Alaska News

Parnell Offers “Choice”-Friendly School Reform Package

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2014-01-23 13:00

(Skip Gray/Gavel to Gavel)

For most of Sean Parnell’s administration, oil taxes have gotten top billing in the Capitol. But with that legislative fight behind him, the Republican governor is changing his focus.

PARNELL: 2014 will be the Education Session.

During the State of the State address on Wednesday night, Parnell laid out an agenda that was friendly to the school choice movement. And he made a commitment to increase school funding if it passes. APRN’s Alexandra Gutierrez reports.

The deal he presented to state lawmakers is basically this: You give parents more options beyond traditional public schools, and I’ll give those public schools more money for the next three years.

“If we are successful at real reform and more new funding, our children will benefit,” said Parnell.

Parnell didn’t specify how much funding, but he did say it would come through the “base student allocation” — that’s the dollar amount a school gets for each child enrolled. That number has sat at around $5700 for the past four years, and school districts have been clamoring for an increase in the face of budget shortfalls.

Now for the strings attached. One:

PARNELL: I urge the House and Senate to vigorously debate the provisions of Senate Joint Resolution 9 and move it to the people for a vote.

That item would amend the Alaska Constitution so that the state could fund private institutions, including religious ones. The resolution doesn’t set up a school voucher system, but it would allow lawmakers to set one up if they wanted. For it to pass, it needs support from 2/3rds of the Legislature and then a majority vote of the people.

Number two:

PARNELL: I propose all local, state, and federal funding — except some capped district administrative expenses — travel with a student to a charter school.

Parnell also described this as “expanding choice.” He said too many students are being put on wait lists for the state’s public charter schools because of “restrictive” state laws. Parnell also encouraged the legislature to pass a law giving parents the right to appeal if a school board denies their application to start a charter school.

Condition three:

PARNELL: I propose repealing and replacing the obsolete High School Graduation Qualifying Exam.

The governor explained that the test became obsolete when the state implemented new education standards. In its place, Parnell would require students to take a nationally recognized college entrance exam or a job skills test within two years of graduating — specifically, the SAT, the ACT, or WorkKeys. He would also have the state foot the bill for the first test.

Bills that would get rid of the high school exit exam have already been introduced in both chambers of the Legislature, with Republicans and Democrats signing on as sponsors.

Number four:

PARNELL: We must continue to expand the number and type of regional residential schools.

Like Mt. Edgecumbe High School in Sitka. This was a nod to the state’s rural areas, where charter schools and private schools are in short supply and the only alternatives kids have to their local public school is home-schooling or boarding school.

And five:

PARNELL: We must recognize our students need 21st century classrooms to compete in a 21st century economy.

Parnell called for continued support of the Alaska Digital Teaching Initiative, which lets student take classes at other schools through a video link.

During his address, Parnell also spoke favorably of expanding vocational education, letting kids test out of classes for credit, and allowing for dual-credit options that could count toward high school graduation and career certification.

In all, Parnell spent nearly half of his annual speech on education. It got more time than his recommendations on fiscal policy, the proposed gasline, and the state’s pension liabilities combined. No mention was made of the state’s budget shortfall, which is expected to approach $2 billion this year.

*****

Democrats may have clapped during Gov. Sean Parnell’s State of the State address when he suggested increasing the base student allocation, but they weren’t happy with his larger education package.

House Minority Leader Chris Tuck argued that after four years of keeping the per-student funding amount flat, there shouldn’t be conditions on an increase.

“What have we been doing? Short changing education and crippling it. And once crippled – no more funding until there is reform.”

His Senate counterpart Hollis French said he was disappointed that the governor supported a constitutional amendment that would allow state funds to be used at private schools, and he expressed concern that it could lead to vouchers.

“Diverting public money to private schools simply continues to deprive our public schools of the resources they need to do their job,” said French.

French suggested that Parnell could achieve better student outcomes by focusing on early education, which did not get a mention in the governor’s speech.

The Democrats also expressed some skepticism over the governor’s recent gasline deal, saying they didn’t trust the governor to negotiate with North Slope producers because of the controversial oil tax law he signed.

Meanwhile, Republicans expressed support for Parnell’s State of State speech. Lesil McGuire, a senator and candidate for lieutenant governor, called it “right on point” in a written statement, while House Majority Leader Lance Pruitt tweeted that it was “strong.”

Categories: Alaska News

Palmer Hearing Pinpoints Divisive Legislation

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2014-01-23 12:48

Photo by Ellen Lockyer, KSKA – Anchorage.

 The Matanuska Valley’s Chickaloon Tribe invited state Department of Natural Resources leaders to speak at an information session in Palmer on Tuesday evening. Three DNR officials who responded fielded questions and heard comments about aspects of an unpopular piece of legislation now before the state legislature.  None of those who spoke were in favor of HB 77.

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Liz Robinson is the executive director of the citizens group, Envision Mat Su

“As we continue to grow, our progress should reflect a state that serves the public, not one that ignores it. As an organization, or mission is to actively engage Mat Su residents and other Alaskans in the conservation, restoration, stewardship and enhancement of our region’s most valuable resources,” Robinson said. ”House Bill 77 is at odds with such a mission. This piece of legislation effectively trades the voice of the people in favor of faster permitting for natural resource projects. This bill would limit our ability as citizens to become informed about and appeal natural resource project decisions, and would disproportionately concentrate decision-making power within the hands of the DNR Commissioner.”

Liz Robinson, the executive director of “Envision Mat-Su.” Photo by Ellen Lockyer, KSKA – Anchorage.

About 60 people turned out for the session, which was not an official state public hearing.  Former school teacher and retired principal Stephen O’Brien, who spent 3 decades in Bethel, says the designers of the state’s constitution were careful to include Alaskans in the decision making process.

“And Alaska became unique among the fifty states, as an owner state, where the resources of Alaska belonged to the people of Alaska,” O’Brien said. ”That’s what really concerns me about this bill. The founding fathers of our statehood saw the wisdom of including individual people with the rights to stand up. Is it worth it to undermine these long-established principals that make us, as Alaskans, the owners of our resources? I think not. “

 DNR’s Wynn Menafee , a deputy director of DNR’s division of mining, land and water, helped explain that the state wants the bill to streamline the process by which the public is involved in decision making on resource development projects. But he said he was hearing otherwise from the people who spoke out at the meeting.

“There’s a lot of dissatisfaction with HB 77 that was expressed tonight,” Menafee said. ”And I think it ranged from issues with the general permits, appeals, water, but it also just basically, in general concept, there was a lot of consideration that they thought the bill was over-riding the public process, and public participation. “

Menafee  says it’s up to the legislature to make the call on whether or not the bill fufills constitutional mandates.

But the Chickaloon Tribe’s health director, Lisa Wade, said the bill is actually helping to unite people

“Pretty much, people are really concerned with this bill. And one thing that you can say about it is, is it is uniting us. It’s uniting Alaskans. It’s bringing us together and calling us to speak out to protect our rights and our future rights from top-down government legislation. You may not streamline and modernize your work load at the expense of the safety of our families and our natural resources. ”

 Menafee said that DNR is currently considering making changes to the bill, but he was not at liberty to discuss what those changes might be.

Categories: Alaska News

YKHC President Retires Amid Controversy With The Board

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-01-22 18:29

The Yukon Kuskokwim Health Corporation employs more than 1,600 people. It’s the largest employer in Bethel and has been led by Gene Peltola Sr. for 24 years. However, the CEO spent this past weekend clearing out his office amid controversy with the board of directors.

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Gene Peltola Sr.

Peltola announced his expected retirement Jan. 10. He said he’d work through April. Yet just days later, YKHC’s board of directors told him to leave immediately.

The board is not speaking publically about the issue. Their decision came in a closed executive session. In a release, the board said they bought out the remainder of Peltola’s contract and his early retirement was effective immediately.

They wouldn’t comment to KYUK but referred to a statement where Board Chair Ray Alstrom thanked Peltola “for his years of service”.

A few days before the board meeting, none of the controversy was apparent in a lengthy interview with Peltola when he called the board “excellent”.

Peltola, who is Yup’ik, sat in his office overlooking the Kuskowim River. He reminisced about how YKHC has changed since he took it over in 1990. Back then, the corporation was going through tough times. Three dozen staff had been laid off and most of the director positions were vacant.

“And immediately, I was able to fill those positions with quality people and competent people and that was the crux of the turn around for the corporation,” Peltola said.

YKHC’s annual budget was between $10 and 11 million then. Now it’s $175 million. Peltola said he got marching orders from the board for three things: to pursue sub-regional clinics in the villages, move the hospital from the Indian Health Service to tribal management and to consolidate offices into one main building in Bethel.

Peltola accomplished all three. Through Denali Commission funds he brought 37 new health clinics to the villages.

He said he’s liked the job because he sees results.

“You can see that it’s improving the health of the people we serve and ultimately improving the quality of life of the people we serve,” Peltola said, “and that to me is the most rewarding.”

Before YKHC, Peltola was a business man. He was a private contractor and was involved in construction, the airline industry and retail sales. He brought those skills to YKHC where he bought a medevac company, Life Med. Prior to that, YKHC used commercial airlines.

“We bought three rows of seats on a 737 with Alaska Airlines or a 727 with Reeve then and then strapped in a gurney with a patient and had the attendant sitting there,” Peltola said.

But in 1997, commercial airlines could no longer carry oxygen tanks for safety reasons and Life Med was the solution. The medevac company not only services the Y-K Delta but leases aircraft in Anchorage, Fairbanks, Wasilla, and Soldotna.

“The bottom line is, last year Life Med nearly broke even, we had a small loss but we got $3.8 million dollars of free medivacs,” Peltola said.

Peltola has seen the corporation through two major lawsuits with the federal government fighting for shortfalls in BIA-IHS funding. In 2007, they won $42 million, which was put into a permanent fund. Another settlement last month is bringing in $40 million in back pay. Peltola says tribal organizations have been shortchanged for a while.

“If we were Halliburton or GE or a Lockheed or a Bowing or any other federal contractor, they would be fully funded,” Peltola said.

He says funding has been the biggest challenge of the job. It’s hard when money comes from people who don’t understand just how expensive remote services are.

“I’ve been asked by IHS employees new to Alaska, meeting with them in Anchorage, which way do I drive to get to Bethel from Anchorage,” Peltola said, “and you kind of laugh and chuckle and then tell them there’s no way you can drive there.”

Recently, the health corporation spent $18 million developing a system for electronic health records. Peltola says these successes happen because smart people are working at the corporation. He says it’s important for a CEO to have good people under them.

“He or she can’t do the job by themselves and they’ve got to put together their team and give the members of that team the authority to fulfill their duties and responsibilities,” Peltola said.

YKHC’s board has hired its Chief Legal Counsel Dan Winkelman to replace Peltola, someone Peltola had been grooming for the job.

In a release, Peltola said: “It’s going to be a difficult time but we need to ask and encourage our employees and our community members to come together to support Dan in this transition.”

Categories: Alaska News

GovTrack Completes 2013 Report Card On Congress

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-01-22 18:28

GovTrack, a nonpartisan website that collects data on proposed federal legislation, has completed its 2013 report card on members of Congress. It found Alaska’s Mark Begich co-sponsored more bills than any other senator, while Congressman Don Young introduced more bills than any other House Republican. But the report card was especially interesting for what it said about U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski.

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Categories: Alaska News

Admiral Ostebo Outlines USCG’s Plans For Western Alaska

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-01-22 18:27

Coast Guard Admiral Thomas Ostebo visited Nome last week to outline summer plans for Western Alaska. The plans are part of the Coast Guard’s Alaska operation for the year, officially titled Arctic Shield 2014.

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Nome should expect a regular stream of Coast Guard ships pulling in for supplies, fuel, and crew changes.

Expected vessels include buoy tenders and cutters, particularly the Alex Haley.

In Barrow the Coast Guard will station a buoy tender and a national security cutter offshore. Also, they will open an emergency response helicopter facility to aid industries and communities in the North Slope.

If Shell Oil Company receives its drilling permits for the Chuckchi Sea, a Coast Guard ship will remain on the drill site at all times.

In Kotzebue the Coast Guard will use the air facility on an as-needed basis for deployment and crew swaps. In Point Clarence, the Coast Guard will port a patrol boat to monitor the Bering waters, respond to offshore incidents, and aid local vessel boardings.

In addition, the Coast Guard will conduct disaster and oil spill response training in communities along the Western coast.

“So you can expect to see a lot of Coast Guard folks again,” Ostebo said. “Hopefully that’s a good thing.”

While in past years, the Coast Guard focused either on the Arctic or on Alaska’s western coast, Ostebo says, this summer the Coast Guard will be patrolling both areas.

“Next summer we’re going to have to try to keep our foot in both places, because the threat remains in both places,” Ostebo said.

That threat stems from potential accidents like vessel collisions, oil spills, and situations requiring search and rescue. Ostebo’s top concern is the unregulated increase of vessels through the Bering Strait. This traffic overshadows even the risks associated with oil and gas extraction. Last year, Ostebo says, the Bering Strait saw the highest number of ship and cargo passage in the strait’s history, and the Coast Guard expects an even higher rate this year.

“When we have as much of the increase in traffic as we’re seeing take place in the Bering Strait, two ships colliding with each other, a ship running aground on Little Diamede, a ship losing power or having a fire, or those kinds of things are really the biggest concerns that I have as I look to the threats in this area and the CG needs to be here to support that,” Ostebo said.

Ostebo says the Coast Guard and its Russian counterpart are drafting voluntary regulations for vessel routing and reporting through the strait.

Categories: Alaska News

Court Says Inadequate Studies Conducted Before 2008 Lease Sale

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-01-22 18:26

A federal appeals court has ruled that federal regulators conducted inadequate environmental studies before selling $2.7 billion in petroleum leases off Alaska’s northwest coast.

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The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Categories: Alaska News

What Is The Center For Ocean Solutions?

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-01-22 18:25

Representative Beth Kerttula’s new position will be the first for an elected official at the Stanford University Center for Ocean Solutions.

The center is a collaboration of marine research organizations connected with Stanford.

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Categories: Alaska News

‘Excluder’ Could Limit Salmon Bycatch

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-01-22 18:24

The Pollock trawl fleet now has a device that could help them avoid catching too many salmon. It’s what’s called an “excluder,” and has been in development for more than ten years. The design was presented at the Marine Science Symposium meeting in Anchorage.

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Categories: Alaska News

Proposed Setnet Initiative Heading To Court

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-01-22 18:23

The Alaska Fisheries Conservation Alliance did not agree with the Lt. Governor’s decision this month to not allow its proposed ban on commercial set netting on the 2014 ballot. They’re taking their case to court.

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Categories: Alaska News

Young And Old Turn Out To ‘Bonfire for Bristol Bay’ Rally In Dillingham

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-01-22 18:22

The atmosphere was festive Tuesday night at the Dillingham boat harbor as dozens came to celebrate some recent successes in the fight against the Pebble Mine.

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Categories: Alaska News

Alaska News Nightly: January 22, 2014

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-01-22 18:14

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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YKHC President Retires Amid Controversy With The Board

Angela Denning-Barnes, KYUK – Bethel

Yukon Kuskokwim Health Corporation CEO Gene Peltola Sr. spent this past weekend clearing out his office. The Board of Directors dismissed him without publicly explaining the decision.

GovTrack Completes 2013 Report Card On Congress

Liz Ruskin, APRN – Washington DC

GovTrack, a nonpartisan website that collects data on proposed federal legislation, has completed its 2013 report card on members of Congress. It found Alaska’s Mark Begich co-sponsored more bills than any other senator, while Congressman Don Young introduced more bills than any other House Republican. But the report card was especially interesting for what it said about U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski.

Admiral Ostebo Outlines USCG’s Plans For Western Alaska

Anna MacArthur, KNOM – Nome

Coast Guard Admiral Thomas Ostebo visited Nome last week to outline summer plans for Western Alaska. The plans are part of the Coast Guard’s Alaska operation for the year, officially titled Arctic Shield 2014.

Court Says Inadequate Studies Conducted Before 2008 Lease Sale

Lauren Rosenthal, KUCB – Unalaska & The Associated Press

A federal appeals court has ruled that federal regulators conducted inadequate environmental studies before selling $2.7 billion in petroleum leases off Alaska’s northwest coast.

Gov. Parnell Addresses Budget, ‘Choose Respect’ and Education

Lori Townsend, APRN – Anchorage

Governor Parnell says he has three main priorities for the legislative session that started yesterday in Juneau: education, the gas line and the unfunded Pers/Ters pension fund liability.

What Is The Center For Ocean Solutions?

Rosemarie Alexander, KTOO – Juneau

Representative Beth Kerttula’s new position will be the first for an elected official at the Stanford University Center for Ocean Solutions.

The center is a collaboration of marine research organizations connected with Stanford.

‘Excluder’ Could Limit Salmon Bycatch

Steve Heimel, APRN – Anchorage

The Pollock trawl fleet now has a device that could help them avoid catching too many salmon.  It’s what’s called an “excluder,” and has been in development for more than ten years.  The design was presented at the Marine Science Symposium meeting in Anchorage.

Proposed Setnet Initiative Heading To Court

Shaylon Cochran, KDLL – Kenai

The Alaska Fisheries Conservation Alliance did not agree with the Lt. Governor’s decision this month to not allow its proposed ban on commercial set netting on the 2014 ballot. They’re taking their case to court.

Young And Old Turn Out To ‘Bonfire for Bristol Bay’ Rally In Dillingham

Dave Bendinger, KDLG – Dillingham

The atmosphere was festive Tuesday night at the Dillingham boat harbor as dozens came to celebrate some recent successes in the fight against the Pebble Mine.

Categories: Alaska News

Gov. Parnell Addresses Budget, ‘Choose Respect’ and Education

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-01-22 17:32

Photo by Annie Feidt, APRN – Anchorage.

Governor Parnell says he has three main priorities for the legislative session that started yesterday in Juneau: education, the gas line and the unfunded Pers/Ters pension fund liability.

Parnell told APRN’s Lori Townsend, the budget will be tight this year, but Alaskans have been through this before.

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After years of surpluses, Alaska is now facing a $2 billion shortfall. The state is expecting to draw on a substantial amount of savings. Under your leadership, capital budgets have grown. What would you propose now for revisiting that and reining those expenses in?

Gov. Parnell – Well, Alaskans will remember that we’ve been here before. Because our budget is dependent upon oil revenues, and the price of oil goes up and down, historically, we’ve always used those savings to buffer those lower-price times. That’s the situation we’re in right now. So, we need to be restrained and we need to be prudent about those investments we make – we want to make them count. So, we’re gonna focus on those constitutional priorities; we’re gonna focus on education, on public safety, on transportation. But, we’re also gonna work at the systemic, to make those systemic changes so that our kids, down the road, don’t have their education budget squeezed by an unfunded pension liability payment like we do today. So, instead of paying $1.1 billion to fund that pension liability obligation some years from now, I’m gonna propose a way forward where they’re paying $500 million in those years ahead. So, it’s about keeping our eye on the future, but making those important investments for today.

The new gas line agreement you recently signed has the state taking an equity share in the pipeline. You’ve talked about this as a new idea, but when we look back to the days of Governor Murkowski’s administration, there were similar ideas. What makes this deal different from that proposal?

Gov. Parnell – Quite a few things are different in this proposal. But, I do believe, fundamentally, like many governors before me that Alaska can better control its destiny and better own its destiny if we own a stake in this gas line. What’s different this time is that there will be more public process, more transparency to it, so instead of having one legislative session where the fiscal deal is done at once, billions of dollars are put at risk at once, we move through stage gates, or phases of this project just like companies do all the time. So, for example, the next 18 months – what is known as pre-feed, the pre-front-end engineering and design work – that’s what these agreements address. It allows us to move forward in an aligned fashion on a gas line, but only through that first stage. Once that pre-feed stage is done, we come back to the legislature, show what’s gone before, show the new agreements that have been negotiated for the next stage – known as feed – get approval and the legislature’s commitment after a public process. So, one of the key things that’s different this time is the openness and transparency of the process and the less risk to Alaskans along the way.

You’ve hinted at an education proposal that would be more supportive of expanding the charter school system. How does that help communities off the road system?

Gov. Parnell – Well, because any time you put money into the hands of parents or anytime you loosen the restrictions on charter school creation, that opens opportunities to parents in rural areas and in urban areas. There’s just no question. And in fact some of our charter schools are in the rural areas. So, the issue is really one of giving charter schools, which are part of the public school system, giving them and their students equal treatment with the rest of the public school system.

You graduated from East High in Anchorage. If you had young kids that were about the enter the Anchorage public school system, would you feel OK about their education, given the extensive cuts the district has made and will continue to make?

Gov. Parnell – That really is dependent upon each parent. And for our kids, we had our kids in both public schools during their K-12 grades and we had them in a private as well. So, we had that ability to choose. For somebody that doesn’t have that ability, I say we have to do better so that they have more opportunity as young people in our schools. And I think the question that you ask is a good one. It’s pretty tough to say that funding hasn’t been increased from the state – because it has – but I think we have to deal with the fundamental structure that we put money into and say, “are our kids getting value for the dollars we’re spending?” And in some cases I think they are, and in some cases they are not. That, again, is a huge debate that is going to be had here in the halls of the legislature and throughout the state as we move forward. I remain committed to making sure that our kids get the best education that we can provide. I’ve set a goal along with others across the for a 90 percent graduation rate by 2020. We’ve made progress. In fact, our graduation rate I believe has improved the last three years or so. But we have a long ways to go to get to 90 percent. I want the discussion to be about, how do we get to that 90 percent graduation rate? It’s not just about how much money we can spend, it’s about how that money gets spent. And those are two sides of the equation that I intend to bring together in Juneau for the benefit of our kids.

When you rejected the Medicaid expansion, you said the state’s community health centers already are helping the population the expansion was intended to serve. But those clinics are really counting on increased funding from Medicaid expansion. Do you think the legislature should appropriate more community health center funding?

Gov. Parnell – One of my points in declining Medicaid expansion was that we weren’t fixing anything for Alaskans who are having to pay for the system. The working class Alaskans whose healthcare costs are going up, whose health policies are being cancelled, again it’s this argument of why are we putting more money in a system when there’s no perceived benefit, there’s no benefit that can be ascertained to the broad swath of Alaskans who are losing policies and paying more for health care. The dollars from a federal Medicaid expansion certainly help health care providers, but there’s little indication that for putting billions of dollars more into our system, that our kids and grandkids will pay for, that that actually has any other benefit than further increasing costs and laying the debt and burden on them. So, it was this balance of looking at the population that needs health care and health care coverage, looking at where they currently have access to that through the community health centers is one place. And seeing if we can’t better target the funds or channel the funds to where they’re needed instead of just a big outpouring, a big parachuting of federal dollars into the system. It didn’t make sense to me.

You recently sent out a mailer that says, “Alaskans are free from sexual violence” under your watch. In fact, the rate of sexual violence has gone up. Do you think your “Choose Respect” campaign is working?

Gov. Parnell – So, I don’t believe what you just said. You just said that sexual violence has gone up. Reported sexual violence has gone up. And I think that’s a distinction that really needs to be made. When we started the “Choose Respect” initiative, when that first survey came out that exposed all of Alaska to how the epidemic of domestic violence and sexual assault is in our state, I was cautioned by people that said, “Look, if you’re gonna take this on, the numbers are gonna go up in the first five years or so because you’re spotlighting an issue that people have kept hidden in the dark, and on one hand the victims and survivors feel guilt and shame and don’t report, but when we have 150 communities marching and other Alaskans standing courageously for those victims and survivors, more report because more have the courage gained from seeing their fellow Alaskans standing in front of them. So, yes, reported harm is up, but I also know just from the letters and correspondence I get and that the accounts I’ve heard in all the shelters, that following an event or leading up to a “Choose Respect” rally, just even the fact that a poster is put up in a village that says, “Join us for the ‘Choose Respect’ march,” will no longer be silent about domestic violence and sexual assault. That mere putting up of a poster, in one instance, caused a young woman to call and get the help she needs and get out of her violent situation. So, to me, that’s working. If together we can help one, and I know we’ve helped hundreds if not thousands, break that cycle –stand up and get the help they need, I look forward to a day when we’re not talking about the epidemic anymore. We’re still gonna be talking about the harm, but we’re not talking about this as an epidemic.

Categories: Alaska News

Natural Gas Service To Expand In Sterling

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-01-22 15:04

Several hundred Sterling residents could finally get hooked up to natural gas later this year.

Enstar is hoping to hook up an additional 750 lots later this summer, says the company’s Director of Business Development, John Sims.

“The pipeline itself, in Sterling, is going to be running south along Swanson River Road to Scout Lake Road, extending down Husky Street to the banks of the Kenai River.”

Enstar has submitted a plan to the Department of Natural Resources to install a plastic pipeline underneath the Kenai River at that point.

“It’s about a 1,000 foot bore underneath the Kenai River. And once we’re done with that, we look at installing about 13,000 feet of six-inch plastic (pipe) that will distribute gas to about 750 lots across the river.”

He says the plan is to be done with the project by August. Lot owners in the area are working to get special assessment districts drawn up.

“Currently the lot owners are working on two separate utility special assessment districts; one on the east side, one is on the west side after we’ve crossed the river. The east side USAD is about 10.5 miles of distribution pipe. And then on the west side is about another 10 miles.”

He says they plan on having the work under the Kenai completed before anglers hit the river.

Public comments are being accepted by the Department of Natural Resources Division of Mining, Land and Water through February 10th.

Categories: Alaska News

ADF&G Anticipating Another Low King Salmon Return

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-01-22 15:02

The Department of Fish and Game is predicting another below-average year for king salmon returns on the Kenai River.

The department is forecasting a total run of a little less than 20,000 fish. If those numbers are correct, it will be the lowest return in the 29 years for which records are available on the Kenai, and less than half of the average-sized run over that same time period. That number still falls within the Department’s sustainable escapement goal of 15-30,000 fish.

This year’s forecast is lower than last year’s pre-season estimate, however, total run size is anticipated to be about the same as 2013. King returns to the Kenai the past couple years have come in later than expected.  ADF&G Managers have indicated that they will be conservative in how they prosecute the Kenai River and related fisheries, as they continue to see weak returns.

Categories: Alaska News

Kodiak Police Seize $120,000 Worth of Drugs

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-01-22 11:17

Two men have been arraigned in Kodiak District Court following a drug seizure over the weekend.

Kodiak Police Chief Ronda Wallace said the drugs were seized during a search of two hotel rooms on Sunday and have an estimated street value of at least $120,000. She said the investigation began when police officers noticed suspicious behavior by two individuals in the downtown area on Sunday.

“After making contact with them it was later discovered that one of them was a probation parole absconder from Anchorage. And that prompted them to make contact again with them. And during that contact it was discovered some drug paraphernalia,” Wallace said. ”That prompted the officers to stop, apply for search warrants, which gave us access to two rooms because it was discovered during that little bit of investigatory time that there was two rooms with those two individuals. So they were able to execute search warrants on those rooms.”

The room searches yielded more than 76 grams of suspected black tar heroin, 28 grams of Afghan brown heroin, 10 grams of methamphetamine, 42 grams of crack cocaine, 6 grams of powder cocaine and what appeared to be the two men’s personal stash.Wallace said this is the first time the police department has seen Afghan brown heroin during a drug seizure in Kodiak.

She said Sunday’s arrest follows a recent trend of rising heroin use in Kodiak, and is one of the larger drug seizures the police department has encountered in terms of value.

“But this has been the largest seizure of all of this combined drugs with this amount of money valued to it. And it’s just; it’s disturbing the rise and the demand here in Kodiak that we’re seeing here in Kodiak for the drugs,” Wallace said. ”It’s becoming a lot. Our last year’s cases nearly doubled what we had the year before in terms of our drug cases, our drug investigations that we worked. So we’re seeing a rise in the demand.”

There is only one drug enforcement officer in the Kodiak Police Department and Wallace said they worked more than 650 drug investigations this past year. She said the rise in drug-related investigations has prompted an internal shift this year to add one more person the city’s drug unit.

Wallace said a problem the department has noticed is that outside sellers have recognized the demand for drugs in Kodiak and are coming to the island with supplies. She said that fits with Sunday’s arrests, seeing as one of the individuals was on probation in Anchorage and the other was from Missouri.

The drugs found over the weekend follows a different drug seizure last week, where 7 ounces of methamphetamine was found, with an estimated street value of about $26,000.

“We’ve got to do something and put more eyes on the street, along with a canine and start making some kind of impact. We’ve had an impact but the more we’re seeing it’s just, it’s incredible the rise. Kodiak has a problem and the Kodiak police department and our officers, they’re vigilant, but we can only see so much,” Wallace said. ”And people helping us by what they see and calling crime stoppers just aides us in our investigations. And there’s three ways people can do that, they can call in a tip, or they can text a tip or they can do a web tip for crime stoppers and we can use that information to again aide us in the investigations that we do.”

Wallace said the investigation from Sunday is ongoing.

Folks wanting to submit tips to crime stoppers can call the hotline at 486-3113 or text 4-8-6-TIP plus to your message to 274637.

Categories: Alaska News

Alaskan, Australian Natives May Be Vulnerable To Bird Flu

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-01-22 11:12

Indigenous populations in Alaska and Australia may be vulnerable to influenza, particularly a recent form of bird flu.

Since the first break-out of H7N9 in China early last year, 150 people have been infected and 45 people have been killed. Two people died earlier this month. It’s called bird flu since people have obtained the virus from domesticated poultry.

Although there does not currently appear to be a sustainable person-to-person transmission of H7N9, scientists and health officials worry that will eventually happen with further mutations of the virus. That potential person-to-person transmission is what worries researchers like Katherine Kedzierska, Associate Professor of Microbiology and Immunology and laboratory group head at the University of Melbourne in Australia. She was also senior author of the study that was published last month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that examined possible pre-existing cellular immunity among various human ethnic groups.

Kedzierska said indigenous populations in Alaska and Australia have been relatively isolated and have not had the exposure to various influenza viruses that were identified as circulating in Greece as early as two millennia ago.

She said their latest research provides some clues as to why mortality rates were so high among Alaska Natives during the 1918 influenza outbreak.

Link to published paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences: Preexisting CD8+ T-cell immunity to the H7N9 influenza A virus varies across ethnicities

Link to page of frequently asked questions about H7N9 influenza from the Centers for Disease Control: H7N9 FAQ

Categories: Alaska News

Calista Develops Regional Committee

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-01-22 11:08

The Calista board of directors is putting the pieces together of the new regional committee.

The committee had a start in the 1980s, but it is getting new life this spring. Rural Alaska has no shortage of boards, committees, task forces, and panels. The Calista board has now created another committee, but this one’s membership and ambition are larger than most. They aim to lend a unified voice to native people of the delta, according to Robert Beans.

“You have a lot more clout politically and otherwise. That’s the impetus of why now. Our region in my estimation is really behind time, we have a senator and a representative but we need to go beyond that,” said Beans.

Robert Beans is originally from Mountain Village and sits on the Calista board of directors and is member of the committee. The committee will have a representative from each native government and village corporation. It adds non-profit representatives and Calista’s president. They plan to conduct a review of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act and the Indian Reorganization Act. They will also develop a strategic plan to in their words – correct the deficiencies and negative effects associated with state and federal government actions.”

Thom Leonard is Communications manager for Calista. He notes that there are many groups that represent the region, but they work on a range of issues and concerns.

“If you’re able to gather together a region and connect those circles together you’re going to have a much more centralized and focused base to work off off. I think that’s a pretty neat visualization. If you think of the Olympic rings there’s some overlap in the rings, so that’s what we’re looking at here,” said Leonard.

The large regional committee will create a much smaller steering committee that will build strategic plan to obtain remedies from the government about decisions that they say have negatively impacted native people in the area. As an example of the challenges in the area, Beans points outs the region’s high suicide rate.

“That’s very unacceptable in my opinion. My son is one of those statistics and it drove the point home real close. One suicide is one too many. One domestic violence is one too many. One person without a job is one too many,” said Beans.

Leonard says a successful committee will take work from the entire region.

“We are looking for input we are looking to build on the history of when this regional committee was originally conceived and passed back in the 1980s by AVCP and hopefully working with the region put it in action,” said Leonard.

40 Tribes and Village Corps have registered so far. The board authorized a budget of 200 thousand dollars for work this year. The resolution passed by the board is posted at Calista’s website.

Categories: Alaska News

Alaska News Nightly: January 21, 2014

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2014-01-21 18:04

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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Minority Leader Beth Kerttula To Leave Legislature

Alexandra Gutierrez, APRN – Juneau

The State House Gaveled into the second session of the 28th legislature at 1pm today, with this short statement from House Speaker, and Kenai Republican Mike Chenault.

Tuck, French Address Kerttula’s Departure, Legislative Priorities

Lori Townsend, APRN – Anchorage

With Kerttula’s resignation, the Democrats will have a new leadership team in the Legislature. Hollis French took over as Senate Minority leader from Johnny Ellis in a pre-arranged deal this session. And now Chris Tuck will become minority leader in the House. Representative Tuck says the Democrats are ready to move forward without Kerttula.

Chenault, Huggins Discuss Education, Gas Line, And Fish Politics

Lori Townsend, APRN – Anchorage

As lawmakers begin the 90 day session, House Speaker Mike Chenault and Senate President Charlie Huggins say there is just one must pass bill this session- the budget. But the majority party has other items on their agenda, along with a commitment to fiscal restraint. I asked Speaker Chenault to outline his priorities.

Anchorage School District Set to Lay Off More Than 200

Daysha Eaton, KSKA – Anchorage

The Superintendent of the Anchorage School District announced today a plan for trimming 23 million dollars. The cuts are mostly the result of several years of flat funding from the State of Alaska that does not keep up with inflation and cuts to federal grant programs along with rising health care costs. The district will cut more than 200 positions, including classroom teachers.

Is Alaska’s Economy Grounded?

Casey Kelly, KTOO – Juneau

Is Alaska’s economy grounded? That’s the big question facing two economists who spoke to business and government leaders in Juneau last week as part of the World Trade Center Alaska’s annual statewide economic forecast talk.

Categories: Alaska News

Chenault, Huggins Discuss Education, Gas Line, And Fish Politics

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2014-01-21 17:28

Photos by Annie Feidt, APRN – Anchorage.

As lawmakers begin the 90 day session, House Speaker Mike Chenault and Senate President Charlie Huggins say there is just one must pass bill this session- the budget. But the majority party has other items on their agenda, along with a commitment to fiscal restraint. I asked Speaker Chenault to outline his priorities.

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What are your priorities this session?

Rep. Chenault – Probably the number one priority is to try to look at education and try to come up with a long-term fix that addresses education needs for children across the state. Number two will probably be the governor’s new proposal, which we haven’t necessarily seen yet legislation  in regards to gas pipelines. And, you know, there [are] a number of other issues out there, whether it’s workers’ comp; whether it’s the budget, and the budget will be one of the top three that we deal with; not only the operating budget, but the capital budget.

Senator Huggins, what are your thoughts on the new gas line agreement that the governor has put forward?

Sen. Huggins – I’ve been here since 2003 and the speaker has been here longer than I have, but it’s the closest I think we’ve been to actually having a gas pipeline materialize. So, I’m very optimistic in that respect. There are lots of challenges and I hope Alaskans come forward with their questions so that we can answer those up front. So, I’m comfortable. And for those people that like Norway, this is not unlike because they have a company that’s a government company as part. So we as a state under the concept would be investing; we would be a stakeholder; we would be at the table, which is important for the state because we will have knowledge of the information whether it’s what’s gonna happen on the North Slope; what’s gonna happen in conveying the gas down to the Kenai Peninsula and other places along the way, and, oh by the way, the liquefaction plant, and there won’t be any quote – secrets – from us in the legislature or, most important, the people of Alaska. And, quite frankly, I hope and I’m supporting a technique whereby you and I as individuals – a guy named Charlie Huggins and it doesn’t matter who you work for – that you can raise your hand and say, “I’m checked off my permanent fund dividend, I want it to be invested in that pipeline because I want a long-term revenue source coming to me.”

All of the pre-filed bills this session don’t come with big or really any price tags. Have you told members of your caucus to rein in their desires and their spending and keep tighter a tighter state budget in mind when crafting legislation, Senator Huggins?

Sen. Huggins – I haven’t told them that directly. I mean, these are wise people and I think we all come to,  generally speaking, the same conclusion, but when you work backwards from what the revenue stream is, based on the failure of ACES, then I think we come to the same conclusion. But, we did remind people that when you’re doing a piece of legislation and it has fiscal note that has bearing on the status of the bill can be a good idea, but it may cost too much, so good ideas sometimes are not affordable. So, yeah, we had that conversation, I guess.

Representative Chenault?

Rep. Chenault – We haven’t specifically had that conversation. I think most of my members realize that we are in times of budget constraint. That we want to try to control the budget, but if they feel strong enough that they have a piece of legislation that helps Alaskans and helps move Alaska forward even with a fiscal note to it, they may introduce it and still try to get it through, so it’s up to our process to move bills through and the finance to figure out if we’ve got the money to pay for it and if we don’t have the money to pay for it then that’s another conversation that we’ll have to have. So, I’m a firm believer that we pass as few bills as we can simply because every piece of legislation we pass usually takes a right away from somebody.

Would you be open to an increase in the base student allocation for education? Senator Huggins?

Sen. Huggins – Number one, for myself as an individual, and I say right up front that my wife is a charter school principal, but I was on school board once upon a time, my number one priority approaching things has been education because it’s the future of our country. We’re not doing very well at that. So, am I open to base student allocation? I’m always open to that, but more important, I’m more open to techniques that in fact move the needle of achievement, ever how you do that, and it’s not the technique, it’s about outcome.

So you’re open to the idea of an increase, if necessary?

Sen. Huggins – I’m open to anything that aids in ratcheting up our achievement of our students.

Representative Chenault, what are your thoughts about base student allocation increases?

Rep. Chenault – Well, you know, I think that’s something we need to look at and it’s unfortunate that base student allocation, or BSA, is a real easy term for reporters or other people around the state to use, there’s a lot more that goes into education than just what that dollar amount is in the BSA. There’s currently lots of money that is outside of that BSA that takes pressure off of money going into the classrooms. It’s unfortunate it’s been sold that if there’s not an increase to the BSA then that means you’re taking money out of the classroom, and that’s just simply not true. The education funding is a very complicated formula that gets you to a BSA. We’ve done some things outside the formula that put more money into the school to pay for their costs for fuel and for teacher retirement and for other things. I think that as a legislature, we’re gonna look at a BSA increase, but we’re also looking for results, and I’ve been a strong supporter of education from the cost differential that I championed through here a few years ago to number of other things. So, while I agree that education of our children is one of the most important things that we can do, I don’t agree that the BSA is the only way to fix it. So, hopefully from the task force and from the Senate Finance Committee’s group that they put together, we might get some recommendations back, and we’re also talking to the school districts; what do you need? How can we help you? And I think that there are some ideas out there that will help drive down their costs of insurance, energy, and things like that that are just taking that money right out of the education system. We’re gonna work on that and see what we can do and hopefully we can come up with some agreement that does move the education system forward.

Representative Chenault, you’re from the Kenai Peninsula and Senator Huggins, you’re from Wasilla . Both of your bodies of constituents are very invested in the strength of salmon runs in Southcentral. Do you have plans to delve into fish politics this session?

Rep. Chenault – It’s never been my intention to ever get into fish politics. I come from the lower Mat-Su and Charlie comes from the upper Kenai, and while we may have our differences of opinion, I don’t think that fish politics ever plays well or allocation issues ever play well in the legislature. We have biologists; we have a fish board, and while I may not agree with whatever comes out of these type of meetings, my hope is that they have the biology of the salmon in mind whenever they are making these decisions. It’s unfortunate that we do have these wars. I would love for the folks in the Valley to have all the fish in the world that they wanted, that way the traffic going to Kenai wouldn’t be quite so bad during the summertime. I’ve threatened to meet Representative Stoltze at the border where the gate is to bring his fish to him so that we wouldn’t get any fights down in the Kenai. But, I represent commercial fishermen, sport fishermen, subsistence fishermen and PU fishermen – and I represent them all. And we won’t get anywhere fighting about it. Where we’ll make headway is sitting down and talking about it and figuring out a way to move forward. I have commercial friends, I have sports friends and they both have the same agreement, they would like to catch all the fish that they can, but they also know that there’s a limit to that. They’re willing to work together, but unfortunately it’s the upper-Cook Inlet fish wars and we’ll fight it out. There are other things that are beyond their control. Predation of other species, whether it’s habitat, there are other things we need to try to figure out and address and if there is a problem there then we need to try to fix that. If there’s other issues there, then we need to look at that. So, I’m open to looking at it, but I’m not a biologist – I want those guys to make the decision, and I’m willing to live with their decision, but if you get into an allocation war, then it’s going to be whoever’s got the most power it happens to be that day, and I just don’t think that makes for good legislation. We’re willing to work with everyone on the issue, but I’d sure had to see us get into an allocation battle.

Senator Huggins, are you willing to wade into the fish politics issue?

Sen. Huggins – Well, we have people in Mat-Su, and Mike just described some of that, but what I see is we have to put all the moving parts of fish escapement, return, and everything that falls in between those two. My family is lucky enough to have an airplane – it’s on floats. So we can fly to lakes; we can fly to rivers way across from Wasilla, right across from the Kenai, and if you work back to where I live in Meadow Lakes there’s a consistent trait, the escapement goal has continued to descent, the number of fish that escape continue to descend. Yes, are there more pike? There are more pike, that’s in a few tributaries, so that’s a variable for a few. But, if you start at Tyonek and you work back toward Wasilla, you’ll the Theodore River is closed; Beluga River is closed; Lewis River is closed. That’s closed, this isn’t about can you catch one, it’s closed – you can’t fish. You go to Alexander Creek, which has a pike problem, it’s closed, the others don’t have any pike that I’m aware of. It’s a pain factor. And I’ll sum it up very quickly: There’s something wrong when you can be from Washington State and you can be selling fish and making money and people in Wasilla can’t even go fishing in the streams. But there are a lot of variables in the middle. There aren’t any evil people and the fish are suffering, so I say that whatever we do, we air on the side of the fish. All stakeholders are gonna have to give on this. The Board of Fish, I support them in the allocation business, and I don’t want to see the legislature in the allocation business because I don’t think it works.  We have a mechanism to answer that call. On the other hand, I think that people who live in my neck of the woods should not have to go down to the Kenai River to dip net to put fish in their freezer – there’s something wrong with that. So, long story short, what used to work today appears to not be working. It’s not just Mat-Su, it’s not just Kenai, it’s just not Cook Inlet. Go to the Kuskokwim River and look at kings, go to the Yukon River and look at kings, come down here and look. Then you can go to halibut, and that’s more a battle, if you will, on some allocations, but on people that are charter boat fishermen and people that are long-lining or ever how they’re catching their halibut. It doesn’t matter. The number of fish are declining and the number of people that want to go take them is  increasing and you have to take a look at that equation. There will be some ruthlessness in this and we know that there was a recent initiative – I wasn’t a part of that, I’ve read about it, and I know some of the names involved with it – but those sort of things are symptomatic of people going, “well you know, we’re just not satisfied with the way things are working, so we’re gonna ask the people to help us with it,” and it’s a tough proposition. And, unfortunately, there will be a lot of blood, some cases sweat, some cases tears and other cases blood, and what I want is more fish blood and less people blood.

I just have one more question, thank you so much for your time. There are hundreds of bills to get through that have already been filed. This is the second session of the 28th Legislature, so whatever doesn’t get done at the end of this 90 days goes away and you have to start over. Are there must haves that you see simply have to be taken care of during this final session.

Sen. Huggins – The budget. You know, all of my bills  are more important than the rest of the bills, alright? You know, Mike Chenault that are more important. But, philosophically, I think Mike Chenault and I approach this very similarly. For every bill you pass, you take a couple off the books because the books are getting too thick and we bog ourselves down. Nobody knows what the rules are and we just keep adding more rules – there’s something wrong with that as a society, but in this case the legislature. And philosophically, I’ve told our guys, and I believe this, at the break point that we, we, bills that I have, Mike Chenault has, and members of the Senate in this case, you look back and say, “You know, that was a good idea, but nobody else recognized my good idea, just pull it off the table.” Just pull it off the table. Don’t have the committee chairman have to just be accused of, “well it’s just sitting there, you won’t hear it.” Maybe it’s not a good idea. And let’s be honest, there are some people that introduce bills just for effect. They say, “I supported legislation,” and knowing full well that they were just introducing  a bill for effect. I find that a little distasteful, but it happens.

Categories: Alaska News

Anchorage School District Set to Lay Off More Than 200

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2014-01-21 17:00

Photo by Daysha Eaton, KSKA – Anchorage.

Tuesday, the superintendent of the Anchorage School District announced how he will trim $23 million from the district’s budget.

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The cuts are mostly the result of several years of flat funding from the State of Alaska that does not keep up with inflation and cuts to federal grant programs along with rising health care costs. The district will cut more than 200 positions, including classroom teachers.

Everyone knew the cuts were coming, but they became real as Superintendent Ed Graff stepped up to the podium in the Anchorage School District Board Room to talk about the details. With a heavy voice he put it like this.

“These reductions are unprecedented, unlike anything I’ve seen in my 23 years in the Anchorage school district. For the last two years we faced gaps of $19 and $25 million. This year we face a $23 million dollar funding gap,” Graff said. “Having to restructure reduce and eliminate positions to address gaps of this magnitude every single year make it difficult to gain traction and jeopardizes our momentum to address the success of our students.”

Graff recommended cutting 219 positions, more than half of them teaching positions. Administration and support positions will also be eliminated.

Over the course of the past four years, the district has reduced its budget by nearly 500 full time equivalent positions which amounts to roughly 718 employees. That does not include the positions slated for elimination in the coming year. Graff says the district will also change the school day for high school and middle schools.

Photo by Daysha Eaton, KSKA – Anchorage.

“In an effort to offset the loss of teaching positions but still provide opportunities for students, the district is proposing to move comprehensive high school from a six-period to a seven-period schedule,” Graff said. “Middle schools are already on a seven-period schedule but teachers will move to teaching six of seven with the elimination of the middle school team planning time.”

Graff says the student-teacher ratio will go up. Specialty counselors, which were spared last year, are on the chopping block again. Non-staff cuts include sports travel and classroom materials, while student activity fees are expected to go up.

ASD School Board President Tam Agosti-Gisler says the impacts of the budget shortfall are deeply concerning. She says the board is calling the community to action and explained that concerned citizens should press legislators to increase the base student allocation and find a long term formula to fund education sustainably.

“At the very least we would like to have the BSA inflation-proofed and help from the legislature on our biggest cost drivers which are health care insurance and the unfunded retirement liability,” Agosti-Gisler said.

Graff will present the proposed budget to the Anchorage School board in the Anchorage education Center board room Thursday at 4pm.

Public testimony will be taken and the school board will vote on the budget. Graff says he will issue pink slips in May.

Categories: Alaska News

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