Parents Rally For Education Funding
Alexandra Gutierrez, APRN – Juneau
The Alaska State House has delayed its vote on an omnibus education bill to Monday, giving lawmakers more time to wrestle with questions over teacher retirement policy and treatment of rural schools. But even though debate on the bill was delayed, that did not stop a crowd of parents from gathering on the Capitol steps to rally for more education funding.
Minimum Wage Bill Introduced Amid Sponsor Outcry
Alexandra Gutierrez, APRN – Juneau
A bill that could supplant the minimum wage initiative has popped up in the Legislature. The House Rules Committee introduced the bill on Friday, and it’s modeled after a citizens’ initiative that’s slated to appear on the August primary ballot. It would raise the minimum wage up from $7.75 to $9.75 over the course of two years, and it would peg the minimum wage to inflation.
Lawmakers Shelve Controversial Permitting Bill
Alexandra Gutierrez, APRN – Juneau
A controversial permitting bill has been sentenced to die in committee. Senate Resources Chair Cathy Giessel sent out a press release yesterday announcing the resources committee will not hold any more hearings on HB77.
Deal Reached For Susitna-Watana Dam Land Access
Phillip Manning, KTNA – Talkeetna
A land access dispute that threatened to delay progress on the Susitna-Watana Hydroelectric Project has been resolved, though the agreement has come later than expected.
Alaska Shield Exercise Testing Military’s Emergency Readiness
Jolene Almendarez, APRN – Anchorage
More than 550 military personnel from around the country are gathered at the Port of Anchorage this week for an Alaska Shield exercise, meant to test the readiness of the military to provide emergency support to areas impacted by natural or human-caused disasters.
Senate Ratifies Treaties to Stop Fish Piracy
Liz Ruskin, APRN – Washington DC
The U.S. Senate yesterday ratified two international treaties that Alaska’s senators say will help crack down on illegal international fishing. One is an agreement to restrict ships from using ports if they engage in what’s known as IUU fishing.
State, Feds Wrestle Over Navigable Water Control
Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks
The State of Alaska is continuing to fight the federal government over control of navigable waters in two cases involving Interior rivers. The Alaska Department of Law has filed a friend of the court briefing in support of Central resident Jim Wilde’s latest appeal. Wilde is contesting the National Park Service’s authority to enforce regulations on the state owned Yukon River, inside the Yukon Charley Rivers National Preserve.
Food Tastes Better When It’s Shared
Emily Forman, KCAW – Sitka
It’s crisp, crunchy, and salty – and you’ll never find it in a bag in the grocery store. Dipped in seal oil or eulachon oil (hooligan), it is a traditional Southeast Alaskan delicacy that signals spring as surely as a warm, sunny day. But, gathering herring eggs-on-hemlock branches is about a lot more than food.
AK: Book Club
Lisa Phu, KTOO – Juneau
Several people at Juneau’s downtown shelter and soup kitchen The Glory Hole are part of a new club. Every Tuesday, they come together on the second floor of the facility to discuss a different topic. The club is helping to build a community within the homeless shelter, one not based on need, but on the exchange of ideas.
300 Villages: Moose Creek
This week, we’re heading to Moose Creek, a village of about 600 people in central Alaska. Jeff Jacobson is the chief of staff for the Fairbanks North Star Borough.
Alaska is becoming known as a testing ground for renewable energy. As more and more clean energy technology comes on the market, Alaska’s high fuel costs can make investments in things that reduce those costs pay off quickly – in fact it’s already happening.
HOST: Steve Heimel, Alaska Public Radio Network
- Gershon Cohen, We the People Alaska
- John Havelock, former Alaska Attorney General
- Callers Statewide
- Post your comment before, during or after the live broadcast (comments may be read on air).
- Send e-mail to talk [at] alaskapublic [dot] org (comments may be read on air)
- Call 550-8422 in Anchorage or 1-800-478-8255 if you’re outside Anchorage during the live broadcast
LIVE Broadcast: Tuesday, April 8, 2014 at 10:00 a.m. on APRN stations statewide.
The spring dividend for most Sealaska shareholders will be $721, but some will receive less than a tenth of that amount.
The total distribution to the regional Native corporation’s 21,600 shareholders is $11.8 million. Payments will be mailed out April 8 and direct-deposited April 11.
Most stockholders own 100 shares. The amount of dividends differ due to status of the corporation’s Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian members.
Those enrolled in Sealaska plus an urban Native corporation, such as Sitka’s Shee Atiká, receive the full $721. So do at-large shareholders, who are only enrolled in Sealaska.
Those holding stock in a village corporation, such as Saxman’s Cape Fox, get $57.
The difference is a payout from a pool of regional Native corporations’ natural-resource earnings. Sealaska pays resource earnings directly to urban shareholders, as part of their dividends. But it pays the resource revenues to village corporations, which decide whether to pass them on to shareholders.
Descendents of original shareholders also get $57 per 100 shares. Elders in any category receive an extra $57. Those funds come from Sealaska’s permanent fund.
None of the money is coming from Sealaska’s business operations. CEO Chris McNeil says the corporation is in the second year of restructuring its operations. That includes last summer’s sale of its share of plastics factories in Alabama, Iowa and Guadalajara, Mexico.
More details on Sealaska’s business operations will be in its annual report, to be released in May.
The legislature has approved $5.8 million in additional repairs and renovations to the Capitol building.
“Go forth, fix the Capitol,”said Rep. Mike Hawker, R-Anchorage. He chairs the Legislative Council, which authorized a contract with Dawson Construction on Thursday. The council manages the legislature’s in-house administration.
This is the second phase of the project. The need for major repairs of the facade and earthquake retrofits has been well documented, punctuated by occasional chunk of falling masonry. Building manager Jeff Goodell recently took some time to preempt a potential drizzle of stonework on 60 of the building’s most important tenants; legislators lined up out front for a group photo Wednesday.
“Our building manager spent the weekend taking loose chunks of concrete off the parapets that were so loose, that they had a very real chance of falling and hitting someone while we were taking that picture,” Hawker said.
Outside the Capitol, Goodell points out where he’d worked along a lip of crumbling brick near the roof. He says masons recently told him the pace of deterioration is shifting.
“You know, this golden girl is 83 years old. It took a long time to get to this point, but now, things really get accelerated,” Goodell says.
In the Capitol’s maintenance section, Goodell pulls out a 5-gallon bucket and cardboard box filled with crumbly bits and chunks of masonry.
“There are big parts down in here. Of course, this is just little stuff you’re seeing at the top. But there’s big stuff in there,” Goodell says.
He’s keeping it “as evidence.”
“This is for people to see, to know that we’re not monkeying around,” Goodell says.
Workers completed the first phase of Capitol repairs and renovations last fall. That phase included repairing the granite front steps, reinforcing the marble columns, replacing the plumbing and draining systems and cleaning up the crawlspace beneath the building.
With the contract approval, work will resume this summer.
The Alaska House of Representatives voted unanimously Thursday to name April “Child Abuse Prevention Month” in Alaska.
House Concurrent Resolution 21 was sponsored by Representative Geran Tarr from Anchorage. The resolution heads to the Senate for consideration.
In 2013 there were over 40,000 allegation of child maltreatment in Alaska.
Just last month Alaska Governor Sean Parnell issued an Executive Proclamation naming April as “Child Abuse Prevention Month.”
Nationally, April has been “Child Abuse Prevention Month” since the first Executive Declaration in 1983.
A controversial permitting bill has been sentenced to die in committee.
Senate Resources Chair Cathy Giessel sent out a press release on Thursday evening announcing that the resources committee will not hold any more hearings on HB77.
Committee member Peter Micciche says that with the end of session looming, the bill was simply too complex and too polarizing to advance.
“Some people will be very happy. Some people won’t be as happy. But I think that everyone can agree that we can, in the future, do a better job working together on releasing things that people see as having an effect on their everyday lives, their rights as Alaskans, their right to be heard.”
The Parnell administration introduced HB77 last year. The bill was pitched as a way to make the permitting process more efficient, and it initially zipped through the Legislature. But fishing groups, tribal organizations, and environmental outfits came out strong against the bill, arguing that it gave too much power to the natural resources commissioner and limited the public’s role in permitting decisions.
After the bill failed to secure the necessary votes last year, the Department of Natural Resources held meetings with opposition groups and revised the bill in consultation with Micciche. While some of the more contentious provisions were altered, the rewrite still attracted a heated public response when it was unveiled last month.
Micciche believes some components of the new draft have merit and could have been enacted into law had they not been wrapped in such an expansive piece of legislation. He says those parts will likely need to be revisited in the future and parceled out into a series of less ambitious bills.
But this year, the Legislature is done with permitting policy.
“I don’t know go where bills go in the after life, but I do — I do — honestly wish House Bill 77 a very happy eternity as it rests in peace.”
A spokesperson for the Department of Natural Resources wrote in an e-mail that the agency is a “disappointed in this outcome,” but understands the decision.
Alaska State Troopers say a Homer man fatally shot himself after he grabbed a trooper’s gun during a struggle following a domestic violence call.
Twenty-four-year-old Aaron Michael Rael-Catholic is dead following the incident Wednesday night.
According to a Trooper report, an unidentified Trooper attempted to apprehend Rael-Catholic following a report of a domestic violence assault shortly after 8 p.m. at a residence about four miles out East End Road.
The female victim who made the report was able to escape the assault by her ex-boyfriend – Rael-Catholic. She left the residence in a vehicle just as the Trooper arrived on the scene. Rael-Catholic then used another vehicle to ram into the victim’s car.
According to the report, the suspect then got out of the car and a struggle ensued with the Trooper. In an attempt to apprehend Rael-Catholic, the Trooper used pepper spray and then his Taser but to no avail. The Trooper and the suspect ended up wrestling on the ground. During this struggle, Rael-Catholic got a hold of the Trooper’s pistol and fatally shot himself.
Trooper Spokesperson Megan Peters said Troopers could not release any further information about the incident until completion of an investigation by the Alaska Bureau of Investigation. Peters did confirm that the Trooper was the only law enforcement officer who responded to the call. She did not know if he called for backup during the incident. After the shooting, several local agencies – including the Homer Police Department and the Homer Volunteer Fire Department – responded to the scene. The female victim was taken to South Peninsula Hospital in Homer but her condition was unknown.
The Trooper was not injured in the incident. Peters said his identity will not be released for 72 hours.
According to court records, Rael-Catholic was arrested for Fourth Degree Assault in December. In that incident, he was allegedly intoxicated and had assaulted a member of his family.
Peters said an autopsy on Rael-Catholic by the State Medical Examiner’s Office is expected to be performed later this week. She could not estimate how long the investigation might take.
Peters said it is extremely rare for a suspect to get a hold of an officer’s service weapon. The last time it happened on the Kenai Peninsula was in 2003, when 33-year-old David Forster took a pistol from Kenai Police officer John Watson and used it to kill him. Forster was sentenced to 101 years in prison for the murder.
The Coast Guard has released the results of an investigation into the grounding of Shell’s Kulluk drill rig at the end of their troubled Arctic drilling season. The agency documented multiple safety violations. It also found a desire to avoid a state tax contributed to the decision to move the rig in poor conditions.
The agency found that Royal Dutch Shell and its subcontractor, Edison Chouest, severely underestimated the risk of towing an unpropelled oil rig through the Gulf of Alaska in a winter storm in December 2012.
The Kulluk had been moored at a custom-built dock in Dutch Harbor. According to the Coast Guard, Shell executives believed they could dodge a multimillion-dollar state tax bill if they moved the rig out of Alaska before the start of the new year.
Some mariners knew it would be a rough journey: In an email early in the trip, the master of the Aiviq tow vessel said a winter tow “guarantees an ass kicking.”
As predicted, the fleet encountered rough seas. The tow line between the Kulluk and the vessels that were pulling it snapped repeatedly — in part, due to inadequate equipment. After multiple attempts to recover the rig, the Kulluk crashed into a remote island on New Year’s Eve 2012. It took days to recover the vessel.
The accident reportedly cost Shell more than $90 million. And it gave critics of Arctic oil exploration plenty of ammunition.
Michael LeVine is the Pacific senior counsel for Oceana.
“We need to fundamentally rethink the way we’re balancing costs and benefits and the standards to which we’re holding companies like Shell,” LeVine says.
The Coast Guard uncovered multiple legal violations, including failures to report marine casualties and safety issues. The agency also discovered inadequate watch-keeping in the bridge and engine rooms of Shell’s fleet.
LeVine says the federal government bears some blame, since they approved Shell’s Arctic exploration plans.
“It is not sufficient simply for a company to say that they’re prepared to operate in Alaska,” LeVine says. “We all deserve to have these companies come here and show us that they actually appreciate the difficult and remoteness of operating in Alaska water, and the importance of those resources to all of us.”
The Coast Guard is recommending measures to improve tow plans and correct engineering deficiencies on the Aiviq tug.
In a statement, Shell spokesperson Megan Baldino said the company is taking the Coast Guard’s findings seriously.
“Already, we have implemented lessons learned from our internal review of our 2012 operations,” Baldino said. “Those improvements will be measured against the findings in the USCG report as well asrecommendations from the US Department of Interior.”
Interior Secretary Sally Jewell already rejected a plan to build a road through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge to link King Cove to the all-weather airport at Cold Bay. These days, all three members of Alaska’s Congressional delegation are trying to get her to change her mind. Today was Congressman Don Young’s turn to press the case.
As a member of the House Natural Resources Committee, Young was allotted five minutes to question Jewell on the president’s $12 billion budget for Interior. Young asked only about King Cove. And Young wasn’t taking “no” for an answer. In fact, at times during the fiery exchange, he wasn’t taking any answers.
Young said the birds of the Izembek Refuge could adjust to traffic, like the birds on the George Washington Parkway, along the Potomac. Jewell told him the Izembek is a wetland of global significance.
–The birds that are in that area (Izembek) are different than the birds in the Potomac River.
–They are no different. There the same type of bird. The same species, as far as genetically goes, and you and I know that!
–No, sir, the Pacific black brant is …
–There is exactly the same attitude. They get used to it!
When bad weather prevents normal air travel in King Cove, critically ill and injured people have to wait for a Coast Guard helicopter. Such rescues generally happen four or five times a year, although there have been five just since December. They are said to cost more than $200,000 apiece. Young threatened Jewell with an unpleasant choice: Which of her divisions should Congress deduct that cost from?
–Which one of those departments do you think we take it out of?
–Congressman, I will continue …
–Which one of the departments should we take it out of?
–Congressman I do not believe money for a medical …
–You don’t think it’ll happen, do you?
–Can I finish? Would you like me to answer the question?
–No, I’m going to ask you which department. You answer.
Jewell also had to defend her King Cove decision last week at a Senate hearing, though Senators Lisa Murkowski and Mark Begich were less forceful in style.
Watch the exchange: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wxY_ARqi2iU
After a research review, the National Marine Fisheries Service is prepared to loosen controversial limits on fishing in the western Aleutian Islands.
NMFS closed fishing grounds three years ago to protect an endangered population of Steller sea lions. That triggered several rounds of litigation and a new evaluation of the science behind fishing bans.
Brandee Gerke is a NMFS resource management specialist. She helped the agency write its new biological opinion on whether increased fishing would harm sea lions.
That has cleared NMFS to open more fishing grounds in the western Aleutians, according to a plan that was approved by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council.
Gerke says that biologists still have lingering concerns about how to harvest fish safely in critical habitat areas without disturbing Steller sea lions.
“NMFS is still recommending that the fishery be dispersed over a greater amount of time,” Gerke says. “So not going in and catching fish in a very concentrated fashion.”
Those recommendations will be included in a proposed rule from NMFS. They’ll take public comments on the regulations. But if they’re finalized, fishermen will have access to previously forbidden stocks of Atka mackerel, Pacific cod and pollock as early as next year.
Michael LeVine says that’s pretty sudden. LeVine is a lawyer for Oceana — an environmental group that’s been fighting for years to uphold fishing bans in the western Aleutians.
“The controversy is about whether removing 60% of the fish that used to be there is contributing to the continuing decline of the species and its overall failure to recover,” LeVine says. “Historically, the agency has said that is has. This new analysis, we think, reflects a step back from that very well scientifically-justified position.”
LeVine wouldn’t comment on whether Oceana might sue to keep fishing grounds closed.
At least one group applauded the decision to loosen restrictions. The Aleut Corporation holds a small amount of pollock quota in the western Aleutian Islands. It’s supposed to bring business to Adak, but the share is an area that was closed — until now.
In a statement, the Aleut Corporation said it’s grateful for any new fishing opportunities that will come as a result of the federal study — for Adak, and for other communities throughout the Aleutian Chain.
On Friday, state representatives will vote on a sprawling education bill that deals with everything from school budges to teacher tenure to the establishment of charter schools. Some lawmakers, like Anchorage Democrat Chris Tuck, are already preparing for a marathon session.
TUCK: It’s going to be a long one. I think it’s probably going to be one of the longest bills that we probably take up on the floor this year.
APRN’s Alexandra Gutierrez reports that some of the biggest fights are expected to center around the education funding formula.
On Wednesday, it took the House Finance Committee about six hours to work through more than 20 amendments that members wanted to make to the legislation. There were split votes, a good bit of sniping, and multiple apologies before the group finally moved the bill out of committee that evening.
The process is not expected to be any easier once the bill hits the floor.
At a press conference on Thursday, the Democratic Minority explained that their major concern is that an increase to the base student allocation — the amount of money a school gets per student enrolled — does not go far enough.
“We’ve faced three years of cuts in the past, this extends three more years of cuts — cuts this coming year, and then bigger cuts the following two years when the base student allocation gets smaller,” said Rep. Les Gara, of Anchorage.
The House Finance version of the bill spends an extra $225 million on per-pupil funding over the course of three years, but some of that could cancel out because of a loss of $25 million in one-time funds. Gov. Sean Parnell’s proposal adds just over $100 million to that pot of money over the same period of time.
Rep. David Guttenberg, of Fairbanks, said neither of those figures are enough to prevent layoffs in the state’s biggest school districts.
“I think if you ask them if they’d take a poke in the eye or a kick in the backside, they’ll take whatever they can get over nothing,” said Guttenberg.
The Democrats’ proposal costs about $450 million over three years.
But Republicans in the majority are concerned that a bigger increase than what they are offering could put serious pressure on future budgets.
Rep. Mia Costello, an Anchorage Republican, told reporters on Thursday that education is being treated as an exception as other state agencies are being told to keep their budgets flat.
“We are still prioritizing education while the rest of state government we are cutting,” said Costello. “We’ve been cutting operating budget of state government so that we can continue to fund education increases.”
Costello also argued that their proposal also gives an extra boost to urban schools, where 80 percent of Alaska’s students are enrolled. The House Finance Committee did this by adjusting the education funding formula to weigh the state’s larger schools more generously. The existing funding formula gives rural schools extra funds because costs in remote areas are higher, and rural legislators have expressed concern that changing it could result in a disparity between small and large schools.
The House is expected to debate the education bill at the same time a citizens group made up of parents will be rallying on the capitol steps for more education funding.
How to address the teacher retirement debt is another friction point for lawmakers.
Governor Sean Parnell says a House Finance Committee proposal to deal with the teachers’ retirement system is “immoral” and shifts the debt obligation to future generations.
Parnell wants the plan pulled from his education bill.
The committee added the retirement plan to its rewrite of the bill, HB278. But Parnell says they’re two, very separate issues.
The bill is scheduled for the House floor Friday.
Parnell has proposed putting $1.1 billion into the system and making annual payments of about $340 million over 20 years. Trust fund earnings would eventually be used to pay benefits.
The committee plan proposes a $1.4 billion cash infusion and would start with smaller annual payments, and payments stretched over a longer period.
Legislative Finance Division Director David Teal says the approaches are just philosophically different.
The plan to construct a toll bridge across Knik Arm advanced yesterday, when the Senate Finance committee voted in favor of sending it to the floor for consideration.
Back in 1960, seven uninhabited Bristol Bay islands south of Togiak were incorporated into the Walrus Islands State Game Sanctuary. As the name suggests, the sanctuary protects one of the largest terrestrial haulout sites of Pacific walruses in North America.
The Department of Fish and Game’s Wildlife Division decided last week that it will terminate its Round Island Program, which staffs the sanctuary to monitor the marine mammals and host visitors.
The wife of a man who went missing during the 2012 Mt. Marathon race is suing the Seward Chamber of Commerce. The wrongful death suit is asking for a judgment of $5 million.
Yesterday, we reported that Akutan residents are pleased with their new airport taxi — a helicopter that came online in February. The Aleutians East Borough is already running out of money to pay for it. Today, in the second part of our series on the struggle to connect Akutan to its airport, the borough settles on a permanent solution. It’s one they rejected a decade ago.
Akutan’s airport is unique in a lot of ways. For one, it’s not on Akutan – it’s seven miles away, on Akun Island.
That means airport operations are a little more complicated than normal. So, they’re divided up among three groups: the city of Akutan, the Aleutians East Borough and the state of Alaska.
One major task is getting people from Akutan to the airport. Sean Holland, of the state department of transportation, says that job falls to just one entity:
“The Aleutians East Borough agreed to provide and fund the operation of the marine link between the city of Akutan and the island of Akun,” he says.
The borough started exploring their options almost a decade ago. A boat seemed like the obvious choice. But they could also try a hovercraft or a helicopter — whatever was cheapest and most reliable.
They hired a maritime engineering firm to figure that out. Glosten Associates said a hovercraft would be able to make the trip to the airport 90 percent of the time, at a cost of just over a million dollars a year. They said that made it cheaper and more efficient than a boat.
That was in 2005, years before borough administrator Rick Gifford was hired. But he knows the history. Based on Glosten’s work, Gifford says the borough was prepared to cover the million-dollar annual cost:
“It was kind of estimated that between charges for passengers and for freight, that they might be able to recoup up to half a million dollars of that,” he says.
And he says they agreed to pay another half a million out of pocket.
The borough was able to save money by recycling a hovercraft they’d already bought for King Cove. It stopped running there in 2010 after it proved too costly and unreliable.
In March 2010, the state broke ground on the airport. Construction was going well for about a year – until the Aleutians East Borough hit a snag.
At a meeting in 2011, the borough assembly re-calculated how much money the hovercraft would bring in. Their estimates were a lot lower than what Glosten Associates had told them years before — and the assembly wasn’t completely sure why.
KUCB reached out to Glosten about the alleged discrepancies, and the firm wouldn’t comment.
Whatever the reason, the assembly was no longer sure if the hovercraft could work long-term.
So they had a choice: Go back to the drawing board, pick a different vehicle, and possibly delay construction – or let it keep going. The state would finish building the airport around the hovercraft. And the borough could eventually use those same facilities for a helicopter, in hopes of saving some money.
And that’s exactly what they decided to do. Three years later, Rick Gifford, the borough administrator, says things have gone about as well as the assembly expected:
“As it’s turned out, the hovercraft cost three times more than a million dollars — it cost over $3 million,” he says. “They’re just not willing to do that. They can’t sustain it.”
In February, the borough made the switch to the helicopter. It’s going to cost $2 million a year — which is less than the hovercraft, but, Gifford says, still not cheap enough.
So after a decade, the borough is looking once again for a permanent way to connect to the airport. Their only option now is a ferry. Gifford says it’ll take at least five years and millions of dollars to set one up on Akun.
“A dock and a breakwater is not cheap. It’s a major capital item up front,” he says. “So it’s going to take some money to get it started. … but once those dollars are put in up front, then you’ll reduce the annual operating cost to the point where it’s feasible.”
Sean Holland, of the DOT, says the state has money left over for the Akutan project. It could help pay for the dock — but Holland isn’t sure if they could use it for the helicopter.
And that’s a problem for the borough: administrator Rick Gifford says they’re running out of money.
“So unless we get some financial help from the state and the users, primarily Trident Seafoods, I just don’t know … how long the borough will be willing to sustain that higher amount that it’s costing them,” he says.
Ideally, he says the borough would split the cost of the helicopter with Trident and the state. Trident’s processing plant in Akutan is the biggest in North America. They fly in thousands of workers every year — but they’ve already made contributions to the airport. As for the state: the legislature declined to pitch in last year.
Gifford says the borough has about six months before they can’t afford to run the helicopter anymore. It’s not clear what that would mean for the 90 residents of Akutan Village.
Mayor Joe Bereskin says they’ve been in limbo for a long time, and it’s starting to feel like the norm.
“It’s a revolving door that we have to go through until we get some sort of structure on Akun for some sort of conventional vessel out there,” he says. “It’s just what we’re faced with out here, and we’ll deal with it, best of our abilities.”
There’s not much else he can do. It’s up to the Aleutians East Borough to bridge the gap for good. The only question now is if they’ll have to do it on their own.
Between a contested Senate primary and a mess of ballot questions, the August election is expected to be particularly lively. But a set of unusual circumstances and odd timing has the potential to knock all but one of the citizen measures to the November general election, if the Legislature gavels out late.
Since the early weeks of the session, legislative leadership has been emphatic that they plan to gavel out early.
House Speaker Mike Chenault: “There’s a number of us that don’t think that Juneau is the place to be on Easter Sunday.”
And Senate President Charlie Huggins: “Let’s get out of here before Easter.”
An early close to the session lets lawmakers and staff enjoy egg hunts, family meals, and religious services. It also avoids a major ballot shuffle.
Here’s the deal: The Alaska Constitution stipulates that 120 days need to pass after a legislative session before a citizens’ initiative can go to a vote. The idea is to give lawmakers a chance to address ballot questions through the legislative process.
Ever since the Legislature switched to shorter sessions, all initiatives have ended up on the August ballot with plenty of time to spare before they would be kicked to the next race.
This year is a little different.
“There’s not a lot of wiggle room there,” says Libby Bakalar, an assistant attorney general with the Department of Law who specializes in election issues.
Bakalar says if you look at a calendar, there are exactly 120 days between the April 20 adjournment date and the August 19 primary.
“I guess without getting too close into the granular details of it, I would say that if it comes to pass that the Legislature does not adjourn on time, we’ll have to evaluate the state of the ballot at that point,” says Bakalar.
The timing is a bit of a “when-the-stars-align” sort of thing. On top of the interplay between the constitutional rules for initiatives and the shortened legislative session, Gov. Sean Parnell last year succeeded in getting the primary date moved up one week, to the third Tuesday in August.
That all adds up to a situation where if the Legislature goes even a minute beyond their scheduled closure, there’s a legal argument that initiatives on marijuana, the minimum wage, and the proposed Pebble mine should be put off until November. (If the Legislature gavels out on time but then convene in special session, the initiatives would not be bumped.)
But Bakalar says a referendum repealing a law that caps the tax rate on North Slope oil at 35 percent would not get moved. As if the rules governing elections were not complicated enough, the Constitution differentiates between initiatives, which create laws, and referenda, which strike them down. Referenda get voted on during the first election held more 180 days from the session when the law was passed.
“The referendum — the Senate Bill 21 referendum — will be on the primary ballot no matter what,” says Bakalar.
So, what does this all mean, aside from a potential headache for the Division of Elections? Well, if you’re looking at a tight race, it could mean a lot.
John Bitney managed Lisa Murkowski’s Senate campaign, and he knows firsthand how ballot questions can shape other races.
“Well, in the 2010 primary, in addition of course to the U.S. Senate race, there was an initiative on the ballot that required parental [notification] for teenage girls to go get an abortion procedure,” says Bitney.
Even though Murkowski supported the parental notification initiative, her opponent Joe Miller took a more conservative stance on abortion issues. Miller aligned himself with groups like Alaska Right to Life, which were already encouraging people to go out and vote for the initiative.
“It really drove them to the polls,” says Bitney. “If they were in favor of it, they felt very strongly in favor of it. And therefore, it was a very high likelihood that they would show up on election day and cast a ballot.”
In a major upset, Miller ended up beating an incumbent senator by just 2,000 votes. While Murkowski ultimately saved her seat through a write-in campaign, Bitney thinks that may have been avoided if the ballot composition had been different.
“In hindsight, I think we probably should have paid a little closer attention to that issue going in,” says Bitney.
This year, campaigners for and against the oil tax referendum are definitely paying attention to where the initiatives end up.
Renee Limoge handles communications for the Alaska Support Industry Alliance, a trade association that opposes the referendum. She says she’ll be watching the scheduling of the initiatives because of how they might affect turnout.
“Definitely, says Limoge. “Initiatives do bring people to the polls, and we’ve got quite a varying number. We watch that.”
Referendum supporters also think the initiatives will drive voters — and that those voters will be sympathetic to their cause. Ray Metcalfe is one of the organizers behind “Vote Yes! Repeal the Giveaway,” and a former legislator. He says if the Legislature gavels out late, it could be a blow to the repeal campaign.
“Oh, we’ll cry foul,” says Metcalfe.
But Metcalfe says there’s a wrinkle. Right now, Republicans — who largely support the new oil tax law — are effectively in charge of adjournment because of their majority status. The Republican Party is also invested in beating Democratic incumbent Mark Begich in the Senate race, in keeping control of governor’s mansion, and maintaining dominance in the Legislature.
Metcalfe thinks having initiatives that are seen as attracting more liberal-minded voters would not help those goals in the general election.
“They probably are on a little bit of the horns of a dilemma, because you’re going to have more Democrats elected if those three initiatives are on the November ballot,” says Metcalfe.
For their part, leadership in the Legislature has said they do not want to wrestle with that dilemma. Some members have said they do not want to get involved in anything voters might perceive as electioneering. After all, there’s a lot of work to do between now and the end of session, and there’s not extra time for political gamesmanship if people want to get out early.
The U.S. Senate Indian Affairs Committee today looked at a raft of bills aimed at improving the safety of Native American communities, including Alaska Native villages. A bill that would strengthen Alaska tribal courts and tribal law enforcement drew no opposition at the hearing, but the bill is likely to become more controversial.
Natasha Singh, General Counsel for Tanana Chiefs Conference and also a tribal judge in Stevens Village, told an anecdote to illustrate the problem. Last summer, she was in a village when an intoxicated man tried to sexually assault a 13-year-old girl. Village leaders called the State Troopers but were told they couldn’t respond. Singh says this is at least the third such attempt by the same man.
“Now this man is currently still in the village. He regularly drinks, and the community, the women and children, have little protection from this individual,” Singh testified. “Do not allow this man to continue to terrorize his tribe.”
A bill sponsored by Alaska Senators Mark Begich and Lisa Murkowski aims to improve the delivery of justice in villages. It would repeal the exclusion of most of Alaska from a law called the Violence Against Women Act. The bill, the Alaska Safe Villages and Families Act, also encourages the state of Alaska to sign agreements with the tribes to enforce state law and deal with drug and alcohol offenses.
Singh says that doesn’t require federal law, because it’s essentially pre-trial diversion, or the state delegating it’s authority to the tribes. TCC and the state are working on agreements to do that already. She says the bill should go further and provide federal recognition of the tribe’s authority to deal, on its own, with local domestic violence and sexual assault as well as drug and alcohol offenses, even when the accused is not part of the tribe.
“What I’d like to tell you today is that if a woman in a village is the subject of domestic violence, the local tribal court must be assured that it may take lawful, immediate action against the abuser, regardless of tribal membership,” she said.
A TCC proposal, endorsed by other Native groups, calls for adding an Alaska “tribal law project” to the bill to recognize that kind of authority. Singh says the tribes would have civil jurisdiction only, unless the state agrees to more. And that’s highly unlikely, at least while Sean Parnell is governor. The head of the governor’s Washington D.C. office, Kip Knudson, declined to be interviewed for this story, but said Parnell’s response was reflected in a 2011 letter detailing the state’s response to a similar bill. In it, then-Attorney General John Burns suggested the bill was aimed at advancing tribal sovereignty rather than improving law enforcement. He also objected to what he said would be the dividing of Alaska into multiple jurisdictions.
At the hearing, Sen. Mark Begich told Singh he was open to adding the tribal law project to the bill.
“You need some assistance from the federal government so you can create some additional tools in the tool box for justice within your own communities,” he said.
In a letter to Parnell last week, Begich said the public safety problem in Alaska is so severe it warrants an “all of the above” approach. Such an approach, though, might cost him a co-sponsor. Sen. Murkowski said at the hearing she wants to pursue funding and training for Alaska’s tribal courts. Her spokesman Matt Felling says Murkowski has opposed previous proposals to extend Alaska tribal jurisdiction over non-members of the tribe.
For school districts in rural Alaska, this is prime recruiting season. Next week, they’ll hold a job fair in downtown Anchorage, looking for teachers to fill hundreds of openings statewide. But they’re also looking outside the 49th state.
The Sitka School District went looking for teachers over the weekend. Three administrators from Sitka traveled to the Seattle area to attend job fairs full of applicants hoping to teach in Alaska. Casey Demmert is principal of Keet Gooshi Heen Elementary School. He says there are 14 positions open in Sitka schools, including four at Keet, which serves grades 2 through 5.
“We’re at a point now in Sitka where we are really starting to have turnover with some of our more seasoned veteran teachers. Being able to bring in young teachers who can still get some mentoring and learn from some of those older teachers is important, too.”
Demmert, along with Blatchley Principal Ben White, and special education Director Mandy Evans, attended two different job fairs. The first was a large event in Tacoma open to districts across the Northwest, and the second was a smaller event only for Alaska districts.
That second event was put on by Alaska Teacher Placement, which is a program run by the University of Alaska system. It acts as a gateway for applicants hoping to work in the state. Toni McFadden is manages the teacher placement program. She says districts DO look inside Alaska for people to teach Alaskan children…
“…The problem is, we have a greater need for teachers than what our state is producing. We have a need for teachers to go to our rural communities. We might have teachers very willing to stay in Fairbanks if they went to UAF, or to stay in Anchorage if they went to UAA, finding people willing and excited to go to our rural communities is really more of a challenge.”
Sitka was among 17 Alaska school districts participating in Saturday’s job fair. The state as a whole has about 55 school districts, employing more than 8,100 teachers. Information on teaching jobs in Alaska is available at alaskateacher.org.
For the past year and a half, people on Akutan have been taking a hovercraft to get to their airport on a different island. Now, the Aleutians East Borough has made the switch to a helicopter as their new airport taxi. The change has been a relief for residents.
On a typical quiet day in February, Akutan’s school bus had to do something unusual: yield to oncoming traffic — in this case, to a helicopter.
Kids: “The helicopter’s here! Helicopter! Mr. Sharpe, the helicopter!”
The kids’ teacher, Chip Sharpe, was driving them to lunch on the other side of town when the helicopter came in for a landing. This was its second day in service.
The students weren’t the only ones excited about their new airport taxi. Sharpe and others in town were more than ready to say goodbye to the old hovercraft.
Sharpe: ”I had my doubts with the helicopter, you know, but yesterday was a foggy day — it wasn’t real windy, but I can almost guarantee the hovercraft would not have went yesterday because of the fog. And the helicopter, you know, he didn’t seem to mind.”
Both vehicles come from the Aleutians East Borough, which is tasked with getting people from Akutan to the airport. The borough’s community development director Annie Bailey works in Anchorage. She says at a cost of more than $3 million dollars a year, the hovercraft wasn’t sustainable. It only brought in about $350,000 in passenger and freight fees in 2013, according to borough records.
Now, Bailey says they’re contracting with Maritime Helicopters of Homer.
Bailey: ”We anticipate it to be a million dollars less, which is still not affordable, but it’s more affordable.”
For passengers, it costs exactly the same — $100 each way. But Akutan Mayor Joe Bereskin says it’s going to be more reliable.
Bereskin: ”I think it’ll do a little better job than the hovercraft did, because they don’t have to worry about water — the swell — which was, in the wintertime, one of the bigger problems for the hovercraft.”
Such a problem, in fact, that the hovercraft could only run about 60 percent of the time. Plus, it took about half an hour to make the trip over. The helicopter does it in five minutes.
One drawback: The chopper can’t haul as much cargo. Outgoing hovercraft captain Alan Burt thinks that’ll be a problem.
Burt: ”To be honest, I think the hovercraft’s the best thing for this place… just because of our capabilities, our load-carrying capabilities.”
But it seems like most Akutan residents are willing to make the trade-off. The biggest items can always be brought in on a barge. And the helicopter can carry some loads in a hanging sling.
Pilot Todd Engle and his mechanic, Ray Simpson, are up for that challenge. They were in Akutan until the end of March, when they tagged out with another crew.
Engle’s got almost a decade of experience, but he’s never flown in the Aleutians.
Engle: ”You know, I’m gonna keep my personal restrictions really conservative for the moment ’til I get familiar with the area. I have a family to go home to at the end of the day, so I’m not going to be pushing any limits, and it’s not worth anybody’s life for getting somebody somewhere.”
They’ve been respecting those restrictions, but Engle and Simpson have been keeping busy.
In February, they spent their first day on the job dealing with a storage container full of packages left behind after the hovercraft service had ended the weekend before. There were medications, groceries, even Christmas presents that had been stuck there since the holidays.
Ropeik: ”So this was your first load of mail?”
Engle: ”First load of mail, yep.”
Ropeik: ”How many do you have to go?”
Engle: ”There’s probably a good six or seven more loads. Maybe more.”
Once he landed in Akutan, Engle unpacked the bags and boxes from the helicopter’s cabin. Ray Simpson and postmaster Kay Bereskin, who is also Mayor Joe Bereskin’s wife, loaded them into a pickup truck.
Kay Bereskin: “I didn’t expect that much — I didn’t expect you to be able to carry that much!”
Simpson: ”I like puzzles.”
There were reasons for residents to be skeptical about the helicopter. The Aleutians East Borough hadn’t worked out fuel storage or permanent housing for the crew before they started running the service.
Still, in the first week, borough records show the chopper carried 44 passengers, 290 pounds of freight and more than 11,000 pounds of mail. And that went a long way toward winning over locals like teacher Chip Sharpe.
Sharpe: ”If what we’ve seen in the last day and a half is any sign of what’s to come, I think we’ll be fine.”
Fine for now — but the helicopter’s still too expensive to keep long-term. That’s the next challenge, even more daunting than trying to fly or hover over the Bering Sea: the challenge of connecting Akutan to its airport for good.
This is the first of a two-part series. Part two: ”Aleutians East Scrambles for Cheaper Link to Akutan Airport.”