Despite the fierce fights waged in Congress over the Affordable Care Act, a bill to loosen the employer mandate sailed through the U.S. House last week.
The vote was unanimous for what’s called the “Hire More Heroes Act.” The aim is to encourage small businesses to employ veterans. The bill says veterans wouldn’t count toward the 50-employee threshold that determines whether a business is required to offer health insurance. Sen. Lisa Murkowski is one of the co-sponsors of the Senate version of the bill.
“When they get out of the military they’re looking for employment,” Murkowski said. “We want there to be no barriers.”
The bill would apply to employers who hire anyone with heath care covered by the VA or Tricare, the military insurance program, so it appears to include active duty family members, too. In Alaska, one in 10 residents is a veteran, according to the VA. Murkowski says the bill wouldn’t diminish the health care law.
“If your federal government is caring for your health care needs in one area, do we need to do a double dip, if you will, by requiring the employer to also provide for that level of care?” she said. “So I don’t think it undercuts the Affordable Care Act in any way.”
This year, for the first time, businesses with 100 or more full-time employees are required to offer health insurance or pay a penalty. The threshold drops to 50 employees next year.
The Congressional Budget Office estimates the “Hire More Heroes” bill would cost the government some $86 million a year in lost penalty revenues.
The U.S. Forest Service is holding a public meeting tonight to discuss a proposed fee increase at the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center starting with the 2016 tourist season.
Not only is the agency looking to raise the fee for the visitor center itself, but for the first time it wants to charge people for the use of some nearby trails.
Visitor center director John Neary says it would be the first cost increase at the facility since 1999, and would help offset federal budget cuts.
“What Congress allocates us is in rapid decline,” Neary says. “My budget – the Congressionally-allocated portion – has dropped 50 percent in just the last couple of years, not to mention previous drops.”
Under the proposal, the visitor center entry fee would go from $3 to $5, and a new $5 fee would be charged to use the Photo Point Trail, the Steep Creek Trail, the viewing pavilion, bus shelter and restrooms.
Other areas near the Mendenhall Glacier, including the Nugget Falls Trail, the Trail of Time and the East and West Glacier Trails would continue to be free. Seasonal passes would cost $10 and the fees would be waived during the tourism off season.
While reaction on some message boards has been largely negative since the proposal was announced last month, Neary says the written comments he’s received have been 2-to-1 in favor of the increase.
“I’m aware that there’s a significant amount of people that have concerns,” he says. “I’m not hearing from them by email. So that is the official way to comment is by email, by letter or by phone call directly to us.”
Or, he says, you can go to tonight’s meeting at the visitor center from 5 to 7 p.m.
The comment period lasts through Jan. 30. After that, the agency will consider all of the comments and make a final decision later this year.
Most placer mining operations in Alaska are small, but combined they bring in more than $100 million a year. That’s according to a new study from the Alaska Miners Association looking at the economic impact of placer mine operations across the state.
In 2013 alone, the report finds placer mining—or the mining of streambeds and other deposits carried by water or erosion for minerals—was active in nearly 300 operations around the state, about 30 percent of which are in Nome. Alicia Amberg, the deputy director of the Alaska Miners Association, said it can be difficult to describe a “typical’ placer operation, but many have elements in common.
“Most of our placer mining operations in the state mine for gold,” Amberg said, referring to the new report. She added most are “in remote locations” not accessible by road, with miners relying instead on plane or ATV. “Our average amount of employees on the placer operations in the state are around four,” with many family-run operations, she added.
For years, placer mining has been a steady trade for small-scale operations, but exact numbers as to how many people engage in placer mining, and just how much money placer operations generate has been hard to know. The new study commissioned by the AMA from research firm the McDowell Group combines a statewide survey of miners with data from the Department of Natural Resources to shed light on just how big of an economic engine placer operations truly are.
“The big takeaway from this report is that there is a significant economic impact of placer mining in the state of Alaska,” Amberg said. “That’s jobs, revenue, money that is spent in our state, and that … placer mining truly is the seventh ‘large mine’ in the state of Alaska.”
The reports finds placer operations directly employ up to 1,200 workers every year. Most are seasonal jobs, and more than 70 percent of workers are Alaska residents. And the report says the operations pay well, too, with more than $65 million in goods and services spent keeping the operations going, of which nearly 90 percent is spent in-state.
Barb Nickels with the Nome Chamber of Commerce said that is consistent with what they see on the ground in Nome during the busy summer mining season.
“The economic impact of mining to our Nome economy is certainly positive,” Nickels said, reading from a prepared statement. “Jobs have been created for many local residents. Multiple local businesses that provide goods and services have reported increased sales and income during these months. Even the businesses that offer the daily needs such as our grocery stores and restaurants have reported increased sales.”
That’s partially borne out by the City of Nome’s own figures, which shows a peak in collected sales tax during the summer, with the numbers generally peaking higher every summer for the last five years.
Deantha Crockett, the Executive Director at AMA, said even as placer mines disappear elsewhere in the country, the report shows they are still a viable mining option in Alaska.
“There are far fewer placer miners today in the United States than there were three or four decades ago, and frankly, 99 percent of them are in Alaska,” she said. “We’ve got this vibrant industry that, there’s a perception out there should be a historic practice … that’s not the case here in Alaska. It’s a healthy industry and it has really important economic impacts.”
The State of Alaska also makes money of active placer minds through royalties, taxes, claim rentals, and other fees, but the AMA cites “confidentiality issues and other data restrictions” as keeping an exact dollar estimate for that state revenue out of the report.
After a strange freeze up and a couple winter thaws, the Kuskokwim 300 will follow the Kuskokwim River exclusively from Bethel to Aniak and back on the same trail.
Race manager Zach Fansler says the giant ice jam below Kalskag near Coffee’s Bend has been cleared.
“They went through with an ATV and with a snowmachine to kind of test the depths, then they used preliminarily a dozer from Upper Kalskag, went through and kind of cleared an initial path, then they used a truck plow I think to go from Kalskag to Aniak to clear the initial pass,” Fansler said. “Then they followed that with some heavy-duty graders that were I think from the Traditional Village of Napaimute.”
The ice jam formed on the river in November and consists of about four miles of sheets and boulders of ice three to five feet tall. The Kuskokwim 300 is an approximately 300-mile long sled-dog race that usually includes some trails off the river, but with almost no snow on the ground and icy conditions, organizers decided to stick to the river. Clearing a trail through the ice jumble was made possible through joint funding and manpower from nine organizations and tribes in the area.
“It’s still bumpy and windy, were gonna keep working on improving it and the weather will help,” Mark Leary, a resident of Napaimute who was part of the crew said. ”If it snows it’ll get better, if it rains it’ll get better, and people driving on it more and more it’ll get better.”
Before they cleared a path through the ice jam, Leary says it was nearly impossible to get through it.
“Well it was hard and slow, there was no danger, there’s always some risk involved when you’re working on the ice but everybody that was involved is experienced,” he said. “We were just glad when we were through it, we were glad, everybody shook hands and we talked about how to keep working on it to make it better and safer for everybody.”
Leary says this is the third a jam like formed in his lifetime, and the first time so many village organizations have gotten involved. The Kuskokwim 300 race is scheduled to start Friday, Jan. 16 at 6:30 p.m. 31 mushers are signed up.
Learn more at the K300 here.
The incoming Alaska Senate president has decided against hiring a former state military affairs official to help the Senate majority press office this session.
Sen. Kevin Meyer last week told colleagues he had decided to hire McHugh Pierre on contract to work in the press shop. But details had not been worked out, and no contract had been signed.
Pierre last year was asked to resign his job as a deputy commissioner in the state Department of Military and Veterans Affairs as part of a leadership change following a scathing report on problems within the Alaska National Guard. Pierre said he did nothing wrong.
Meyer told The Associated Press on Tuesday that Pierre could have become a distraction for the caucus.
When Gov. Bill Walker took office, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game was in the midst of overhauling its habitat policies. Management plans for 3 million acres of fish, bird, bear, and moose habitat were being rewritten in a way that could allow more development. The way Division Director Randy Bates described the approach in a 2013 interview with APRN was: “The idea is can we get to yes instead of can we justify no.”
Now, Bates has been removed from his position, and the new administration wants to reevaluate the state’s approach to land management. APRN’s Alexandra Gutierrez reports.
The Habitat Division was all set to release its first batch of revisions in December. They were overhauling plans for the McNeil River refuge, a popular grizzly viewing destination, and for Potter Marsh in Anchorage and the Mendenhall Wetlands in the Mat-Su. But when Republican Sean Parnell lost his reelection bid for governor, all of that was put on hold.
The new Fish and Game commissioner, Sam Cotten, says there were concerns that the management overhaul would reduce the level of public involvement. He says he wants people to have a greater role in land management decisions.
“And it appears that wasn’t the practice in this instance,” says Cotten.
Because of that, Habitat Director Randy Bates has stepped down from his position. Gov. Bill Walker accepted his resignation on Monday, and is currently considering candidates for the vacancy.
Bates began changing his division’s approach to management plans in 2013. Before that, management plans involved a multi-phase review process that involved stakeholders working through the rules with state biologists. The plans often contained sections on local knowledge, on research, and on education and outreach.
The new approach would limit the opportunities for public involvement to one comment period, with plans released in a batch instead of individually. Only one plan – the plan for the Dude Creek Critical Habitat Area in Gustavus – has been edited in the new style, and the draft removed the mission of cooperating with the community and considering cumulative impacts of different types of human activity. Sections prohibiting oil and gas extraction and mining were also rewritten so permits could be issued for those activities.
According to an internal e-mail leaked to APRN in 2013, habitat biologists were prohibited from discussing changes with the public without prior approval.
Bates did not respond to e-mails to his personal and work accounts for this story. But previously he has said the changes were necessary to simplify the habitat rules and to give Fish and Game more flexibility with the management of sensitive lands. But Bob Shavelson, the executive director of Cook Inletkeeper and a critic of the approach, says the watered down existing rules.
“‘Streamlining’ is a code for substantive rollbacks. It sounds good — it’s all about efficiencies, and making thing more predictable,” says Shavelson. “But in 100 percent of the cases we see the term ‘streamlining,’ it’s really about rolling back substantive protections. And what that meant in this case was cutting Alaskans out of their rightful role in shaping these policies for our critical habitat areas across the state.”
Shavelson was part of a campaign to stop the revisions of the management plans. This fall, nearly 1,000 people signed a petition expressing displeasure with the new approach. Shavelson says the removal of leadership is a sign their message is getting through.
“This should be a public process,” says Shavelson. “It shouldn’t be happening behind closed doors. We want to have a discussion about the management plans that guide the protection of these special areas across this state.”
Bates is the second Fish and Game director to be removed since Walker took office. His resignation is one of a number of personnel changes that signal a shift from the Parnell administration’s approach to land management.
In December, the governor accepted the resignation of Doug Vincent-Lang, who directed the Division of Wildlife Conservation. Vincent-Lang was also involved with the special areas revisions and has attracted complaints from conservationists, who most recently opposed his decision to terminate a monitoring program at the Round Island walrus sanctuary.
That same week, Walker also installed Sam Cotten, a former Democratic legislator, as his interim Fish and Game commissioner. Cotten has openly criticized one of the Parnell administration’s major priorities, a permitting bill known as House Bill 77 that failed after conservation, fishing, and Native groups fought against it. Last year, Cotten cut an ad attacking former Natural Resource Commissioner and now-Sen. Dan Sullivan for promoting that bill.
Cotten says that when it comes to land management and permitting, the Walker administration does not plan to follow his predecessor’s lead.
“I think we’ll see a different approach there,” says Cotten.
He expects a replacement for Bates will be named later this week.
The community of Adak depends on its fish processing plant for jobs and tax revenue. But they’ve struggled to keep the lights on over the years.
Now, the plant’s latest operator is looking for new partners to help shoulder the financial burden.
The Adak Cod Cooperative formed in 2013, when two businessmen with experience in salmon fisheries decided to branch out.
They signed a 20-year lease for the facility on Adak. And they agreed to pay more than $2 million to the city government for the equipment inside.
But after one season processing Pacific cod, the owners decided they couldn’t continue on their own.
Rudy Tsukada is the president for Aleut Enterprise, which owns the factory building. He says it presents a lot of financial challenges.
“From our perspective, that facility — I would not say it’s a huge moneymaker, if any,” Tsukada says. “It’s more of an economic driver for the entire community. And of course that includes fuel sales for my subsidiary [Adak Petroleum] as well.”
The high cost of energy has been a stumbling block for some tenants at the fish plant. When Icicle Seafoods walked away from their lease after just two years, the company cited concerns about the Pacific cod stock.
But Adak Cod Cooperative is still in the picture. Tsukada says they’ve been negotiating with large processing conglomerates and smaller businesses to take over operations.
As far as the landlord is concerned, Tsukada says Aleut Enterprise would prefer to have both.
“We have 15 to 20 million pounds of potential cod landings for the Tridents, the Icicles of the world,” he says. “But we also have room for things like specialty live crab, a decent halibut fishery, as well as a black cod fishery.”
Those products could be packaged up fresh and flown off the island, generating revenue from air freight. Adak city manager Layton Lockett says that’s especially important now that the community’s federal flight subsidies are up for renewal.
Alaska Airlines has been flying jets to Adak under a two-year, $4 million Essential Air Service agreement. Before it expires in October, the Department of Transportation is taking proposalsfrom interested airlines.
In the meantime, Lockett and Tsukada say the deal to operate Adak’s fish plant could be finished by the end of January.
Transportation Commish Ousted Following Defense Of Project
Joaqlin Estus, KNBA – Anchorage
The head of the state Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, Commissioner Pat Kemp, stepped down today.
Young, Credited With Effectiveness, Says Personality is Part of his M.O.
Liz Ruskin, APRN – Washington DC
Alaska Congressman Don Young was sworn in today for his 22nd term, having missed the main swearing-in last week due to the death of his brother. Recent research by two political scientists say Young is one of the 20 most effective lawmakers in the U.S. House. Nationally, though, he is more known for his big, sometimes brash personality.
Lonnie Dupre Becomes First Ever January Denali Soloist
Phillip Manning, KTNA – Talkeetna
History has been made on North America’s highest peak. On Sunday, Lonnie Dupre became the first solo climber to summit Denali in the month of January.
Juneau Assembly Considers Moratorium On Legal Pot Shops
Casey Kelly, KTOO – Juneau
The Juneau Assembly will vote Monday on two measures restricting the manufacture, sale and use of legal marijuana in the city.
Anchorage Legislators Consider Ways To Cut Capital Costs
Anne Hillman, KSKA – Anchorage
Before heading to Juneau, Anchorage Legislators are listening to community input on ways to cut state spending. They hosted a listening session on Saturday at the Loussac Library. Some community members urged the legislature to cut local capital projects, like the U-Med District Northern Access Road.
Adak Fish Plant Seeks Additional Operators
Lauren Rosenthal, KUCB – Unalaska
The community of Adak depends on its fish processing plant for jobs and tax revenue. But they’ve struggled to keep the lights on over the years. Now, the plant’s latest operator is looking for new partners to help shoulder the financial burden.
News-Miner to Begin Requiring Electronic Subscriptions for Frequent Online Visitors
Tim Ellis, KUAC – Fairbanks
The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner will soon begin charging a fee to frequent visitors to its website. The so-called “paywalls” are a growing trend in the U.S. newspaper industry, used by some as way to recoup revenue lost to online news sites. But many in the newspaper industry disagree over whether paywalls hurt or help online readership. And that disagreement is being played out between the Alaska’s two top news sites.
Ice Sculptures Take Shape In Downtown Anchorage
Zachariah Hughes, KSKA – Anchorage
Artists wielding chainsaws and drills spent three days this weekend carving blocks of ice into salmon and sea-dragons in downtown Anchorage.
Artists wielding sanders and drills spent three days this weekend carving blocks of ice into salmon and sea-dragons in downtown Anchorage, showcasing all you can create out of a one-and-a-half ton block of frozen water.
The Crystal Gallery of Ice is comprised of a series of sparkling ice sculptures spread over the winding walkway of Town Square on Anchorage’s 6th Avenue, beside the Performing Arts Center.
Families and smartphone-photographers alike swarmed around two figures inspired by Pablo Picasso’s cubist paintings as the whirl of power-tools rose and fell.
“The piece is called ‘Symphony in Ice,’ says Carol Lewando, an art teacher with the Anchorage Public Schools, and one half of the sculpting team. “We wanted to make musicians, so one is a tall bass player, and the other one is a guitar–or you could say a mandolin, depending on the size.”
Lewando and her husband have carved a piece in the annual event for the last 15 years. They were one of eight teams competing. And in between greeting students and acquaintances, Lewando is put the finishing touches on the glassy surfaces of the stocky guitarist while the sun set.
“Once we get pretty much finished then we start playing around with texture,” Lewando explained. “It’s amazing how all our pieces have all transformed from a 3,000 pound block of ice that was six feet tall by four feet by two feet–it’s just fascinating,” she added with a laugh.
The particular type of ice used in the Crystal Gallery is called “Arctic Diamond,” and was hauled down from Fairbanks by rail and road through corporate donations. The three day event is sponsored by the Anchorage Downtown Partnership, drawing teams from all over Alaska, and from as far away as Harbin, China.
Lewando loves how easily ice can be molded into new shapes with chainsaws and chizzles, and the way sunlight, temperature, and wind all change the works from minute to minute.
“Really the reward is starting and finishing and not getting injured,” she throws in jovially, “and creating something beautiful.”
A sculpture of a mythological dragon titled “Kirin” by William Hartgrove and John Trescott took first place. But “Symphony in Ice” made off with the Carver’s Choice Award
Lewando hopes people will come look at the works now through February, as the weather reclaims each statue. Although with ice carving, that is par for the course.
The head of the state Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, Commissioner Pat Kemp, stepped down today.
Walker’s spokesperson Grace Jang says Walker accepted Kemp’s resignation because their philosophies and objectives were not aligned.
On December 24th, Walker sent out an administrative order directing agencies to halt discretionary spending on six projects, and to submit funding status reports on the projects.
Jang says Kemp’s position on the Knik Arm bridge and the Juneau Access Road were at odds with the Governor’s position:
“Commissioner Kemp stated in his memo that he essentially is taking a different stance than the governor,” Jang said. “And, like I said, all commissioners serve at the pleasure of the governor.
For his part, Kemp says he didn’t resign, he retired. He says he had already emptied his desk when the new administration asked him to stay on as acting Commissioner. He says he thought the memo was a status report, not a position paper.
“I sent the memo to the governor and OMB director and just gave the facts on the two projects on federal payback and things like that,” Kemp said. “I had no idea i was not in line with the governor’s ideas.”
In his memo, Kemp said halting or delaying the projects likely will result in penalties from federal funding agencies. He said they’d been authorized by repeated Legislative appropriations, and are cost-effective opportunities to improve transportation.
Two Rivers musher Allen Moore has won the Copper Basin 300 for the third year in a row.
This is Moore’s sixth overall win in the mid-distance sled dog race. In the past, Moore has called the race the “mini-Yukon Quest,” for of it’s notoriously challenging trail and often extreme weather conditions.
This year’s race saw temperatures of 20 degrees above zero and warmer, with some snow falling Sunday along the 300-mile loop trail that starts and finishes in Glenallen.
Teams did not face any major weather, but warm conditions made for open water on the trail. In all 49 teams started the race Saturday. Three have scratched.
Behind Moore was Ray Reddington, Junior, placing second. Teams will continue to cross the finish line through the night and into tomorrow.
Alaska Congressman Don Young was sworn in today for his 22nd term. He’s starting the term a week later than his peers, having missed the main swearing-in last week due to the death of his brother. But he’s ready to drop a passel of bills
“We will be introducing a whole bunch ‘em …. ANWR of course,” He said today, looking over his list. “Niblack and Bokan mountain area, Kiln drying bill, Alexander Creek recognition bill — we’re going to move that finally — Alaska Native migratory bill, (and the) Alaska national archives bill, Alaska Native Corporations conservation easement bill.”
If the past is any guide, he stands a better than average change of getting his bills to move through Congress. In a new book by two political science professors, the Alaska Congressman is held up as one of the most able Republicans in House of Representatives.
“The reason we wrote him up in the book and list him among our top 20 representatives over the last 40 years, is that he keeps coming up in the top 10 in his party,” says Craig Volden, of the University of Virginia. He and co-Author Alan Wiseman wrote “Legislative Effectiveness in the United States Congress.” They analyzed all of the House bills introduced from 1973 through 2012 to gauge the legislative effectiveness of each member.
“So we traced what did they sponsor, how far did it move through the process, how was it reported on, what did they say about why they were pursuing the legislative strategies that they were, and so on,” Volden said.
He says Young scored highly year after year. He was 11th in his freshman term, out of nearly 200 Republicans. Eight times, according to their formula, Young was the No. 1 most effective Republican. When he chaired the House Natural Resources Committee Young was really at the top of his game, Prof. Volden says, even when compared to other chairmen.
“We traced all of the chairs of that committee and he was right on there with Mo Udall who famously ran that committee for more than a decade,” he said. “Committee chairs, we find, are effective for a variety of reasons. Some are effective because they draw attention to new issues or they reach across party lines and it seemed that in that position Rep. Young used both of those sets of skills.”
And yet, these aren’t the qualities that typically earn Young national headlines. He’s better known for his feistiness and for making brash remarks he sometimes has to apologize for. Even the animal heads in his office have drawn more attention than his legislative effectiveness. Professor Volden says these qualities weren’t part of the research. He credits Young’s specialization. In the book, Volden describes Young’s legislative strategy as “All Alaska, all the time.”
Zack Fields, spokesman for the Alaska Democratic Party, says it’s not so impressive that Young specializes in Alaska.
“You’d certainly hope that he would since he’s the only Alaska member” Fields said.
Fields knocks the study’s methodology because it only looks at bills a member sponsors, so it doesn’t take into account other ways members exhibit their effectiveness, such as by convincing their colleagues to tuck a bill into must-pass legislation. Very few stand-alone bills pass these days, so Fields says it’s not a good measure of effectiveness.
Young says he’s not surprised by his high rankings, because he’s been keeping track, too. And he says if that’s not what he’s known for — well, that’s all part of his M.O.
“It is something I’ve used all my life, that I try not to appear — and it’s not hard to do — very bright. It throws people a little bit off,” he said.
Young says to achieve what he’s elected to do, he uses every wily tactic he can.
History has been made on North America’s highest peak. On Sunday, Lonnie Dupre became the first solo climber to summit Denali in the month of January.
The news of Lonnie Dupre’s summit came early on Sunday afternoon. His support team received a message from Dupre’s GPS locator that he had made it to the top of North America’s highest peak.
This attempt to be the first successful January soloist on Denali is Dupre’s fourth. His previous tries were thwarted by bad weather high on the mountain. Last Thursday, Lonnie Dupre shared via satellite phone his thoughts on being held back by poor conditions.
“There’s nothing worse than having to stay put, especially when you have eighteen hours of darkness every evening. It makes for very long nights. And, of course, just always having the weather pull the rug out from under you when you were psyched up to go somewhere or do some climbing,” Dupre said.
The weather did eventually break, and allowed Lonnie Dupre to make a summit attempt on Sunday morning. According to his GPS tracker, he reached the summit just after 2:00 pm.
After receiving the GPS notification, Talkeetna Air Taxi pilot Paul Roderick says he took a plane up in an attempt to spot Lonnie Dupre on the descent, which can be just as dangerous as the climb in the winter.
“We were concerned, because the winds were picking up, up high,” Roderick said. “It was gusting to thirty knots, and it didn’t look like a place you wanted to be.”
“From the report I just got, when he summited it wasn’t at windy, but he could feel it picking up, and he just raced off the top.”
Paul Roderick says he began looking in the area of the summit, fearing that Lonnie Dupre had been pinned down by the increasing wind. Then, with daylight fading, he started to look lower on Denali.
“We made it down lower, to about [17,000 feet], and we were getting knocked around pretty good…but luckily he had his headlamp,” Roderick said. “As I was looking at the [17,200 foot] camp, just maybe ten minutes out, we could see this light beaming up at us…It was a good thing to see.”
With weather potentially building to the south, Lonnie Dupre is not wasting any time in his descent. Paul Roderick says Dupre left his camp at 17,200 feet before 4:00 a.m. Monday and could reach base camp at 7,200 feet by Tuesday afternoon, where he will await his flight back to Talkeetna.