out to eat, and if people don’t go out to eat you don’t have restaurants if you don’t have restaurants you lose a lot of jobs.”

Ryther would like to see his business grow enough so that he can offer his employees health insurance. But he says he would rather have that be a choice than a government imposed requirement.

This story is part of a reporting partnership between APRN, NPR and Kaiser Health News.




Categories: Alaska News

Governor Names New Deputy Labor Commissioners

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2015-01-15 16:54

Gov. Bill Walker has named two new deputy commissioners at the Department of Labor and Workforce Development.

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Former State Senator Joe Thomas, a Fairbanks Democrat, is taking one of the posts. Thomas served in the Legislature for six years, and he was an official with a Fairbanks labor union for two decades.

Greg Cashen has previously served as an assistant commissioner with the department, and most recently worked for the Alaska Gasline Development Corporation.

Categories: Alaska News

UAS Closes Bookstore, Prepares For Tight Budget Times

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2015-01-15 16:53

The UAS Bookstore sold a lot more than just books. (Photo courtesy MRV Architects)

The University of Alaska Southeast closed its bookstore in Juneau at the end of last year, because it hadn’t been profitable for years. As the school looks ahead, UAS will need to make more tough decisions about its budget.

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Students at the UAS Sitka and Ketchikan campuses have long ordered textbooks through the school’s official Online Bookstore or another website. Now students in Juneau will have to do the same.

Callie Conerton is UAS student government president. She says the closure of the bookstore isn’t affecting how she buys textbooks. Conerton is in her fourth year at UAS, studying elementary education. She tends to order books online anyway.

“If I can get a book that is the older edition that still has 95 percent of the information and is $100 cheaper, I’m going to take that route,” says Conerton.

She says some students are upset by the closure, especially ones that sign up for or change classes right before the semester starts. They don’t have the convenience of buying textbooks at the bookstore but instead have to wait for them to arrive in the mail.

“So it is a little bit hard. Shipping to Alaska, of course, from down south is extremely hard, but it’s an adjustment period. It’s a transition,” Conerton says.

The bookstore has been on or near the Juneau campus since the early 1980s. In more recent years, it doubled as a gift shop and sold a lot more than just books. It had school and art supplies, dorm decorations and work by local artists. It was also the place to buy UAS sweatshirts and gear.

But UAS vice chancellor for administration Michael Ciri says it was simply not financially stable.

“The bookstore had not been profitable for quite a few years and it was increasingly unprofitable and all of the projections show that it was going to be between $50,000 and $150,000 deficit ongoing into the future,” Ciri says.

Starting in the fall of 2013 the university went through a lengthy process to review bookstore operations. In May, officials made the final decision to close it. Ciri says the bookstore’s budget was around $770,000.

UAS gear can now be purchased at a new convenience store in the Mourant Building, and soon at the recreation center. School supplies will be offered in vending machines on campus.

The almost 4,000 sq. foot bookstore was located in the same building as the school’s administrative services and human resources departments. In the near future, Ciri says the space will likely be used as temporary office space for staff while the Hendrickson building is renovated. Otherwise, he says UAS is actively looking at selling the building.

“Not quite certain what the solution will be for all of the business functions that are in that building yet,” Ciri says, “but if we can find a way to use space more efficiently on campus and be able to accommodate them there then we would have one less building to be maintaining, which in tight budget times would be advantageous.”

And Ciri says UAS needs to start planning for even tighter times. During the school’s Christmas break, Gov. Bill Walker asked all state agencies to look at the potential effects of a 5 percent and 8 percent budget cut. Ciri says that translates into either a $3.4 million or $4.3 million reduction, or between 30 and 50 staff members.

“That’s the equivalent of the general funding we receive for a third of all of our academic program, and so you can’t do that without significantly reducing staff. Ideally you wouldn’t do it all through staff reduction. You’d find some other strategies to do it, like selling a building,” Ciri says.

UAS is starting to look at budget cutting measures, he says, like a hiring freeze and identifying how departments can save money this fiscal year.

Full disclosure: Callie Conerton is the daughter of KTOO’s Jeff Brown.

Categories: Alaska News

Klawock Couple Plans Halftime Wedding

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2015-01-15 16:52

A couple in Klawock has been engaged since 2001, but they couldn’t quite come to agreement about what kind of wedding ceremony to have. They finally settled on a unique venue: Center court at halftime during Friday’s home basketball game.

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Lisa George definitely didn’t want a traditional wedding, with the church or the dress or any of that frilly stuff. Jared Barlow definitely didn’t want to go to the courthouse, with just a judge, a couple of witnesses and no fanfare.

How to get married then, has been a topic of discussion for the couple for quite some time. Last fall, they finally made a decision.

“ Lisa said:’We’ll have it at the first basketball game. There’s your time and place. You set it up.’” Said Barlow.

That’s another thing. The bride wants nothing to do with planning.

“So, I’ve been putting all the plans together and arranging everything, and all she’s got to do is walk in and show up,” he said.

It’s a bit of a role reversal. Traditionally, women tend to be more excited about planning weddings. But George said their relationship is not traditional.

“I’m more into the typical male role, if you want to put it that way,” she said. “And he’s more of the female that likes the lovey dovey, frilly things. It works for us.”

George has had minimal responsibilities. She had to say yes or no to a few things, but that’s pretty much it. There’s no wedding dress, either, although there are rumors that a veil might end up pinned to her Klawock Chieftains jersey.

“I don’t know,” she said. “I just planned on being in my Chieftains gear, and whatever my cousins and aunties and relatives figure out, we’ll go from there.”

While George has stayed out of it, Barlow wasn’t completely on his own when planning the wedding. Other residents of the tight-knit community of Klawock have rallied to help.

“It really hasn’t been too much,” he said. “The biggest issue that I’ve had was trying to make sure my family from out of town could come up.”

That includes Barlow’s father, who is performing the ceremony and had a long four-day trip from a village in Peru where he’s now living.

Barlow said he met George online, as he was planning to move to Klawock. He had started his Alaska residency in Sitka, drawn there by his sister, who was attended Sheldon Jackson College.

“She sent me a bunch of pictures of the water and the hillsides, and so I said that’s where I’ve got to go and I moved to Sitka in June of 1999,” he said.

But, the tourism in Sitka was too much for him, so about a year later, Barlow moved to Prince of Wales Island. He wanted to find out more about Klawock before moving, so he did a search on Yahoo Messenger. That’s how he met George.

“I’ve tried to duplicate that search since then, and have never been able to duplicate a search to find her anywhere,” he said. “That one search was what did it for me in order to find her.”

Now, about 15 years later, wedding bells will ring – or half-time buzzers will sound — as the couple finally ties the knot.

Friday’s ceremony will take place after the boys’ team plays – which includes George’s 18-year-old son — and before the girls’ game. The visiting team is the Kake Thunderbirds.

Categories: Alaska News

Anchorage tourism numbers up, expected to continue

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2015-01-15 16:13

2014 was a record year for tourism in Southcentral Alaska according to Visit Anchorage. The organization predicts 2015 might be just as good. Visit Anchorage President and CEO Julie Saupe says the primary measure is bed tax collection. The municipality will pull in about $24.2 million this year, a third of which goes back to Visit Anchorage to market the city.

Saupe says tourism to the region is bouncing back because of marketing efforts and general economic rebound.

“I think there’s a lot of consumer confidence, a lot of people are finally feeling they might have a little disposable income after what we saw happen in 2008 and 2009, so there’s a little pent up demand.”

Saupe says tour operators and sales staff foresee tourism continuing to grow in 2015. Cruise ships plan to bring an additional 33,000 passengers to Southcentral Alaska next year. Organizations are also booking many conferences in the region.

Saupe says the increase in tourism is good for the entire economy. ”You look at the tourists on the street and yes they’re in the our restaurants, our hotels, our gift shops. That’s the easy layer to see. But all of those businesses have insurance, they have remodeling, they’re using gas for the tour vans. It really does trickle to just about every corner of our community.”

The city’s bed tax also feeds into the general fund and helps pay for the city’s convention centers.

Categories: Alaska News

Anchorage Democrats Push Bills Combating Sexual Assault, Retaliation in National Guard

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2015-01-15 16:03

Jennifer Pastrick, far left, sat beside Rep. Chris Tuck (D-Anch), Sen. Bill Wielechowski (D-Anch.), and retired Lieutenant Ken Blaylock on the second floor of the Legislative Information Office.

Two lawmakers introduced a group of bills today designed to fix issues within the Alaska National Guard.

Anchorage Democrats Chris Tuck and Bill Wielechowski  made the announcement at a press conference inside the new Legislative Information Office in downtown Anchorage.

The first of the three bills aims to change reporting procedures in the Guard for crimes like sexual assault, protect victims from retaliation, and prosecute cases in civilian courts. Retired Lieutenant Ken Blaylock blew the whistle on crimes within the Guard, and spoke as part of the event.  He explained the measure eliminates inappropriate and criminal actions that have been taking place with impunity for the last 20 years.

“This type of thing would force a record,” Blaylock said.  ”You have a lot of leaders that make statements, but they don’t produce paperwork with a signature on it saying ‘I’m the one that made this decision,’ so things are just dropped, and a victim comes forward and complains and is basically ignored.”

Another bill revises the Uniform Code of Military Justice that guides legal procedures within the Guard. The highly technical document hasn’t changed since statehood.

“Right now, when there are offenses in the Guard they are typically handled as personnel actions,” said Senator Wielechowski. “By adding and changing the Uniform Code of Military Justice we would be creating a criminal justice system within the Guard.”

“I know people are concerned about cost,” Wielechowski said in response to a question about push-back he anticipates. “We think this can be handled by and large by the resources that the Guard has.”

A third bill creates a legal mechanism for private companies to give veterans priority in hiring.

No Republicans have signed on to the legislation so far. Representative Tuck says the absence of any Republican co-sponsors has more to do with timetables than with politics.

“This isn’t one party versus the other party type legislation,” Tuck said. “This is doing something that’s best for all of Alaska. So we hope that going forward we’ll have a lot of support and a lot of ideas coming from the whole Legislature.”

The Legislative session in Juneau starts Tuesday.

Categories: Alaska News