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Get Alaska statewide news from the stations of the Alaska Public Radio Network (APRN). With a central news room in Anchorage and contributing reporters spread across the state, we capture news in the Voices of Alaska and share it with the world. Tune in to your local APRN station in Alaska, visit us online at APRN.ORG or subscribe to the Alaska News podcast right here. These are individual news stories, most of which appear in Alaska News Nightly (available as a separate podcast).
Updated: 43 min 9 sec ago

With Education Standoff, Legislature Misses Deadline

Mon, 2014-04-21 08:26

All session, legislative leadership had promised to gavel out early, to be home in time for the Easter holiday. That didn’t happen. In fact, the Legislature did not gavel out at all. With the House and Senate struggling to make a deal on education, lawmakers are forced into extra innings.

By 1 a.m., the second floor of the state capitol had erupted into chaos. The Legislature had blown its midnight deadline, with the capital budget still in committee and debate yet to begin on a sprawling education bill.

The halls were crowded with lobbyists trading gossip, staffers pumping out amendments from copy machines, and dozens of advocates chanting and beating drums after the Native languages bill they were supporting had been held up in the political crossfire (it later passed).

Unless you were part of the Republican leadership team huddled in a closed-door strategy meeting, you were left guessing as to what was going to happen and when you were going to leave the building.

And that applies to lawmakers, too, like Democratic Reps. Chris Tuck and Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins.

TUCK: Tonight? Well, tonight’s over, you know that? It’s morning. Depends on how many people speak under special orders. *laughter*
KREISS-TOMKINS: That’s what you call 1am humor.

When political leadership finally did emerge, details were scarce. Gov. Sean Parnell’s omnibus education bill had blown up because of a disagreement over education funding. The House had put extra money – about $75 million per year –  into the base student allocation, which enshrines it in the formula. The Senate’s version increased the number to $100 million. But the boost comes outside the BSA and is only guaranteed for three years, which has disappointed education advocates.

Sen. Charlie Huggins speaks to reporters during a Senate Majority press availability, March, 4, 2014. (Photo by Skip Gray/Gavel Alaska)

When Senate President Charlie Huggins emerged from the meeting, he ran straight to the bathroom before reporters could surround him. And when he emerged, details on the education plan were scarce.

BOB TKACZ: What’s the problem? Why are you guys hung up so much?
CHARLIE HUGGINS: There is no problem.
TKACZ: Well, it’s past midnight. You’re not done. You were going to get done 48 hours ago, Mr. President.
HUGGINS: Well, we’re waiting on the House. As soon as we get them lined up, we’ll be ready to go.

The House and Senate stayed in session until dawn, tending to the logjam of bills that had built up during the stalemate between the two bodies.

The House passed a popular crime reform bill, a bill that would allow a $250 million power plant at the University Alaska Fairbanks, and a bill that would seal criminal records that did not result in a guilty verdict. The Senate passed a measure requiring more public information on state regulations, and legislation to extend the senior benefits program.

But the education issue remained unresolved. Finally, at 4am, the Senate decided it was time for everyone to go home. Senate Rules Chair Lesil McGuire said it just made more sense to give people some rest before debating one of the session’s priority bills.

“The concern that we had was it’s not good decision making when people are tired,” said McGuire. “We have older members, and you can just kind of see people’s energy levels lowering, and you’re not as sharp as you would be.”

Lawmakers will be coming back in the afternoon, on the 91st day of the legislative session, to take up the education bill again.

 

Categories: Alaska News

Senate Passes Bill Transferring $3 Billion To Retirement System

Sat, 2014-04-19 19:56

After wrestling with how to approach the state’s massive unfunded liability for months, the Alaska Senate unanimously agreed to put $3 billion toward the public employee pension system just hours after their plan was released.

The retirement bill was introduced by Gov. Sean Parnell last week, with the objective of shoring up the retirement trusts funds because the state’s unfunded liability is $12 billion. The House passed the legislation with no changes, but the Senate made two major modifications

Sen. Pete Kelly speaks on the Alaska Senate floor, March 24, 2014. (Photo by Skip Gray/Gavel Alaska)

While Parnell’s bill originally put $2 billion toward the public employee retirement system and $1 billion toward the teacher retirement system, the Senate version swaps those numbers because the teacher system is facing a proportionally larger funding gap.

The Senate also adopted a pension payment plan that involves smaller annual contributions in early years, with those contributions stretched out over a longer period of time. Parnell had proposed putting $500 million toward the retirement system each year for the next two decades. The Senate instead elected to go with funding plan that’s more responsive to how many state retirees are collecting benefits at any point in time. Under the Senate plan, the Legislature is expected to appropriate $350 million to the retirement fund next year, with those payments growing some each year as more retirees begin collecting benefits.

Senate Finance Co-Chair Pete Kelly, a Fairbanks Republican, said the pension plan should allow investment bond raters to experience a “sigh of relief” and help the state maintain a high credit rating. The bill also earned praise from Democrats, who have previously attempted to increase payments in to the retirement system.

The bill passed 20-0.

In a release, Gov. Sean Parnell offered support for the Senate’s version of the bill. The bill will now be sent back to the House for concurrence.

Categories: Alaska News

Effort To Revive Parts Of Controversial Permitting Bill Scrapped

Sat, 2014-04-19 15:11

An effort to resurrect parts of a dead permitting bill was abandoned on Friday night.

Officials from the Department of Natural Resources had been working with Rep. Cathy Muñoz, a Juneau Republican, to attach land exchange language from House Bill 77 to a separate bill concerning land sales.

The exchange provision would have allowed the DNR to trade state land for private land, as long as the properties were of equal value or DNR determined the exchange was in the state’s best interest.

The Department of Natural Resources pitched it as an uncontroversial part of a very controversial and recently abandoned bill. When HB 77 was under consideration, the land exchange portion got scant attention compared to sections on water reservations, appeals, and general permits. But environmental advocates have now objected to the land exchange language, arguing that it removed public notice provisions and could allow for sweetheart deals for development projects.

“Rather than short-cutting the process, we should take care whenever public lands and resources are being traded away to a private entity,” says Lisa Weissler, a former assistant attorney general who opposes the language.

Rep. Muñoz had intended to offer land exchange language amendment to Senate Bill 106 either in a procedural committee or on the House floor. But when SB 106 came for a final vote on a Friday night, no amendment was offered.
Natural Resources Commissioner Joe Balash says the amendment was scrapped because of the immediate pushback.

“We were not going to ask anyone to take heat to do this, and there was a little bit of a heat generated by certain groups. So, no harm, no foul,” says Balash. “Hopefully we’ll have an opportunity in the future to look at some of these things, and specifically the land exchange piece, in a cooler time.”

Balash expects the language to come back next year in a standalone bill.

Categories: Alaska News

Education Activists Wary of Latest School Funding Bill

Fri, 2014-04-18 17:16

Sen. Kevin Meyer (File photo by Skip Gray/Gavel Alaska)

In Juneau, the latest version of the education funding bill emerged today, and it isn’t what school advocates were hoping for. Senate Finance co-chairman Kevin Meyer says it’s a comprehensive bill that would add $100 million to education, and he says the Republican majority is committed to keeping that money in the budget for each of the next three years. He distributed copies of the bill in his committee room this afternoon.

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“Some things you’re going to like, some things you may not like, but hopefully overall it’s going to be a balanced package that everyone can support,” he said.

As they studied the pages, education advocates in the front row looked grim. Alyce Galvin, an Anchorage parent and activist, left the room to study it further.

“My first reaction is Ooo, this sounds a little scary, like we’re still going to have severe cuts, now and particularly even more so in the future because if it is flat, that means it’s not keeping up with any sort of inflation costs,” she said.

Sen. Meyer says the funding amounts to a $300 increase in the BSA, referring to the per-student allocation, but Meyer says the money would not come through the BSA. The bill describes a series of special programs, for Internet upgrades and charter schools, boarding schools and vocational education. Galvin says the special programs may look good, but they are funds the Legislature can give and take.  She says the BSA provides stable funds schools can rely on.

” I think that their methodology is different than what parents want to see,” she said. “I think they’re missing the boat, that most kids are in neighborhood schools, and most parents are seeing neighborhood schools get cuts.”

Meyer says only about a quarter of the $100 million would fund special programs and the rest will go to school districts to use as they like. The bill may undergo more changes and still has to be passed by both chambers.

Categories: Alaska News

Legislators Enter Session’s Home Stretch

Fri, 2014-04-18 17:09

Education isn’t the only thing left on the Legislature’s plate. APRN’s Alexandra Gutierrez is our Capitol correspondent, and she’s joining us today to walk us through what lawmakers need to do in the 60 hours before they gavel out.

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Categories: Alaska News

Series Of Quakes Rattle Northwest Alaska

Fri, 2014-04-18 17:08

A series of earthquakes rattled Northwest Alaska about 40 miles northeast of Kotzebue on Friday morning.

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The tremors began with a strong 5.6 magnitude earthquake at 10:44 Friday morning.

“It’s a very striking earthquake,” Michael West, a state seismologist and the director of the Alaska Earthquake Center in Fairbanks, said. “I’m not aware of anything in the last 30 years in the area anywhere close in size.”

He says the initial quake was the one of the largest on record for the region, and was followed by a series of less-powerful quakes, including a 5.3 magnitude aftershock that struck just 12 minutes later.

“We’ve recorded at least ten or so aftershocks in the last couple of hours, I’m quite sure there are many more that are a lot smaller,” West said.

The quakes occurred about 20 miles northeast of Noatak – a community of 500. The massive zinc mining operation at Red Dog is also 20 miles from the center of the series of quakes.

The centers of the quakes were about 20 miles northeast of the 500-strong community of Noatak, Also 20 away, the Red Dog Mine.

Staff at the Noatak school say it shook the whole building for nearly a minute. Ice fishermen on the Noatak River say it pushed water through their fishing hole and up on top of the ice.

“We have a VHF here and people were going on that,” Amy Mitchell, a health aide in training at the Noatak clinic, said. “Our other health aide and our supervisor were telling people to go under tables and under the doorframe – interesting and scary for me.”

Despite rattling buildings, no damage or injuries have been reported.

Seismologist West says there’s no evidence suggesting the quakes are a prelude to something bigger. Dozens of aftershocks continued through Friday but West says the seismic activity should die down by next week.

“Our alarms have been going crazy all morning with each one of these sort of updating into our system, but they’ll die off into the coming days,” West said.

The Earthquake Information Center says the quake was felt as far away as Kotzebue.

Categories: Alaska News

‘Recall Lindsey Holmes’ Group Takes Petition Dismissal To Court

Fri, 2014-04-18 17:07

Representatives from the “Recall Lindsey Holmes” group and Alaska’s Division of Elections met in State Superior Court on Thursday.

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(Photo by Daysha Eaton, KSKA – Anchorage)

The two sides are arguing over the state’s rejection of a petition to recall Anchorage Representative Lindsey Holmes, who switched parties from Democrat to Republican just days before the 2013 Legislative session was set to gavel in.

Elizabeth Bakalar represents the Alaska Division of Elections. She says the recall process is aimed at dealing with issues of misconduct that arise during a representative’s time in office, and because the event took place before Holmes was sworn in, the circumstances deal more with the candidacy and primary process, which is separate.

“It’s a political discontent, not legal discontent, that’s reflected in the grievances, and the remedy lies with the voters at a regular election and not a special recall election and not with this court today,” Bakalar said.

The recall effort began shortly after Holmes made the announcement in early 2013. Over the next several months, the “Recall Lindsey Holmes” group gathered 904 signatures, turning them into the State Division of Elections in November – nearly 100 more than were necessary.

Rep. Lindsey Holmes speaks to reporters during a House Majority press availability, Feb. 27, 2014. (Photo by Skip Gray/Gavel Alaska)

Roughly a month later, the Division of Elections rejected the petition, saying the effort to recall Holmes did not meet the requirements laid out by the state constitution.

Louis Tozzi, who represents the “Recall Lindsey Holmes” group, disagrees with that assessment, arguing a “lack of fitness” on the part of Representative Holmes’, which would allow the recall effort to move forward.

“The issue is we believe that Ms. Holmes corrupted the intent of the closed primary and that she raised money disingenuously and made misrepresentations to the voters – and that the voters, especially the contributors, feel defrauded by that,” Tozzi said.

At the close of the hearing, Judge Gregory Miller said he would take the arguments into consideration and issue a written opinion at a later date.

Categories: Alaska News

Talkeetna Guides With Everest Experience Speak About Deadly Incident

Fri, 2014-04-18 17:06

On Friday, a deadly incident claimed the lives of at least 12 people on Mount Everest.

Willi Prittie and Ellie Henke, both residents of Talkeetna, have extensive experience on Everest.

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Even with the most current gear and knowledgeable guides, mountain climbing carries inherent risk. Willi Prittie has led six expeditions on Mt. Everest, and currently works as a coordinator for a guide service on Denali. He says that major incidents remind people of the risks involved in trying to reach the world’s tallest peaks.

“It’s a roll of the dice whether you’re going to be there when something big moves or not, and people forget that,” Prittie said. “They forget that you are incurring risk any time you’re going through an area like this, just like you would when you get in your vehicle and you drive down the Parks Highway you’re incurring risk.”

“We forget that as well; we tend to have a very convenient memory as a species on these sorts of things.”

On Friday, reports conflicted regarding where the avalanche actually took place. Willi, says that the description that makes the most sense is that the “avalanche” was in the area of the Khumbu Icefall. An icefall occurs when a glacier, which is essentially a very slow river of ice, crosses steep terrain, causing stress fractures. Willi Prittie says that the Alaska Range also has a number of large icefalls, but that climbing routes avoid them because of differences in conditions.

“Something of that size and scale here in Alaska is far more active, and you’d have to have a death wish to walk into it,” Prittie said.

Speaking about Friday’s tragedy, Ellie Henke, who managed base camp for 10 seasons of Everest expeditions, says that using the word “avalanche” may be premature.

“Because it could have been something like a serac collapse,” Henke said. “It could have been ice-fall from way up on the West Ridge somewhere, coming quite a distance down.”

“At this point, I haven’t heard anything that tells exactly what this was.”

Mt. Everest is in a remote region, and even in the age of satellite phones and internet, there is still a human factor in reporting accurate information. Ellie says that one year, falling ice destroyed much of a large camp on the climbing route. Willi Prittie was the first one to reach the site, but had not reported back with accurate information. Still, Ellie says someone sent word to the outside world.

“Somebody in base camp put it out internationally, and next thing we know, BBC is carrying this story of, ‘The biggest disaster in Everest history: Dozens killed.’  Once the dust settled, nobody was killed,” Henke said. “BBC had to do a total retraction later on because it was so inaccurate.  That is really common that that kind of stuff happens.”

The story of the Everest incident resonates in Talkeetna, the launch point of nearly all expeditions on Denali. Willi Prittie says that while there are environmental hazards to contend with, the most popular route to North America’s tallest peak is very different from the climb up Mt. Everest. On much of Denali, the danger does not come as much from avalanches above climbers, but the cracks in the ice, or crevasses, below their feet.

“Generally, the majority of those crevasses will be covered over by wind and snowfall in the winter time,” Prittie said. “You’re often crossing many hundreds of those snow bridges without even knowing those crevasses are down there.”

“Quality of the snow on top of the snow bridges deteriorates as the season warms up, so hidden crevasses are probably the single biggest problem.”

Despite the dangers, Willi Prittie says that the reason stories like the Everest tragedy make news is that they are fairly uncommon.

“It’s not like climbers go up and have this death wish to kill themselves,” Prittie said. “For the most part, you can mitigate a lot of these risks, and you can stay safe in these areas.”

“Look at Everest; there has been many thousands of people up and down there in the last couple of decades or so, and this is the first one of these incidents that’s happened in a very long time, there.”

Conditions and the lack of an official agency, like the National Park Service in the U.S., mean that it could be awhile before the full details emerge of exactly what happened to claim the lives of the 12 or more Sherpas on the world’s highest mountain.

Categories: Alaska News

NTSB Releases Preliminary Report on Fatal Hageland Crash

Fri, 2014-04-18 17:06

The National Transportation Safety Board has published a preliminary report about the crash that killed two pilots near Three Step Mountain.

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Investigators still don’t know what caused the Cessna 208 to crash, but they are digging through data sent from the aircraft that could give some clues. The data show that plane was flying at about 3,400 feet when its altitude changed.

Clint Johnson is the NTSB Regional Office Chief.

Wreckage of the Cessna 208. (Photo courtesy Alaska State Troopers)

“It would appear there was a deviation in altitude, probably two different deviations, immediately after that the plane went into a very, very steep dive, a very rapid dive and continued all the way until ground impact,” Johnson said.

Investigators on the ground found that the wreckage travelled about 180 feet before stopping in an area of heavy brush. A post-crash fire burned much of the fuselage.

The NTSB is investigating other crashes among the Ravn, formerly Era, family of companies. Johnson says they are individual investigations at this point, but they are looking for similarities between the accidents.

“But at this point right now, especially for this most recent accident we need to be able to center in on the on the facts that surround this accident. But that may come a little later on where we start connecting the dots and see if there is similarities throughout the accidents,” Johnson said. “Whereas, training, FAA oversight, maintenance procedures, there’s a whole litany of things. It’s a process of elimination. At this point, nothing has been eliminated.”

The plane was not equipped with cockpit voice or data recorders and was not required to have them. The plane’s wreckage is in Bethel and will be sent to Anchorage.

A full report from the NTSB is expected in about a year.

Categories: Alaska News

Alaska News Nightly: April 18, 2014

Fri, 2014-04-18 17:05

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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School Advocates Unhappy With Education Bill’s Latest Rendering

Liz Ruskin, APRN – Washington DC

In Juneau, the latest version of the education funding bill emerged today, and it isn’t what school advocates were hoping for. Senate Finance co-chairman Kevin Meyer says it’s a comprehensive bill that would add $100 million to education, and he says the majority is committed to keeping those funds in the budget for each of the next three years.

Legislators Enter Session’s Home Stretch

Alexandra Gutierrez, APRN – Juneau

Education isn’t the only thing left on the Legislature’s plate. APRN’s Alexandra Gutierrez is our Capitol correspondent, and she’s joining us today to walk us through what lawmakers need to do in the 60 hours before they gavel out.

Series Of Quakes Rattle Northwest Alaska

Matthew Smith, KNOM – Nome

A series of earthquakes rattled Northwest Alaska about 40 miles northeast of Kotzebue Friday morning.

The tremors began with a strong 5.6 magnitude earthquake at 10:44 on Friday morning.

‘Recall Lindsey Holmes’ Group Takes Petition Dismissal To Court

Josh Edge, APRN – Anchorage

Representatives from the “Recall Lindsey Holmes” group and Alaska’s Division of Elections met in State Superior Court on Thursday.

NTSB Releases Preliminary Report on Fatal Hageland Crash

Ben Matheson, KNOM – Nome

The National Transportation Safety Board has published a preliminary report about the crash that killed two pilots near Three Step Mountain.

Talkeetna Guides With Everest Experience Speak About Deadly Incident

Phillip Manning, KTNA – Talkeetna

A deadly incident claimed the lives of at least twelve Sherpas today on Mount Everest. Willi Prittie and Ellie Henke, both residents of Talkeetna, have extensive experience on Everest.

AK: Hazing Birds

Emily Forman, KCAW – Sitka

At most major airports someone is paid to chase birds off the runway. But at Sitka’s airport, that job is especially challenging. That’s because 3/4 of Sitka’s runway is surrounded by water. Fish spawn along its banks, attracting hungry birds. That problem was highlighted four years ago when two Alaska Airline jets collided with eagles on takeoff.

300 Villages: Akiachak

This week, we’re heading to Akiachak, in Southwest Alaska. The village is the first in the state to formally decide to dissolve its local government in favor of traditional tribal representation. Jonathan Lomack is the executive director for Akiachak Native Community Tribal Government.

Categories: Alaska News

300 Villages: Akiachak

Fri, 2014-04-18 17:05

This week, we’re heading to Akiachak, in Southwest Alaska. The village is the first in the state to formally decide to dissolve its local government in favor of traditional tribal representation. Jonathan Lomack is the executive director for Akiachak Native Community Tribal Government.

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Categories: Alaska News

AK: Hazing Birds

Fri, 2014-04-18 15:11

(Photo by Emily Forman, KCAW – Sitka)

At most major airports someone is paid to chase birds off the runway, but at Sitka’s airport that job is especially challenging.

That’s because 3/4 of Sitka’s runway is surrounded by water. Fish spawn along its banks, attracting hungry birds. That problem was highlighted four years ago when two Alaska Airline jets collided with eagles on takeoff. KCAW’s Emily Forman spoke with the expert who came in afterwards to make sure the runway is safe.

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Snarge. That’s the technical term Dave Tresham uses to describe unidentifiable bird debris. Avoiding snarge is the goal. It’s also the reason he’s speeding up and down Sitka’s runway 30 minutes before the noon flight departs for Ketchikan. He spots some loafing eagles at the end of the runway and stops the truck.

(Photo by Emily Forman, KCAW – Sitka)

“So now we have two eagles,” Tresham said. “So, the more you leave the birds alone the more they will show up.”

Tresham chooses a small hand pistol loaded with pyrotechnic shells aptly called screamers. Screamers tend to work best on eagles – who don’t fear much at the top of the food chain. Because when triggered, the screamers spiral wildly and shoot sparks. That’s what it takes to rattle an eagle.

Tresham is a U.S. Department of Agriculture wildlife specialist stationed at Sitka’s Rocky Gutierrez Airport. He notices patterns in bird activity at a very micro level. He has his eyes on every tuft of grass, puddle, and critter.

Tresham: “Many times I’ll spend an hour, two hours picking up bugs and worms up off of the runway.”
Forman: “Really you’ll go to that level of detail?”
Tresham: “I have pictures of night crawlers. There’s an isopod it’s called a rock loas. That is supposed to stay within a few feet of the shore line. And I’ve picked up literally hundreds of them out towards the center of the runway.”

Tresham has been modifying Sitka’s causeway since 2010. In August that year, an Alaska Airlines flight was forced to abort takeoff when a bald eagle was sucked into its left engine. That same week the replacement plane also hit an eagle on takeoff. No people were injured, only fowls, but after that, Tresham was hired to come up with a long term plan for deterring wildlife from making the Sitka runway home. That includes things like filling in still water with gravel or trimming down tall patches of grass.

Forman: “So, is there basically a Dave Tresham at every airport?”
Tresham: “There’s many. Yes. We probably have close to 30 USDA wildlife specialists working the state of Alaska alone…”

Tresham’s career path started with the Aleutian cackling goose. His first wildlife management job was removing an invasive species of fox that was preying on the cackling goose to the point of endangerment. He’s devoted a lot of time to kicking animals out of places where they shouldn’t be, but he loves wildlife. It’s tough love.

(Photo by Emily Forman, KCAW – Sitka)

“I just show up for work even when I’m not working because it’s nice to see the birds the populations,” Tresham said. “Just look at the scenery you have whales and sea lions. Where else can you do it?”

Tresham says the job has turned him into an avid bird watcher. Makes sense, that’s what the job requires. But he’s also become a really tense airplane passenger. His seasonal assistant Heather Bauscher agrees.

“You’re like where is the wildlife person! I see birds!” Bauscher said. “Why isn’t anyone doing anything about that!? Hahaha!”

They are both much more comfortable on the ground – a stone’s throw away from a 737 as it’s taking off. Because that’s where they have the most control.

(Photo by Emily Forman, KCAW – Sitka)

“We have to the south 3 to 4 maybe 5 eagles flying through those trees. From this distance those birds have felt that bangers going off…”

A banger is used with a 24 gauge shot gun. It’s a longer range shell than the screamer. Loud and resonant.

“…and if anything starts coming in this route I’ll be talking to the pilot to let them know where the birds are at.”

Tresham can literally change the course of a speeding plane minutes before it lands.

“So we have eagles above him eagles below him eagles in front of him,” Tresham said. “So we’ll be talking to the pilot 5-7 miles from the airport if we can see them saying, ‘Hey you’ve got eagles.’”

Categories: Alaska News

Congressional Issues: U.S. Representative Don Young

Fri, 2014-04-18 12:00

Alaska Congressman Don Young.

Taking phone calls from all over the largest congressional district in the nation can be a challenge, but it also makes for quite a radio show. Alaska Congressman Don Young is back in his district for the spring recess, and ready to talk with you on the next Talk of Alaska.

Do you have a question for Alaska’s lone congressman? Leave a comment below, email us, or call in during the live show on Tuesday.

HOST: Steve HeimelAlaska Public Radio Network

GUESTS:

  • U.S. Representative Don Young
  • Callers Statewide

PARTICIPATE:

  • 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 22, 2014 at 10:00 a.m. on APRN stations statewide.

SUBSCRIBE: Get Talk of Alaska updates automatically by e-mailRSS or podcast.

TALK OF ALASKA ARCHIVE

Categories: Alaska News

Alaska Lawmakers Vote To Allow Medevac Membership Programs

Fri, 2014-04-18 09:17

Legislation allowing medevac membership programs to continue is on its way to Gov. Sean Parnell for his signature.

The Alaska House unanimously approved Senate Bill 159 on Tuesday. It sailed through the Senate in late February.

An Airlift Northwest Lear Jet waits for a medevac call at Juneau’s airport. Airlift is ending its medevac insurance program in Alaska after losing a regulatory exemption.

The programs operated in Alaska for several years under an exemption, but Airlift Northwest’s AirCare was discontinued last year when the Division of Insurance said it no longer met state standards.

That resulted in lots of complaints from Southeast Alaskans, where AirCare had more than 3,000 members.

Rep. Cathy Muñoz, R-Juneau, started working with the insurance division to come up with a fix and shared the resulting legislation with her Southeast colleagues. Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, introduced it in the Senate.

“It basically just exempts these types of membership programs from the Division of Insurance requirements and it sets into law a reasonable regulatory regime within the division that allows this program to continue,” Muñoz says.

She says the bill had a lot of support from retirees, the commercial fishing industry, and people who work in remote sites such as mining and timber.

An emergency medical flight to Seattle or Anchorage can cost $100,000 or more. Membership programs are a supplement to other health care insurance to cover the patient’s co-pay.

“The primary insurance will pick up generally about two-thirds of a medical transport and the membership involvement would allow that extra charge to be waived if that was the only extra coverage the individual had,” she says.

Once the governor signs the bill into law, Airlift Northwest and other medevac companies will be able again to provide their membership programs to individuals who also carry medical insurance.

In a previous interview with KTOO, Airlift Northwest executive director Chris Martin said the company has always been clear that AirCare is not an insurance program.

“What an AirCare membership guarantees you is that you have no out-of-pocket expenses or no co-pay. So we bill the insurance, we take what the insurance reimburses us and you as our AirCare member do not see a bill for any further services,” she explained.

Categories: Alaska News

Carnival Miracle Cancels 15 Ketchikan Port Calls

Fri, 2014-04-18 09:15

Citing mechanical issues that affect the Carnival Miracle’s maximum cruising speed, Carnival Cruise Lines has canceled 15 of that ship’s port calls in Ketchikan this summer.

According to the Ketchikan Visitors Bureau, the cancellations affect scheduled Sunday port calls beginning May 25th, and include all sailings during the months of June, July and August.

The first three calls, on May 4th, May 11th and May 18th, will remain as scheduled, KVB reports. In addition, the last two calls in September have not been cancelled, but will experience a slight change in arrival and departure times.

The ship carries 2,124 passengers and the cancellations will reduce the number of passengers arriving in Alaska’s First City by about 30,000, based on pre-season estimates.

That brings the total expected cruise passengers coming through Ketchikan down to about 850,000.

Categories: Alaska News

State House Approves 2016 Sunset Date For Alaska Film Tax Credit

Fri, 2014-04-18 09:07

The state House voted Thursday to sunset the Alaska Film Tax Credit in 2016.

The provision was part of a bill requiring state agencies to report to the Legislature on so-called “lost revenue.” That’s the millions of dollars in revenues the state doesn’t collect each year due to various fee exemptions and tax credits. The bill adds sunset dates to some of them, meaning those programs would expire if lawmakers don’t intervene before then.

Rep. Chris Tuck addresses a joint session of the Alaska Legislature during debate about confirmations of the governor’s appointees, April 17, 2014. (Photo by Skip Gray/Gavel Alaska)

A group of Democratic House members tried and failed on the House floor to protect the Film Tax Credit, saying it hasn’t had a chance to prove itself yet. Representative Chris Tuck of Anchorage says the credit doesn’t just benefit filmmakers.

“A lot of different businesses, from limousines, restaurants, hotels, coffee shops, towing companies, electric companies, plumbing and heating companies – I mean, you name it, it has a residual effect,” Tuck said. “And what we’re trying to do with this incentive program is to build a new industry in the state of Alaska.”

A move to protect the veterans’ employment tax credit also failed. The sponsor of the lost-revenue review bill is Rep. Steve Thompson. The Fairbanks Republican says the legislation creates greater scrutiny but no worthy program has to die, he says, because lawmakers will have time to extend them. Anchorage Republican Dan Saddler put it in cinematic terms.

“It does not kill tax credits but it does prevent them from being zombies and walking on the earth long after their time and utility has passed,” Saddler said.

The bill passed 38-1 and now goes to the Senate.

Categories: Alaska News

Alaska Edition: April 18, 2014

Fri, 2014-04-18 07:39

Patrick Flynn takes over as chair of the Anchorage Assembly. The Alaska Legislature is still addressing major capital projects in the final days of the session. The Loussac Library bond failed by 14 votes. Why? Legislation to raise the minimum wage becomes deeply controversial. Wasilla does a turnaround on regulating the drug spice. The cost of Gov. Parnell’s North Slope initiative is ballooning. Two inmates die in Alaska prisons in a week.

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HOST: Michael Carey

GUESTS:

  • Steve MacDonald, KTUU Channel 2
  • Sean Doogan, Alaska Dispatch
  • Gregg Erickson, Anchorage Daily Planet Alaska Budget Report

KSKA (FM 91.1) BROADCAST: Friday, April 18, at 2:00 p.m. and Saturday, April 19, at 6:00 p.m.

Alaska Public Television BROADCAST: Friday, April 18, at 7:30 p.m. and Saturday, April 19, at 4:30 p.m.

Categories: Alaska News

House Approves $3 Billion Transfer To Pension System

Fri, 2014-04-18 00:33

The Alaska State House has voted in favor of Gov. Sean Parnell’s plan to shore up the state’s pension system.

The bill uses $3 billion from the state’s reserve funds to help pay off the $12 billion unfunded liability. It also directs the Legislature to put $500 million into the retirement system every year, until the obligation is paid off.

Rep. Cathy Muñoz, a Juneau Republican, carried the bill for the governor.

“It’s like paying off a mortgage or a credit card,” said Muñoz. “Do we take a big bite now, and pay less later? Or do we take a small bite now, and pay more later?”

The bill passed Thursday night on a 38-2 vote, with Homer Republican Paul Seaton and Fairbanks Republican Pete Higgins opposing the measure.
While the vote was decisive, two amendments were attempted that showed a philosophical divide on how the state deals with its employee pensions

Seaton unsuccessfully offered an amendment dealing with the annual payments. The bill is written so there is some flexibility with how much the state actually has to put into the retirement trust fund every year, and Seaton wanted there to be no question that the state was obligated to pay the $500 million in full.

Anchorage Republican Charisse Millett went the other way. She proposed getting rid of the required annual payment altogether.

“I’m afraid to set expectations so high that when we get into more deficit spending, and we run out of general funds and run out of the [constitutional budget reserves] and we can’t make these large payments that we’ve made empty promise,” said Millett.

Millett ultimately withdrew her amendment and voted yes on the bill.

The bill now goes to the Senate, which is still considering taking its own approach to the unfunded liability.

Categories: Alaska News

Ferry Workers Considering Strike If Contract Negotiations Don’t Move Forward

Thu, 2014-04-17 17:15

Contract talks between the state and Alaska’s ferry workers are heating up as each side disagrees on how to make up the gap between revenues and the cost of operating the ferry system. Workers are now considering whether to authorize a strike if negotiations remain stalled.

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Categories: Alaska News

Texan Confirmed to Alaska Gasline Board

Thu, 2014-04-17 17:14

Sen. Hollis French, who argued against controversial appointments. (Photo by Skip Gray/Gavel Alaska)

Gov. Sean Parnell’s choice of Richard Rabinow drew criticism on two fronts: That he’s not Alaskan and that he spent a career at Exxon.  Sen. Hollis French, an Anchorage Democrat, questioned his allegiances.

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“Exxon already’s got 25 percent of the line. I don’t think they should get 20 percent of the public board positions on the Alaska gas Line Development Corp.,” French argued. “Mr. Rabinow’s work history is nearly exclusively with Exxon. Indeed, 34 years with the company. Thirty-four years.”

Rabinow, a Texan, is a former president of Exxon’s pipeline subsidiary, and he now works as a consultant on pipeline projects. The AGDC board is positioned to oversee a multi-billion-dollar natural gas project, and service on the board is unpaid. Underlying the debate over the appointment is the larger question of how closely aligned the state should be to its dominant industry. Rep. Charisse Millett, an Anchorage Republican, says it’s time to get closer.

Richard Rabinow (AGDC)

“They’re partners. We are partnering with Exxon in the pipeline,” she reminded legislators, gathered in a joint session for a series of confirmation votes. “The adversarial role that we have with them, we have to get rid of that. We have to stop that.”

Like other proponents, Millett says Rabinow’s expertise is invaluable to the board.

“It’s tough to feel we’re hiring an Outsider to come in and help us, but I want the best,” she said. “If I’m going to have brain surgery, I’m not going to go to the guy who maybe has done it once or twice. I’m going to go to the guy whose done it 120 times, 130 times.”

Lawmakers voted 43-17 to confirm him. Sen. Bert Stedman of Sitka and Rep. Tammie Wilson of North Pole were among the few Republicans who voted no.

The Legislature also voted 45-15 to confirm former Conoco Philips executive Bernie Washington to the board that sets the value of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline for tax purposes.

The critics, mostly Democrats, said Washington’s previous work winning favorable tariffs for the oil company left him with divided loyalties. Washington is now the chief financial officer of APRN’s parent company, Alaska Public Media.

Journalists within Alaska Public Media objected to his service on the state board, too, due to concern it creates the appearance of a conflict of interest for the news organization.

Categories: Alaska News

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