May 25 video by Sonya Wellman – Alaska Public Media
The Funny River Fire continued to burn the central Kenai Peninsula this week. As of Monday afternoon, it’s estimated to have burned more than 158,000 acres with 30% containment. Funny River Road from Mile 7 to the end was evacuated on Sunday afternoon. The Kenai Keys area was put on evacuation alert.
The fire is mainly burning within the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, though it has pushed outside those boundaries over the last few days.
Sarah McAlpin said she lives on the Funny River side of the Kenai Keys. She and her husband and their dog left home with only some medications, documents, and a few valuables.
She and other evacuees attended one of the many public information sessions at Redoubt Elementary School in Soldotna. It’s serving as a Red Cross shelter for people displaced by the fire.
Kris Ericksen is a public information officer with the Alaska Incident Management Team. She’s helping get the word out to residents about the most recent fire updates.
She says there have been no injuries. And, at this point, there are no structures known to have been destroyed.
She also said there is no known structural damage in the Funny River area.
However, Ericksen said it’s hard to determine if there has or has not been damage to more rural cabins without being able to get on the ground and check.
She said crews have are focusing their efforts on the northern edge of the fire.
Michelle Weston is an information officer for the fire management team. She says the wind has been a major factor in the fire so far.
She says it has pushed the fire deeper into the wildlife refuge.
Weston said there are about 600 people involved in the firefighting effort. That includes Army National Guard Black Hawk helicopters, water scoopers from Canada, management officials from the Yukon, and teams from the Lower 48.
Kenai Borough Mayor Mike Navarre said it’s been a community, statewide and regional effort. And, he said he hopes the weather will help over the next few days.
The National Weather Service said it could begin raining about midnight Monday night and continue through Tuesday. Scattered showers were expected Wednesday and Thursday.
But for now, residents like Sarah McAlbin will wait, watch, and hope for some news that the fire is moving away from their homes.
The Red Cross shelter in Soldotna has open cot space and is providing some meals and snacks for people displaced by the fire.
Funny River Fire Burns More than 158,000 Acres
Shady Grove Oliver, KBBI – Homer
The Funny River Fire continued to burn the central Kenai Peninsula this week. As of Monday afternoon, it’s estimated to have burned more than 158,000 acres with 30% containment. On Sunday afternoon, Funny River Road from Mile 7 to the end of the road was evacuated. The Kenai Keys area also was put on evacuation alert.
Anchorage Air Quality Affected by Funny River Fire
Lori Townsend, APRN – Anchorage
Smoke from the Kenai Peninsula wildfire drifted into Anchorage and Eagle River this weekend. The Anchorage Municipal air quality hot line reported Monday afternoon that conditions in Anchorage are considered moderate, but for Eagle River residents, the index is 110, which means the air quality is unhealthy for sensitive groups. Providence Hospital pulmunologist Dr. Mark Martynowicz said people with sensitive respiratory systems should be cautious about spending time outdoors.
Tyonek Fire Almost Contained
Lori Townsend, APRN – Anchorage
The Tyonek Fire, which started a week ago Monday, is currently burning at just over 1,900 acres. The blaze is between the villages of Tyonek and Beluga. State fire information officer Sam Harrel said the fire is considered to be 70% contained with full containment expected by Wednesday.
China Lifts Ban on AK Shellfish
The Associated Press
China has lifted a five month-long ban on live shellfish from U.S. West Coast waters. U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-WA) released a statement Friday saying the ban had been lifted. The ban had particularly affected the Washington and Alaska shellfish industry.
Feds Updating Development Scenarios for Chukchi
Lori Townsend, APRN – Anchorage
The federal government on Friday released a status update on the court ordered revision of an Environmental Impact Statement for Lease Sale 193 in the Chukchi Sea. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals found in an April ruling that the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) had underestimated how much oil may be recoverable in Arctic Ocean development.
New Fisheries Might Be Headed to Unalaska
Lauren Rosenthal, KUCB – Unalaska
Next year will likely bring new fisheries to the western Aleutian Islands, now that the National Marine Fisheries Service has issued its final report on the way commercial fishing affects an endangered population of Steller sea lions.
Label Certifies Much of AK Salmon
Mike Mason, KDLG – Dillingham
The leading global seafood sustainability label currently certifies much of Alaska’s salmon harvest as sustainable. But only a few companies can use the label.
StoryCorps: Paratrooper Justin Hayward Connaher
StoryCorps traveled to Alaska in February to record the voices of our service men and women. At five, Justin Hayward Connaher knew he was going to be a paratrooper. At 38, he considers himself a survivor. As part of StoryCorps at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Justin spoke with his friend John Pennell about one of his earliest jumps.
Smoke from the Kenai Peninsula wildfire drifted into Anchorage and Eagle River this weekend. The Anchorage Municipal air quality hot line reported Monday afternoon that conditions in Anchorage were considered moderate, but for Eagle River residents, the index was 110, which means the air quality is unhealthy for sensitive groups.
Providence Hospital pulmunologist Dr. Mark Martynowicz said people with sensitive respiratory systems should be cautious about spending time outdoors.
“Those patients who have underlying asthma, in terms of children or among adults, asthma or COPD [Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease], emphysema, also those who have significant allergic problems such as allergic rhinitis for example,” he said. “These would be the type of persons that would be at higher risk for complications related to smoke exposure.”
Dr. Martynowicz said limiting exertion in smoky conditions is best for those with respiratory conditions.
He said simple particle masks such as those used for wood sanding will not help guard against smoke.
“This would be more specialized masks such as those used for example in preventing TB exposure or some particulate exposure, viruses for example,” he said. “These would be the kinds of masks that could potentially help patients like that.”
Air quality ratings between 101 and 150 are unhealthy for vulnerable people.
Firefighting crews battled to keep the Funny River fire from expanding toward homes and cabins on the Kenai Peninsula. People evacuated from about 1,000 households waited it out through Sunday night at shelters, and homes of friends and relatives. The fire has been spotted at times across the Kenai River.
The Sterling Highway corridor in the Soldotna area, and parts of Kasilof
are being defended, along with buildings along the Funny River Road
and subdivision. Governor Sean Parnell flew over the area on Sunday and Alaska National Guard resources were called out to help fight the blaze, now at an
estimated 243 square miles.
Firefighting crews began pulling out of the Tyonek fire on the
western side of Cook Inlet on Sunday to work on the Funny River
fire. That does not mean the danger is over there, especially with
winds. The Tyonek Fire is at about 1,900 acres and has consumed five
buildings, none occupied. There will be a town meeting in Beluga
Amid strong winds and dry conditions the Funny River fire has continued to advance through the weekend. State Fire Information officer Michelle Weston said this evening that the fire has grown well past 140,000 acres although she did not have a new estimate. Weston said the Funny River Road community has been under an evacuation order since 2 p.m.
State Troopers and fire crew workers went door to door in the Funny River community to alert residents of the evacuation. Weston did not know how many residents lived in the area but said there are at least 1,000 structures there, mostly cabins and the homes of retirees. Weston did not know if homes have been affected but said there have been no reports of injuries. The Fueding Lane Road area is also included in the evacuation order.
Weston said the Lower Skilak lake campground is currently being evacuated. State park officials are conducting that evacuation.
Spot fires have jumped the Kenai River prompting an evacuation watch for the Kenai Keys area. Weston said starting at Mile 103 of the Sterling highway to the Kasilof River is under evacuation watch for residents on the east side of the road. An evacuation watch means residents should prepare to leave if an evacuation order is necessary. Weston said Kenai Peninsula Borough officials are using a reverse 911 system to alert residents of evacuation plans.
About 450 people are working on the fire. Weston said crews with water scooping planes from Canada and fire crews from the Lower 48 are assisting, as is the Air National Guard, bringing in two Black Hawk helicopters.
“We’ve thrown everything we have at this fire at this time but the wind is strong and erratic .We have fire crews from the lower 48 but conditions are challenging.” Weston said.
The Anchorage Police Department arraigned two suspects on Thursday in a sexual assault case from 2003. They say they re-opened the case after a DNA sample from one of the suspects matched the sample taken from the victim nearly 11 years ago.
According to the police department, in November of 2003 a woman was leaving a bar in midtown Anchorage. Her ride had left the bar already, so she accepted a lift from an unknown male. Instead of taking her home, she says she was taken to an east Anchorage apartment. She reported she was brutally sexually assaulted by at least seven young men. The men eventually left her at a shopping center. Within a few hours she reported the incident to the police and was examined.
Detective Bret Sarber said in 2003, the survivor was unable to provide details about the suspects or where the attack happened. The case went cold until 2011. Then, Orlin Sutliff was convicted of a third degree felony and his DNA was entered into a database. In Alaska, DNA samples are taken from people who are convicted of misdemeanor crimes against other people and of all felonies. Sutliff’s DNA matched with one of the samples collected off of the woman.
“We got one lead off a DNA hit that lead to multiple interviews and hundreds of hours of investigation,” said Sarber during a press conference. “And here we are with two people who have been indicted and we have other people we believe to have been involved in the case.”
He said without the survivor reporting early, they could not have pursued the case. “Early reporting is critical for getting DNA evidence off a person’s body. So I would highly encourage that.”
The detectives explained that when people who are allegedly sexually assaulted are examined, forensic nurses collect samples that are sent to the crime lab to extract different DNA profiles. Victims are also given counseling and treated for other medical concerns, like potential sexually transmitted diseases from the assault.
31-year-old Orlin Sutliff and 29-year-old Antwon Archibale were arrested and arraigned earlier this week. The police do have “persons of interest” under investigation.
The Funny River fire on the Kenai Peninsula has topped 67,000 acres.
The combination of Memorial Day weekend and extreme fire conditions have firefighters concerned.
Jim Schwarber, a public information officer with the Alaska Incident Management Team on the Funny River fire, says the fire has been growing gradually in nearly every direction, and is within a few miles of some communities along the Sterling Highway and the Bear Creek subdivision on Tustumena Lake.
“We have folks working on all those areas to work towards securing that line to try to hold the fire back,” he said.
So far, the fire hasn’t caused any structural damage, but Schwarber says as part of the fire creeps west, firefighters are growing more concerned.
“That’s where the larger communities are is on the west side of the fire, and we’re putting a lot of effort into slowing and holding the fire so that it doesn’t cause any damage,” Schwarber said.
There are around 375 personnel working on the Funny River fire, with more crews expected in the coming days.
Schwarber says this fire is burning a lot hotter than fires normally do this early in the season, which makes it particularly dangerous.
“The fire has been burning very active in typical fuels, but it’s also been spreading and burning in mixed hardwoods, which is an area that typically slows a fire,” he said.
Certain fuels, like black spruce, tend to burn more actively later in the summer, but this year it’s happening early.
As the annual influx of campers make their way down to the Peninsula for Memorial Day weekend, Schwarber says they need to be cognizant of the dangers.
“The Kenai is a tinderbox right now, and we need to behave appropriately,” he said.
Red Flag warnings are in effect for the western Kenai Peninsula and the Matanuska-Susitna Valley.
Until further notice, all open fires are prohibited on the Kenai Peninsula. The term “open fires” refers to any flame source not immediately extinguishable or controllable and applies to any form of wood or charcoal-based fire, even in established fire rings. Gas grills, backpacking or camp stoves using fuel or compressed canisters which can be regulated and shut off are still permitted for use.
The Tyonek fire on the western side of Cook Inlet is holding steady at just over 1,800 acres.
Sam Harrel, a public information officer with the Alaska Division of Forestry, says winds Thursday pushed the fire back onto itself.
“We’re still seeing a lot of smoke and activity, but that’s inside the perimeter of the fire where it’s blowing back on itself, and that’s a good thing to clean-up those fuels out there,” Harrel said.
Harrel says infrastructure around Beluga at the north end of the fire remain undamaged.
No evacuation orders are in effect for Tyonek or Beluga.
Russ Millette, who was ousted as leader of the state Republican party following a contentious election, plans to run for governor.
Millette spokesman Matt Millette, Russ Millette’s son, said his father was filing a letter of intent to run Friday.
Millette plans to challenge Gov. Sean Parnell for the Republican nomination in August. Millette is running under the auspices of the Alaska Republican Assembly, which Matt Millette described as the “conservative” wing of the party, as opposed to the “establishment” wing.
Russ Millette was elected chairman of the state GOP, with the help of fellow Ron Paul supporters, during a tumultuous 2012 convention. But party leaders voted to oust him last year before he took over.
The party, at its most recent convention, changed its rules, making future attempted takeovers more difficult.
The head of the state’s biggest labor union has filed a complaint against Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan, who is running for lieutenant governor.
Alaska AFL-CIO President Vince Beltrami argues that Sullivan inappropriately used government resources for the purposes of his campaign.
Earlier this month, Sullivan came under fire for likening mandatory union dues to slavery at a lieutenant governor candidates forum, and subsequently issued an apology through his spokesperson in the mayor’s office.
Beltrami holds that the apology should have not have been delivered by municipal staff, and that it amounts to a violation of statute.
Sullivan told the Anchorage Daily News he believes there is no merit to the complaint.The Alaska Public Offices Commission will review the matter within 30 days.
The Pebble Limited Partnership filed suit Wednesday in Federal Court seeking to halt to the process underway by the EPA to stop development of the proposed Pebble Mine.
A measure before Sealaska shareholders could alter the way board elections are held. And that could bring leadership changes.
The measure comes as 13 shareholders compete for four board seats in the Southeast Alaska regional Native corporation’s annual election.
The measure is a resolution proposing limits to what’s called discretionary voting.
That’s an option on Sealaska’s proxy ballot, which lists candidates for the board of directors.
When shareholders check a box, they give the board the power to cast their ballots for whomever they see fit. And the board votes for its slate of incumbents seeking re-election.
“It’s an unfair document because of the discretionary voting and that is what has kept all our directors in all of these years,” says Mick Beasley.
He’s a Juneau carver who’s campaigned against discretionary voting. He’s also one of this year’s six independent board candidates.
Beasley authored the resolution that would largely eliminate that ballot option. Then, shareholders would pick and chose from the full list of candidates, including incumbents and their challengers.
“If this resolution passes and we amend our bylaws, it will make it equal voting rights for all shareholders,” he says.
Sealaska’s board opposes Beasley’s measure.
“They would wipe out what Sealaska believes would otherwise be a valid vote,” says Nicole Hallingstad.
She is Sealaska’s communications vice president and corporate secretary.
“Those shareholders understand exactly what discretionary voting means and are offering their shares in support of the corporation. To remove that discretionary voting option would remove a choice that at least a quarter of our shareholders select on a regular basis,” she says.
The resolution does not completely eliminate discretionary voting.
Beasley says it would be allowed when an independent group challenges the board and issues its own ballot.
“If there are two slates, two proxies, then discretionary voting is fair game. When there is only one proxy, and that’s Sealaska’s, they cannot use discretionary voting,” he says.
Shareholders are rarely faced with two slates – and proxies. But this year, they are.
Margaret Nelson, Carlton Smith, Ross Soboleff and Karen Taug say their combined business experience could help make Sealaska profitable after several years of operational losses.
The corporate ballot lists board incumbents Sidney Edenshaw, Edward Thomas and Rosita Worl.
Spokeswoman Hallingstad says the three bring knowledge and history to Sealaska management.
“The stability of any corporation’s board is something that’s reviewed regularly by business partners (and) financial institutions. So, board stability is something that is of value outside of our shareholders,” she says.
Longtime board member Byron Mallott is not seeking re-election because he’s running for governor. That leaves an open board seat, with no incumbent, a rarity for Sealaska.
Six independent candidates, running outside of a slate, are also listed on the corporate ballot.
They’re Myrna Gardner, Michelle McConkey, Will Micklin, Edward Sarabia Jr. and Ralph Wolfe, in addition to Beasley.
“Everybody was trying to keep it to one or two independents this year. But we’re back to six or seven independents. It’s just the nature of our shareholders,” Beasley says.
The four top vote-getters will win three-year terms on the 13-member board.
Results will be announced at Sealaska’s annual meeting June 28th in Seattle.
The draft supplemental environmental impact statement for a road out of Juneau is now under review by the Federal Highway Administration. That’s the last step in the process before federal highways names a preferred route and issues a Record of Decision.
State transportation department spokesman Jeremy Woodrow said the final SEIS, as it’s called, is expected sometime in the next six weeks.
“If it gets the blessing and we don’t need to do anymore revisions on it, we’ll stamp ‘draft’ on it and we can release it for public review.”
Once that happens, DOT would hold hearings in Juneau, Haines and Skagway.
Federal highways issued a Record of Decision in 2006 to build a road between Juneau and Katzehin, where motorists would board a state ferry for the rest of the trip north.
Conservation groups immediately filed suit. In 2009, the U.S. District Court ruled the environmental impact statement was invalid, because it didn’t consider improved ferry service in Lynn Canal. That decision was upheld in 2011 by the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, requiring the supplemental study.
Little by little, however, the road north has grown, completed last summer to Cascade Point. This year $35 million is in the state’s budget for another extension. Woodrow said federal funds account for $30 million dollars and $5 million comes from the state.
“The talking point was that that would help us begin constructing the road toward Kensington (mine),” Woodrow said. “And really how this road’s going to be built, no matter what, is it’s going to be constructed in phases. It’s just such a large project.”
It’s one of those mega projects the state may not be able to afford, according to Juneau Rep. Sam Kito III. He told the Juneau Chamber of Commerce Thursday that Juneau Access has a lot of competition for funds statewide.
Kito is a civil engineer and said he likes big projects. But he wondered about the return on the estimated $500 million investment.
“Do we receive 500 million dollars’ worth of commerce or revenue back to the state or the city? I think that’s a tough one to support.”
Kito didn’t curry much favor with the chamber audience. The business organization and most of its members have long been road advocates.
He said he didn’t have strong personal feelings on building or not building the proposed road, which would not replace ferry use for the trip to Haines or Skagway.
“There may be some savings because the ferry is operating as a day boat as opposed to a 24-hour ferry, but there’s still ferry costs. Which means you still have 12-hours’ worth of fuel, you’re not going to be running full all the time, there may be ferries that are running mostly empty, and then you’re going to have an additional 65 miles of road to maintain,” he said.
Kito’s questions and concerns should be answered when federal highways releases the final SEIS and Record of Decision sometime this summer.
Small towns like Unalaska can be pretty close-knit. Grown-ups take care of kids who aren’t their own, and teenagers have adults to turn to when they need them.
One local high schooler wanted to make those relationships stronger. So she planned something special: She put students and adults into teams, and sent them on a town-wide scavenger hunt.
This is the sound of a community coming together:
Team: “Go. Ahh, earthquake!!”
That’s a scavenger hunt team completing a challenge: stage a dramatic earthquake scene in a public place. Groups of adults and high schoolers have been running all around town for a week, doing activities like that and getting a little closer in the process.
And that was 18-year-old Christian Escalante’s idea when she put this event together. Last fall, the high school senior went to a youth leadership conference in Anchorage. It focused on combating violence and promoting respect and equality in communities around the state.
Escalante: “We talked about what changes we can make in our community, and one of the things I noticed is there wasn’t enough youth and adult participation in the community. So that’s how I started my project.”
Escalante got an $1,800 grant from the conference to make it happen. She set up the teams, trying to mix up people who were new in town with long-time residents, and pairing up kids and adults who didn’t know each other. They had a week to get through more than 60 tasks — taking pictures or video of themselves doing different things.
Escalante: “They’re definitely at least getting a sense of the kids, and the kids are getting a sense of the adults that they’ve never met before. They’re also doing new stuff in places they didn’t know they would do, like building sand castles at Summer’s Bay, or doing silly things at the store.”
Each task had a point value. At stake were cash prizes, funded by the grant.
And “doing silly things” seemed to be a priority. One of Escalante’s favorite challenges: creep from the front to the back of the local Safeway like a ninja or a spy.
Emily Bruck: Okay, don’t go too fast, ‘cause I’ve gotta follow you. …You guys are being bad ninjas.
Alysha Richardson: Yeah, you guys suck.
That’s Emily Bruck and Alysha Richardson, filming their teammates trying to be sneaky by ducking into racks of sweatshirts or hiding along shelves of detergent.
(sound of silence in a grocery store)
Don’t hear anything?
(continued silence in a grocery store)
So, being kind of goofy in public is one way to get to know each other. Other tasks ask teams to just hang out together, or get to know their town — finding local landmarks, going on adventures and volunteering at different nonprofits.
On the very last day of scavenger hunting, another team is driving around, trying to squeeze in some last-minute points.
Ross Enlow is one of the teenagers on that team. Already, they’ve hiked Mount Ballyhoo in Dutch Harbor, cooked together and had a dance party.
Enlow: “Today we’re gonna plan on going to Summer’s Bay and either find the horses or write in the sand — have to have a meal together, and create something. Then after that, we’ll be done.”
Those are worth 60 points altogether.
Summer’s Bay is just outside town. On the way, the team spots a pile of melting snow and decides their creation will be a tiny snowman.
Enlow: Oh, there you go.
Teammates: We need sticks! — Oh yeah, I have them.
Enlow: We should — I just want to make this look really big, so we should take it from a downward angle. (laughter) Just like, make it look way bigger.
Teammates: Oh my god!
They snap their picture — that’s 20 points down — and leave their masterpiece in the road. The wild horses that roam the valley are nowhere in sight, so instead, they draw a heart in the sand.
Amber Le, another teenager on the team, is their struggling artist.
(sound of rebar drawing in sand)
Le: How do I do the other half?! The other half always sucks!
Johanna Tellman: So much pressure.
That’s adult teammate Johanna Tellman. She runs a local consignment shop. She says it’s been fun to spend this week making some new connections.
Tellman: “I knew who these people were, but I never really got to know them. So it’s nice to get to know them a little more personally. It’s been fun.”
The team has to submit all their photos and videos by the end of the day, and after Summer’s Bay, they’ve checked off all but a few activities. When the results are announced the next day, though, they find out they didn’t win. Still, Tellman’s glad they all participated.
As for Christian Escalante, the organizer? She had one final test for the three top teams as a tie-breaker: a quiz to see how much the kids had learned about their adult teammates, and vice versa.
Escalante: Okay, where did your person go to school?
Escalante (laughing): What college in Oregon?!
Teen: Oh. (laughing) Somewhere in Oregon?
Escalante: That’s half a point.
Overall, Escalante says she was impressed with what she heard.
Escalante: “They knew a lot about each other. A lot more than I thought they would.”
And she hopes they can do it all again next year — with new teams and new challenges.
This week, we’re heading to Kobuk in northwest Alaska. The village of about 200 people is steadily growing, nearly doubling in size since 2000. A resident says that’s in part due to reliable seasonal work and efforts to mesh traditional lifestyles with modern ones. Beatrice Barr is a tribal clerk in Kobuk.
Forest fires fill Southcentral Alaska with smoke. Providence Hospital is opposing MLP’s proposed rate increase. The Anchorage School Board has passed a budget that would restore some teaching positions. More and more farmers markets are accepting food stamps. The Native village of Eklutna has received regulatory help from the Anchorage Assembly. Senate candidate Joe Miller raises global warming as a primary issue. Promoters of the legalization of marijuana hold a seminar on how to get into the business if legalized. People bike to work in Anchorage – but just how many. There’s a lot of negative advertising on TV this political season. How do voters find out what is accurate?
HOST: Michael Carey
- Steve MacDonald, Channel 2 News.
- Suzanna Caldwell, Alaska Dispatch/ADN.
- Anne Hillman, APRN
KSKA (FM 91.1) BROADCAST: Friday, May 23 at 2:00 p.m. and Saturday, May 24, at 6:00 p.m.
Alaska Public Television BROADCAST: Friday, May 23 at 7:30 p.m. and Saturday, May 24 at 4:30 p.m.
When the Bipartisan Coalition lost control of the State Senate in 2012, it was a given that its Democratic members would see a big drop in the number of bills they got through. But that loss of clout may have also affected Democrats in the House. With the Legislature adjourned and a pile of bills awaiting the governor’s signature, here’s looks at how power shifted in the Capitol.
Rep. Chris Tuck sponsored about a dozen bills this past legislative cycle. Only a couple of those items ever got hearings, and just one – a bill dealing with craft distilleries – actually passed. As far as Democrats go, Tuck considers himself one of the lucky ones.
“You’d hope it would be like four to one, but unfortunately we feel blessed to even have a bill passed,” says Tuck.
Tuck is used to it. Democrats have been the minority party in the State House ever since the Nineties, and their caucus only occupies 10 of the House’s 40 seats right now.
Since 2006, the House Minority would get one bill passed per member, if you average it out. That’s only a small fraction of the legislation that gets passed, but it was something.
This Legislature, that number dropped. Instead of one bill a person, it’s now about half a bill. If you were a member of the Majority this Legislature, you were six times more likely to get a bill through.
So, what changed? While the composition of the House didn’t shift much in the last election, the makeup of the Senate did.
“It does have an effect that bleeds over to the House,” says Tuck.
Instead of having a Republican House working with a team of Democrats and moderate Republicans in the Senate, the Legislature effectively switched to one-party government with the last election.
Tuck thinks that means Minority members are less likely to have ownership over some of their policies, even if they introduced them first. For example, a bill requiring babies to be screened for heart defects was originally introduced by a House Democrat, but the version that passed was offered by a Senate Republican.
“It’s not as much about the policy as who gets credit for it,” says Tuck.
There are a few possible reasons for this. If a bill doesn’t have your name on it, it’s harder to campaign on it as a legislative accomplishment. It’s also easier to get a minority bill through one adversarial chamber than it is to get it through two of them. If a Democratic bill made it through the House during the Bipartisan Coalition days, then there was probably a sympathetic ear for it in the Senate.
These days? Not so much, says Tuck.
“A lot of people that were in the minority in the 27th Alaska Legislature are in the majority this year, and it’s all about retaliation in some form,” says Tuck.
In total, the House Minority got six bills passed this Legislature, and Senate Minority got zero. That’s out of nearly 200 bills.
In a lot of ways, that’s just the way the game is played. Wasilla Republican Charlie Huggins currently serves as the Senate President, but before the 2012 election, he was part of the Senate’s small conservative minority caucus.
“Obviously, in the minority you get to do a lot of observing – maybe grit your teeth every once in a while,” says Huggins.
Under the Bipartisan Coalition’s leadership, the Senate Minority fared a little better than the current Democratic Minority, but not by much.
Instead of getting zero bills through, they managed to pass anywhere from one to three bills per Legislature. On the rare occasions they were able to get their bills through the more Democratic Senate, those measures sailed through just fine in the Republican-led House.THIRD TIME’S A CHARM
Now that Republicans lead both chambers, some of the bills favored by the old conservative minority cleared the Legislature just fine. Huggins points to his bill naming an official state firearm as something that went nowhere in the Senate under the Bipartisan Coalition but passed handily this time around.
That bill wasn’t the only one that Republicans had previously pushed that passed this time around.
Of the 191 bills that passed this year, 21 had been introduced in the past but were effectively blocked by the Bipartisan Coalition.
“There was a lot of pent up frustration by average Alaskans that things weren’t getting through that they thought had merit, and we turned that around,” says Huggins.
Most of those bills were passed by the Republican House but then held up in Senate committees which were often run by Democrats.
The House passed a Stand Your Ground bill twice during the Coalition days, and only got it through this time around. A bill the puts time restrictions on foreign nationals’ drivers licenses also got new life. So did a bill furthering the development of the Knik Arm Bridge.
Legislation regulating abortion also passed for the first time in about a decade. Anchorage Democrat and Senate Minority Leader Hollis French says that would have “never gone anywhere” under the Bipartisan Coalition that he was part of. Abortion was one of the issues they specifically avoided to keep harmony in their ranks.
“The ground rules were that each party would set aside the extreme measures from each end of its own political spectrum. Which means that the Right would not be pursuing anti-abortion bills, the Left would not be pursuing say legalization of marijuana,” says French. “We would work from the middle, pursue ideas from the middle, pursue ideas that we could all agree on – building infrastructure, education, crime bills, and so forth that were mainstream.”
Huggins says the current Senate Majority doesn’t have any terms of engagement like that, mostly because they don’t need to as a Republican-led caucus. While there are differences of opinion within the caucus, many of top leadership positions are held by people who are ideologically aligned.
“You know, I think by and large the biggest contrast between the Bipartisan Coalition and what you saw in the last two years is you probably had more like-minded people who were in leadership and more influential in the body,” says Huggins.GOOD YEAR FOR THE GOVERNOR
Of all the legislation that had been tried before under the Bipartisan Coalition, arguably the most significant one to pass was a variation Gov. Sean Parnell’s oil tax plan.
During the 2011 and 2012 legislative sessions, Parnell repeatedly clashed with the Bipartisan Coalition over his vision of oil tax reform, with the Senate ultimately blocking his attempts to cut taxes on oil production at high prices. With the 2012 election, six of the Bipartisan Coalition’s 16 members lost their seats under a new political map. Within one session of the new Republican members being sworn in, Parnell’s most recent version of his oil tax plan passed.
Parnell generally did better under the new Legislature, and he has frequently complimented the current political leadership. During the 27th Legislature, five out his 16 personal bills failed. This Legislature, just two of his 17 bills did not make it through the process – a water rights bill that received vocal public opposition, and a timber sale bill that his administration didn’t actively push for.
Huggins says there was frequent communication between the Parnell administration and legislative leadership, which resulted in less political gridlock.
“The governor provided some good input and gave a third set of eyes, if you will, on the administration’s standpoint on a number of issues,” says Huggins.
On top of passing more items from the governor’s agenda, the 28th Legislature passed more bills overall, exceeding the previous body output by 76 bills.
A U.S. Senate panel today moved to require labeling for genetically modified salmon, if it’s approved for sale in this country.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski told the Senate Appropriations Committee she hopes the FDA never allows genetically modified salmon to reach supermarket shelves.
“But we haven’t been able to get the FDA able to slow down off their track of approval,” she said.
So, Murkowski says, they should at least require “that they put on the package of fish: This is a genetically modified salmon.”
But mandatory labeling repels senators from farm states, who fear it’ll lead to labeling of GM crops. Sen. Mike Johanns of Nebraska defended genetically modified food at the hearing, saying it can help sustain the world’s ever- growing population. Johanns says labeling would be a compliance nightmare, with consumers footing the bill.
“There’s a cost to that, for no basis in science,” he said.
The company that wants to produce the AquAdvantage salmon says its farmed fish would be just like a conventional Atlantic salmon. Sen. Mark Begich, who co-sponsored Murkowski’s labeling amendment, says the company should just be upfront with consumers.
“If their fish product is so good, then tell us,” he said. “That’s all we’re asking.”
Appropriations Committee passed the amendment on a voice vote with only one audible “nay.” Still, it’s a long way from law. Alaska’s delegation to Congress has fought to require labeling in the past, only to see it stripped out of the final legislation. The bill next goes to the full Senate.
The Funny River fire that has been burning on the Kenai Peninsula since Monday has grown to nearly 50,000 acres.
Dan Nelson, the Health and Safety Officer for Central Emergency Services out of Soldotna, says the fire is about five percent contained.
“What you’re seeing today, a little shift in action from a game plan and trying to get priorities set and figuring out what’s going on to an actual going out there and attacking the fire,” Nelson said. “We have over 150 people on the ground and numerous aircraft out there. The priorities have not changed. The priorities are still keep the fire away from the Funny River community and the Kasilof community.”
Fire crews from across the state had set up a communications center at Skyview High School in Soldotna.
The fire is still not an immediate threat to life or property. Community meetings were being held Wednesday night for people closest to the fire.
No evacuation orders have been given, as the fire continues to spread into the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.
Two Southcentral Alaska fires have grown in size since Wednesday afternoon, covering the Anchorage area in smoke Thursday morning.Tyonek Fire
On the western side of Cook Inlet, the Tyonek Fire has grown to over 1,800 acres.
Pete Buist, a fire information officer with the Alaska Interagency Coordination Center, says most of the recent activity has been on the north end of the fire.
“Most of that fire growth is due to what we call spotting, where sparks and embers from the main fire are carried on the convection column up into the air a ways and drop out in front of the main fire,” Buist said.
Though the main fire hasn’t progressed much closer to Beluga, Buist says crews are conducting burnout operations around power lines and oil and gas infrastructure.
“It means that those crews got in around some of the infrastructure there and started little fires on their own burning out towards the main fire, so that if the main fire was to get there, it would have less fuel up close to those things that they want to protect,” he said.
There are 108 firefighters working on the Tyonek fire.
No evacuation orders are in effect for Beluga or Tyonek.Funny River Fire
The Funny River fire on the Kenai Peninsula has grown to nearly 50,000 acres since Wednesday afternoon.
Buist says three things affect fire growth: weather, topography, and fuels. For the Funny River fire, he says all three factors contributed almost equally.
“The fire is burning on the southwest and burning uphill towards the mountains, so you’ve got that topographical consideration. You’ve got just miles and miles of black spruce and beetle-killed white spruce and Sitka spruce and Lutz spruce in there – so there’s some pretty heavy fuels involved.”
“And, of course, the weather is still conducive to fire.”
The Funny River fire is still entirely within the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. Buist says up to this point, no communities or structures have burned down or are imminent danger.
There are 168 firefighters working on the Funny River fire. Four scooper aircraft arrived from Alberta, Canada on Wednesday and will likely focus on the western side of the fire.
Buist says more assets will be added before the fire is contained.