Alaska News

Can an Aggressive Russia Remain Our Nice Arctic Neighbor?

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2014-04-08 17:30

Pro-Russian activists seized public buildings in eastern Ukraine this week, and U.S. officials say they suspect the actions were not spontaneous but engineered by Russia. That, combined with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s recent annexation of Crimea has Arctic experts wondering what this means for international relations in the Arctic and whether the era of cooperation with Russia is over.

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So far, despite occasional fears from the West of a Russian land grab in the Arctic, Russia has behaved as a good neighbor in its dealings with other countries in the Arctic Council. It led the way to treaties on pollution control and search-and-rescue, for instance, in effect pledging its mighty fleet of icebreakers to help its neighbors. But sometimes Russia shows a harsher face. Like in December, when Putin told his top military officers they should pay special attention to building their forces in the Arctic. He told them Russia will be stepping up development in the region and must “have all the levers for the protection of its security and national interests.” This week Putin also instructed his security forces to beef up the Arctic frontier.

 

Russia watchers in Washington say there are signs that, whatever its intentions in Ukraine, Russia might remain a good neighbor in the Arctic. The best sign is the meeting of the Arctic Council late last month in Canada. The Russian delegation came as scheduled, even as Canadian Prime Minister Steven Harper was criticizing Russian aggression in Crimea and demanding Russia’s expulsion from the G8.

Charles Ebinger, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, says his contacts within the U.S. Coast Guard told him last week they were still talking to their counterparts across the Bering Strait.

“I think everybody realizes it’s in our own mutual interests to cooperate and not run the risk of some disastrous sea accident just because of the broader international difficulties,” he said.”

In the big picture, Ebinger says Putin must realize he can’t develop his petroleum assets in the Arctic without the help of American or Western European oil companies. On the other hand, Ebinger says he expects an emboldened Putin will press for territory beyond Ukraine. That, he says, will trigger tougher sanctions against Russia and the spirit of cooperation in the Arctic is likely to be crushed by a grimmer mood in Moscow.

Heather Conley, director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says it’s unclear if cooperation will continue in the Arctic.

“I think right now everyone is walking very carefully,” she said.

Conley says Russia and the other Arctic nations still have a strong interest in maintaining their good working relationships.

“But, I think we do recognize that should the Ukraine crisis escalate I think it’s clear there will be some spillover effect which will impact the Arctic,” she said.

Already, the U.S. and Norway have called off a naval exercise with Russia in the Arctic. That’s outside the realm of the Arctic Council, but such exercises do help the countries develop the integration needed for multinational rescues and pollution control operations as envisioned by the council.

Robert Huebert, associate director of the Center for Military and Strategic Studies  in Calgary, says he expects the Russians to continue to play nice in the Arctic for the time being, either because they still believe in the cooperative alliance, or because they want to make their actions in Crimea look like an isolated incident. Huebert says figuring out Russia’s true motivation is a puzzle for Western nations.

“On the one hand it’s also in their interest to have the Arctic remain outside all of this, but if the Russians have become more assertive, more aggressive, there’s a requirement to stand up to it,” he said.

As Huebert sees it, Russia has touched off a national security chain reaction that is likely to spread north, because Putin’s takeover of Crimea has both Sweden and Finland feeling they might be next. That has revived their interest in joining NATO. If either country becomes a full member, Huebert says Russia would take it as a direct military threat, an attempt by NATO to encircle the Arctic.

“The Russians, since about 2004, 2005, have always listed one of their core security threats … is an expansion of NATO onto its doorsteps,” he said.

Huebert acknowledges his perspective on Russia tends to be darker than most, but he never really believed in Russia the nice Arctic neighbor. Huebert says the Arctic Council experience only proves the countries can cooperate to set up a framework for cooperation.

” I don’t know if you have kids, but it’s always easy to get the kids to agree to all the rules about sharing toys until the actual toy shows up,’ he said.

The real test, Huebert says, comes when the Arctic Council stands between Russia and something it wants.

Categories: Alaska News

Why Alaska women earn less and what they can do about it

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2014-04-08 17:29

Engineers make some of the highest salaries in the state, but only 18 percent of them are women. (Photo courtesy of BP p.l.c.)

President Obama signed executive orders on Tuesday that aim to tighten the pay gap between men and women.

The president’s actions took place on National Equal Pay Day, a day symbolizing how long women have to work into 2014 to catch up with what men earned in 2013. The day originated in 1996 to raise public awareness of the wage gap.

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In Alaska, a statute prohibits employers from paying females less than males for the same work. But there’s still a pay gap – for every dollar a man in Alaska earns, a woman earns roughly 67 cents.

State Labor Economist Caroline Schultz says occupation and industry selection is the main reason behind the pay gap.

“Women are never going to earn as much as men if women don’t choose to pursue high paying occupations,” Schultz says.

Engineers make some of the highest salaries in Alaska, but only 18 percent of them are women. They’re making on average $72,000 a year while their male counterparts make close to $96,000.

Supervisors in oil, mining and construction industries also make high salaries. Only 5 percent of them are women, and on average they earn less than half what men make in the same position. These 2012 figures from the Department of Labor represent total annual earnings and don’t distinguish between full- and part-time work.

Schultz says work flexibility is another factor in the gender pay gap. Alaska has a predominance of jobs in natural resources, often in remote work sites.

“That can sometimes be more of a challenge to women, because women traditionally take on a larger burden when it comes to family care. So, you know, if they need to leave early to pick up the kid from school, a woman is more likely to take a flexible job, maybe that pays a little bit less, than a man is,” Schultz says.

What women can do about it

Tamiah Liebersbach is the Women’s Economic Empowerment Center coordinator for YWCA Alaska. She says discrimination is a contributing factor to the pay gap, even if it’s not done on purpose.

“Some sort of idea that maybe a woman isn’t as committed to her career, if she has a family – those kinds of stereotypes do play a role, I think, in not just the wage that a woman gets, but the opportunities that she’s given to build her career,” Liebersbach says.

YWCA Alaska will host a Women’s Economic Empowerment Summit for the first time on May 5, Alaska’s Equal Pay Day. The summit includes a session on the art of negotiation. Wage disparity is also a focus of the Alaska Women’s Summit, established last year after state Sen. Lesil McGuire commissioned a report on the status of women in Alaska.

Barbara Belknap is a Juneau activist working on the issue of equal pay for women. She’s also anAlaska delegate to Vision 2020, a national coalition focused on women’s economic and social equality.

Belknap says negotiating salary is one way for women to take the matter of pay disparity into their own hands.

“Before you go into the interview, understand what the pay scale is for what you’re applying for, know what the going rate is, do some research,” Belknap says.

A couple of years ago, Belknap made a YouTube video demonstrating how to successfully negotiate pay.

Through the video, Belknap is spreading a message she never got. She says it never occurred to her to negotiate salary when she was appointed executive director of Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute in 1997.

“They said, ‘Well, we were paying your predecessor too much money, so your salary is going to be this much money.’ And I remember the little thought bubble in my head going, ‘Oh really, really?’ But I didn’t say anything,” Belknap says.

Belknap received pay increases over time, but says her starting salary was $8,000 less than the starting salary of her male predecessor.

State economist Schultz says whatever the reasons may be for the pay gap, the result is the same – women have less money:

“At the end of the year, at the end of a lifespan, at the end of a career, women have earned less money consistently through 25, 30, 35 years of working. And that really adds up.”

And this fact, Schultz says, leads to other questions.

“What does it mean for Alaska’s economy and what does it mean for women in Alaska, that in general, they have less money than men do? How does it affect their spending? How does it affect child care? How does it affect children?”

Schultz doesn’t know the answers. She also doesn’t know what happens in corporate offices during salary talks, but as an economist, she’ll continue to collect and present the data that could lead to decreasing Alaska’s pay gap.

Categories: Alaska News

Amendment To Restructure Judicial Council Stalls Before Vote

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2014-04-08 17:28

A constitutional amendment that would reconfigure a commission tasked with vetting judges was pulled from a vote in the Alaska Senate on Monday and then again on Tuesday after struggling to pick up the necessary support.

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Senate Joint Resolution 21 would make it so that the governor’s public appointees on the Judicial Council would outnumber the attorney members two to one. It would also require the attorney members to go through confirmation by the Legislature. Sen. Pete Kelly, a Fairbanks Republican, has pitched it as a way to add more rural members to the council and increase public oversight of judicial selection.

The Alaska Court System and the Alaska Federation of Natives have come out against the amendment, and Democrats in the minority have argued that the change would allow the Legislature to stack the judiciary. In recent years, the Judicial Council has been a political target for conservative advocacy groups that are unhappy with the way the courts have ruled on abortion cases.

Because SJR 21 would amend the Constitution, it needs approval from two-thirds of the Legislature. Sen. Lesil McGuire, who chairs the Rules Committee tasked with scheduling the measure, says it’s not quite there yet. Enough urban Democrats and moderate Republicans have registered opposition to the amendment to keep it from going through.

“It’s a question about whether the votes are there for sure.”

The measure has been re-scheduled for Wednesday’s calendar to give Kelly the chance to secure another ‘yes’ vote.

This is the second time this session a constitutional amendment was scheduled for a vote in the Senate only to be withdrawn from consideration. The other constitutional measure would have allowed public funds to be spent at private schools, including religious ones.

McGuire says more constitutional amendments have gotten close to passage this year because the Senate is no longer controlled by a bipartisan coalition.

“Most of the things that were on the far right and the far left were kept off the table,” says McGuire. “So the agenda over the past six years was right down the middle of the road for Alaskans. So, what you’re seeing now is a conservative Senate. And as a result of that, you’ve got members that have been waiting to get out of that starting gate with their conservative messages.”

If Kelly’s amendment fails to attract more support, it could be held in the Rules Committee indefinitely.

Any constitutional amendment that passes the Legislature gets put on the ballot for a vote.

This story has been updated to reflect Tuesday’s floor action.

Categories: Alaska News

State Reviewing Sulfolane Cleanup Standards

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2014-04-08 17:27

The state will take another look at its cleanup standard for sulfolane contaminated water in North Pole. Last November, the Department of Environmental Conservation set a 14 parts per billion clean up threshold for groundwater tainted by historic spills at the Flint Hills North Pole Refinery.

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Categories: Alaska News

Students Compete For Spot In National Geography Bee

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2014-04-08 17:26

Students from across the state competed in the 26th annual Alaska State Geographic Bee last week in hopes of winning a spot in this year’s national competition in Washington D.C. 101 students vied for the spot.

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Categories: Alaska News

Alaska News Nightly: April 8, 2014

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2014-04-08 17:23

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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Alaska Dispatch To Buy Anchorage Daily News

Josh Edge, APRN – Anchorage

Alaska Dispatch is making an aggressive move to position itself at the forefront of the state’s media landscape. It announced Tuesday that it’s buying the Anchorage Daily News – Alaska’s largest newspaper.

Can an Aggressive Russia Remain Our Nice Arctic Neighbor?

Liz Ruskin, APRN – Washington DC

Pro-Russian activists seized public buildings in eastern Ukraine this week, and U.S. officials say they suspect the actions were not spontaneous but engineered by Russia. That, combined with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s recent annexation of Crimea has Arctic experts wondering what this means for international relations in the Arctic and if the era of cooperation with Russia is over.

Executive Orders Aim To Tighten Pay Gap

Lisa Phu, KTOO – Juneau

President Obama signed executive orders on Tuesday that aim to tighten the pay gap between men and women.

The President’s actions take place on national Equal Pay Day, a day symbolizing how long women have to work into 2014 to catch up with what men earned in 2013. Equal Pay Day originated in 1996 to raise public awareness of the wage gap.

While discrimination may contribute to Alaska’s pay gap, a state economist says other factors are just as important.

Amendment To Restructure Judicial Council Stalls Before Vote

Alexandra Gutierrez, APRN – Juneau

A constitutional amendment that would reconfigure a commission tasked with vetting judges was pulled from a vote in the Alaska Senate on Monday and then again on Tuesday after struggling to pick up the necessary support. Under Senate Joint Resolution 21 the governor’s public appointees on the Judicial Council would outnumber the attorney members two to one.

House Strikes Retirement Plan, Funding Formula Change From Education Bill

Alexandra Gutierrez, APRN – Juneau

The Alaska House of Representative passed a sweeping education bill Monday night, but only after removing some of its more contentious elements and adding another pot of education funding.

State Reviewing Sulfolane Cleanup Standards

Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks

The state will take another look at its cleanup standard for sulfolane contaminated water in North Pole. Last November, the Department of Environmental Conservation set a 14 parts per billion clean up threshold for groundwater tainted by historic spills at the Flint Hills North Pole Refinery.

Students Compete For Spot In National Geography Bee

Jolene Almendarez, APRN – Anchorage

Students from across the state competed in the 26th annual Alaska State Geographic Bee last week in hopes of winning a spot in this year’s national competition in Washington D.C. 101 students vied for the spot.

Categories: Alaska News

House Strikes Retirement Plan, Funding Formula Change From Education Bill

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2014-04-08 01:16

The Alaska House of Representative passed a sweeping education bill Monday night, but only after removing some of its more contentious elements and adding another pot of education funding.

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At the stroke of midnight, the House voted in favor of an education bill that nobody seemed particularly thrilled about.

It gave schools too much money.

“I’m concerned that this isn’t sustainable,” said Eagle River Republican Lora Reinbold in closing remarks.

It gave them too little money.

“The bill in front of us now will lead to additional cuts,” said Anchorage Democrat Geran Tarr.

It did not hold schools accountable enough.

“I think the educational institutions in this state should be coming to us and proving to us what they’re returning on our investment,” said Chickaloon Republican Eric Feige.

But in the end, a large majority of the House agreed with Anchorage Republican Craig Johnson.

“I will not sacrifice the good for the perfect,” said Johnson. “I will not say no to something that takes us forward, even if it’s baby steps.”

The final vote was 28-11, and the split was largely on caucus lines. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, of Sitka, was the lone Minority Democrat who voted in favor of the bill. Mark Neuman, of Big Lake, and Tammie Wilson, of North Pole, were the only Republicans to vote against it.

The bill was introduced by Gov. Sean Parnell as the marquee legislation to what he dubbed the “education session.” Included in its 60-odd sections are provisions that encourage vocational education, set up a grant program for new charter schools, and allow students to earn credit for testing out of classes.

But the two farthest-reaching components of the bill were not a part of the governor’s original bill. They were additions the House Finance Committee made last week, and neither survived the floor session.

One restructured the teacher retirement payment plan so that the Legislature would stretch out its pension obligation over time, by making appropriations from the state’s pool of tax revenue. Gov. Sean Parnell has advocated for an opposite approach that involves putting a large amount of money into the retirement trust upfront, and then ideally paying pensions out over a shorter timeline with the help of investment earnings.

Rep. Cathy Muñoz, a Juneau Republican, successfully brought forward an amendment wiping the bill free of all changes to the retirement system. During her floor speech, she noted the plan included in the bill would stretch out retirement payments an extra 40 years and cost the state $15 billion more than Parnell’s plan, according to an actuarial analysis.

“The risk of continuing to balloon the unfunded liability is real, and in turn the impact to our credit rating is also real,” said Muñoz.

The other major part of the bill that was scrapped dealt with the school funding formula. The House Finance Committee had tweaked the formula in a way that favored large schools, without including a similar boost for small schools.

Rep. Bryce Edgmon, a Dillingham Democrat who caucuses with the majority, offered an amendment restoring the original formula. He said the formula change had not been properly vetted. He also framed the amendment as a matter of fairness, acknowledging that while the urban schools need money, “so do the smaller schools.”

Edgmon’s amendment also added $30 million in one-time school funding to the bill. That’s in addition to an increase to the base student allocation that’s worth $225 million over three years. By comparison, the governor proposed increasing per-student funding by $100 million over that same period of time.

While some Democrats in the minority said the funding package on the table was better than nothing, it still did not go far enough for most. As a caucus, they offered a failed amendment that would have put $450 million toward the base student allocation stretched over three years.

Democrats also attempted to get rid of language in the bill forbidding the state from spending money to implement Common Core standards, which they noted resembled Alaska’s own standards. They also tried to limit a new tax credit so that it would only cover contributions made to public schools, not private ones. None of their amendments were successful.

The bill will now be sent to the Senate.

Categories: Alaska News

Sealaska Spring Dividends Reflect Zero Corporate Earnings

APRN Alaska News - Mon, 2014-04-07 23:48

Sealaska Corp. does not appear to be making much – if any – money. The regional Native corporation’s spring distribution to shareholders, which is basically a dividend, includes no corporate revenues.

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That’s according to an April 3 statement to shareholders.

Sealaska distributes payments to its almost 21,600 shareholders twice a year. In recent years, they’ve ranged from about $400 to around $1,100.

The money usually comes from three sources. The largest is a pool of all 12 regional Native corporations’ resource earnings. Another is Sealaska’s permanent fund. The third is profits from the corporation’s businesses.

“Usually there are. This year there isn’t any operating revenue included in the formula,” says Chris McNeil Jr., president and CEO of the Juneau-headquartered corporation.

That can mean little or no revenues are available for distribution. McNeil won’t say why Sealaska has no revenues to contribute. But he says the information will be in the corporation’s annual report, due out in May.

Read last year’s annual report

“I can’t really provide any details on it until we publish. And we’ve done that traditionally to make sure there is no miscommunication about what is being transmitted to shareholders,” he says.

“Sealaska is so opaque. They don’t really share much about their finances,” says Brad Fluetsch, a shareholder who runs a Facebook page highly critical of Sealaska. He’s also founder and managing director of Juneau-based Fortress Investment Management LLC.

He says even the annual reports lack detail. Earnings and losses are reported in sectors, so the reader often can’t tell which individual businesses are making or losing cash.

Still, Fluetsch says Sealaska’s board was honest when it approved a distribution without corporate revenues.

“I’ll give them kudos for that because that did take some effort on their part. Now what they need to do is hire a management team that can make that zero go away and actually turn it into a positive number,” he says.

McNeil says the biggest contributor to the pooled resource earnings is the owner of Northwest Alaska’s Red Dog Mine.

“At this point, NANA is the principal distributor. But cumulatively, Arctic Slope has distributed more revenue than any other corporation,” McNeil says.

Sealaska was a major contributor before its timber subsidiary starting running out of trees.

McNeil is retiring this summer and the search for a replacement is underway.

This spring distribution totals about $12 million. It gives most shareholders $721 per 100 shares. Other shareholder classes receive only $57 per 100 shares. Most shareholders own 100 shares, though it varies because of gifting or inheritance.

Categories: Alaska News
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