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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: 23 min 10 sec ago

Search For Missing Boat Owner Suspended

Thu, 2014-03-13 11:10

Station Ketchikan’s 47-foot motor life boats are seen during Wednesday’s search for John Anderson. Photo submitted by Danny Hoggard.

The search for John Anderson, who went missing sometime late Tuesday night and is believed to have fallen off his houseboat, was suspended Wednesday evening, pending further information.

Chris John of the Ketchikan Volunteer Rescue Squad said Thursday morning that searchers covered the area well all day Wednesday. At this point, he says, it’s a matter of waiting for evidence to wash ashore.

John says the local search community will keep an eye on the shoreline. He says all evidence points to Anderson having fallen into the water, and because it was a stormy night on Tuesday, Anderson likely was wearing heavy waterproof clothing. That clothing could delay recovery efforts.

John estimated a few days up to two weeks before the search is resolved.

The search for Anderson began late Tuesday night after his houseboat, built on a barge, grounded on some rocks near The Plaza mall. The houseboat had been anchored next to nearby Pennock Island. Coast Guard personnel who boarded the boat found warm coals on the stove, and hot food inside – indicating that the owner had very recently been on board.

A dog found on the boat was released to Anderson’s friends.

Categories: Alaska News

State House Finance Committee Passes $9.1 Billion Operating Budget

Thu, 2014-03-13 11:04

The $9.1 billion state operating budget has passed the House Finance committee. It’s down about $1.6 million from the original bill, much of that due to a cut in school construction and debt service money.

The House version of the operating budget is about $43 million less in unrestricted general funds than what the Governor proposed.

Categories: Alaska News

Despite Revisions, Opposition To Permitting Bill Still Vocal

Thu, 2014-03-13 00:00

After nearly a year of waiting for a rewrite of HB77, members of the public had plenty to say about the changes. They got their first chance to speak to them at a Senate Resources Committee hearing on Wednesday. APRN’s Alexandra Gutierrez reports that most of the testimony on the Parnell administration’s permitting bill was as negative as it was brief.

The tone of the hearing was set with the first person to testify.

Bobby Andrew had flown in from Dillingham to speak on behalf of Nunamta Aulukestai, an association of tribes and village corporations in the Bristol Bay region. Last year, the group had taken the stance that the bill had gone too far in overhauling land management policy, and Andrew said the release of a new version on Monday had not changed their position. He testified that even though some of the more controversial parts of the bill had been rewritten, his association thought the legislation still gave too much authority to the natural resources commissioner and that it did not give the public enough opportunity to weigh in on certain permitting decisions.

That was as far as Andrew got before a timer went off, and Committee Chair Cathy Giessel told him to close his testimony.

GIESSEL: Bobby, your two minutes is up. Why don’t you summarize?
ANDREW: That was quick.

The committee pushed through testimony at a screaming pace, not even stopping to let legislators ask questions. About 50 individuals got to speak, and a hundred more were told to submit their testimony in writing instead. Just two people came out in favor of the legislation: Mary Sattler, a manager with Donlin Gold, and Mike Satre, who spoke on behalf of the Council of Alaska Producers, a mining association.

Most of the people who spoke against the bill suggested it would limit public involvement. They focused on language setting a higher bar for legal standing to appeal a decision. They found problems with a section allowing the Department of Natural to issue general permits for a broad range of activities that multiple users can operate under, and they said a single 30-day comment period was not adequate time to address those kinds of permitting decisions. (The previous version of the bill did not require any public notice or comment period.)

But as the hearing wore on, testimony began to focus on the public process being used to move a bill dealing with public process.

Rosemary McGuire, a fisherman and writer from Cordova, described the situation as ironic.

“I think it’s perfectly ludicrous that we’re not getting enough time to comment on a bill that removes our ability to comment,” said McGuire.

Giessel, an Anchorage Republican, defended the way the testimony was handled immediately after the hearing adjourned. At that point, she had decided there would be no more oral testimony because of time constraints.

“We’re not hearing anything new. Did you hear anything new and unique in the testimony? I did not,” Giessel told reporters. “And therefore, there’s really no productivity to hearing the same thing over and over again, especially when it can be submitted in writing.”

But Giessel softened shortly after the meeting, and she decided to schedule another hearing for public testimony on Friday afternoon because of the large public response to the bill. While testimony will still be limited to two minutes, Giessel has indicated that this time she will hear every person who signs up.

Sen. Click Bishop, a Fairbanks Republican who serves on the Resources Committee, thinks giving people more time to review the bill could affect public sentiment on it. The legislation is long and complex, and a number of sections have been substantially reworked. For example, where the old version prohibited individuals and tribal groups from petitioning for water reservations as a way of conserving fish habitat, the new version lets them submit applications but allows the streams to be used as those applications are pending.

“They’ve only had 48 hours to look at the bill, and I think – just a hypothetical on my part – that if some of those people had maybe more time to digest the language, maybe they would be a little softer on their stance,” said Bishop in an interview.

Bishop says that he too is still digesting the bill – his office is still reviewing it, and he needs more time with it to decide whether he will support it.

Bishop is seen as a critical vote for the bill to pass, as is Soldotna Republican Peter Micciche, who worked with the Parnell administration on the rewrite.

Bishop says public testimony will factor into his decision.

“Give the people their due — that’s the law of the land, that’s what we do in here,” said Bishop. “We write legislation. We listen to the people. And then we try to fix legislation.”

The Resources Committee plans to make further adjustments to the bill after testimony is complete. It is then expected to be sent to the Senate floor if it can secure the votes. The legislation already passed the House last year.

Categories: Alaska News

Without Necessary Votes, Senate Leadership Pulls Controversial Education Amendment

Wed, 2014-03-12 18:08

Sen. Mike Dunleavy, chairman of the Senate Labor and Commerce committee, listens during a committee meeting, Feb. 18, 2014. (Photo by Skip Gray/Gavel Alaska)

Over the past two legislative sessions, conservative lawmakers have prioritized an amendment that would allow public money to be spent at private schools. Wednesday was supposed to be the grand showdown, where the State Senate would take a vote on it. The measure did not even make it to the floor, because it did not have enough support to pass.

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For the past few days, staffers, reporters, and lawmakers alike have made a pastime of counting the votes for Senate Joint Resolution 9.

It’s rare that legislation will go on the floor calendar unless it’s guaranteed to pass. But as an amendment to the Alaska Constitution, SJR9 needs two-thirds approval to go forward, and a sizable contingent of Democrats and moderate Republicans have vocally opposed it.

As many suspected, the support just was not there. After delaying the floor session Wednesday for a couple of hours to talk strategy, leadership announced they would hold the bill in the legislative limbo that is the Senate Rules Committee instead of bringing it out for a vote.

Sen. Mike Dunleavy, a Mat-Su Republican who is sponsoring the bill, says that does not mean the bill is dead.

“I know some folks may look at this and say this is a way of politely killing the bill,” says Dunleavy. “That’s not my intention at all, and that’s not the intention of leadership. It’s just getting some additional information and having some additional discussion with folks this week.”

Dunleavy says he wants information on the legality of education programs the state is already offering, like the Alaska Performance Scholarship. But he would not elaborate any more on that information except for to say he thinks it could turn a couple votes.

Dunleavy adds he wants to see the amendment back on the Senate schedule as soon as possible. And he thinks there’s value in having a floor debate even if there is not certainty a measure will pass.

“You want to be careful that there’s not a gaming of the system, where all the decisions are made off the floor,” says Dunleavy. “There should be floor debates. There should be floor votes. And there will be votes that pass, and there will be votes that fail.”

Sen. Gary Stevens, a Kodiak Republican who has been a firm opponent of the measure, says it’s going to be an uphill battle for those who want it to pass. While the amendment may not be technically dead, it’s arguably comatose.

“Clearly they didn’t have the votes,” says Stevens. “They needed 14 votes. And I talked to several members of the caucus who all oppose it, and I think at least five members of our 15-member caucus are opposed to it.”

Stevens says pulling SJR 9 allows Senate leadership to keep the measure alive and save a little bit of face. Like Dunleavy, he would not have minded having a discussion on the floor about what the measure means for the state. While Dunleavy argues that SJR 9 could expand options for students and their parents, Stevens is worried it would lead to an expensive voucher system and drain resources from public schools. He was prepared to speak to that on Wednesday.

“The debate is good, and we should do that more,” says Stevens. “I think there’s sort of a tendency though on the part of the majority caucus not to want to put something on the floor and have it fail. It’s sort of a sign of weakness. And very seldom does that happen in this body, very seldom do you see either the House or the Senate put something on the floor when they know it’s going to fail.”

Out of more than a thousand bills introduced since 2011, only three pieces of legislation have failed on the floor, according to data compiled by Gavel Alaska.

A companion to SJR 9 has also been introduced in the House, but it has yet to come to a vote in that chamber. Any amendment to the Alaska Constitution needs two-thirds approval from both chambers of the Legislature and then support from a majority of registered voters in the state.

Categories: Alaska News

Arctic is Top Priority for Homeland Security – But One of Many

Wed, 2014-03-12 18:02

Sen. Lisa Murkowski today pressed the Secretary of Homeland Security to make the Arctic a priority for the Administration, particularly for the Coast Guard. She got no disagreement.

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Homeland Security is the Swiss Army Knife of government departments. It has a huge range of duties, so when its $38 billion budget request came before a Senate panel today, Secretary Jeh Johnson heard a wide range of pleas. Senators emphasized the need to protect the border, encourage trade and improve disaster response. For Sen. Murkowski, though, it’s all about the Arctic. With ocean travel increasing, Murkowski told Johnson the world is looking to the United States for leadership in the region.

Whether it’s cruise ships going over the top, whether it’s container vessels going through the Bering straits, the level of activity that we’re seeing there is unprecedented, and how we handle it is going to be key going forward.

Someday, Murkowski told him, his department may have to contend with German tourists coming ashore at Barrow. She says the Coast Guard – also part of Homeland Security — should have more icebreakers. It has only three, and one is in dry-dock. Murkowski also asked him to consider homeporting one of the Coast Guard’s national security ships in Kodiak, because the nearest now is in California.

I’m told that it’s 24 days to get a national security cutter from Alameda up to the Chukchi- Beaufort Sea area. That’s a long way to be underway when we have an incident that would require that level of a vessel up there.

Johnson said what he told every senator: He agrees with them. He says the Arctic is a priority to the Administration.

I believe, first and foremost that our priorities in the Arctic surround increasing commerce there.

He said replacing the older of the heavy ice breakers, the Polar Star, is still in the long-term acquisition plan. Johnson says no decision has yet been made about the Polar Sea, the icebreaker not in service.

But over all I do recognize the importance of having heavy ice breakers.

Across the Capitol, the head of the Coast Guard faced criticism from a House panel today over its $10 billion portion of the Homeland Security budget request. Some members said it was wasteful, others said the amount dedicated to modernizing the fleet is inadequate. At the Senate hearing, though, the focus was on each senator’s home-state priorities. After Murkowski talked about the Arctic, it was Kansas Sen. Jerry Moran’s turn to discuss his top goal for the department: safeguarding agriculture.

Categories: Alaska News

SHARP-II Program Under Fire

Wed, 2014-03-12 18:01

A State House committee has eliminated funding for a state program that helps medical professionals repay their student loans if they serve poor or rural patients. It’s called the SHARP-II program and clinics say it’s an essential tool to convince physicians and other medical professionals to care for patients in under-served communities.

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Kim Cohen has a tough time recruiting physicians. As executive director at the Anchorage Neighborhood Health Center, the pay she can offer her doctors is limited. They can earn 50 percent more in the private sector.

“A lot of people that want to help the poor and want to go into community health have large student loans,” Cohen said. “So one of the things we can offer them- we can’t give them a high salary, is we can help them pay off their student loans through this program.”

A House finance subcommittee cut $1.2 million for the program, eliminating next year’s funding. If the cut goes through, a doctor at Anchorage Neighborhood Health Center, who was just approved for the program, would lose his spot along with 38 others who were supposed to start receiving loan repayment.

Representative Mark Neuman, a Republican from Big Lake, is responsible for making the cut. He says it wasn’t an easy decision, but the budget needed trimming.

“The health and social services is a difficult budget and when you get into years when you just don’t have money to cover your costs, you’re forced to do reductions,” he said.

Neuman says he felt better about eliminating funding for a few programs, like SHARP, than making small trims to many more. And he says SHARP was a more appealing target than funding that would go to serve seniors or foster kids.

“I think I read some notes here that the average practitioners was getting almost $30,000 a year, that’s almost a lot of peoples yearly salary and when you have to start reducing budgets, where do you start?” Neuman said. “They’re all good programs, we’d like to support them all but the state just does not have the money.”

And Neuman points out providers will still be eligible for the SHARP I program, which also repays loans and is partly funded by the federal government. But Tom Chard who is executive director of the Alaska Behavioral Health Association, says the federal program is not meeting the needs of Alaska. Chard is on the committee that decides which medical professionals can participate in the program.

“We as a state said, look, we think we can design parameters to better meet our outcomes here in state and we’re willing to put a little bit of money in to match that,” Chard said.

The federal SHARP program is limited to providers working in rural areas of Alaska. Chard says the state program recognizes urban areas in the state are also struggling to attract medical professionals to work with low income patients. Chard thinks the program is a bargain.

“$1.2 million, the proposed reduction amount, is a lot of money, but we’re going to actually save a ton of money through putting positions into these places that are otherwise hard to fill, very hard to recruit for, otherwise would go vacant or be filled by a temporary position,” Chard said.

It costs clinics a lot more to hire temporary doctors to see patients.

At the Anchorage Neighborhood Health Center, Kim Cohen says she feels like she’s been sucker punched. When Governor Parnell declined federal funding for Medicaid expansion, he said clinic’s like Cohen’s would be able to provide a safety net for patients who would not be eligible for Medicaid.

“First they don’t expand Medicaid, and that’s hard enough because 42 percent of my population at the Anchorage Neighborhood Health Center do not have insurance,” Cohen said. “And now they’re taking away my ability to help pay for my physicians by repaying their student loans so now I’m like how are we supposed to be the safety net of the community if we don’t have doctors to provide for the patients we’re supposed to be seeing.”

Parnell kept the SHARP-II funding in his version of the operating budget. The Senate could restore funding for the program when it begins work on the budget. If that happens, the House and Senate would work out their differences in conference committee.

This story is part of a reporting partnership between APRN, NPR and Kaiser Health News.

Categories: Alaska News

Low Income Sitkans Fall Through Medicaid ‘Donut Hole’

Wed, 2014-03-12 18:01

The Affordable Care Act is a big law with plenty of ripple effects, but at its heart is a pretty simple premise: Americans who lack health insurance should be able to go online and pick a plan, and if their income falls beneath a certain threshold, then the federal government will cover part of the cost.

That is, unless you live in Alaska, or one of the other states that has opted out of the federal Medicaid expansion. Then, you can actually make too little money to qualify for help.

This is what some are calling the “Medicaid donut hole.” And falling into the donut hole can be a frustrating experience.

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One night in early March, Wayne and Sarah Taranoff walked into a room at the University of Alaska, Southeast, for an open enrollment session on the Affordable Care Act. They didn’t come with high hopes.

WT: [We came] basically just to see what the options were. I didn’t think there would be any and there wasn’t.

RW: And why is that?

WT: Because we’re in the bracket that got screwed.

ST: We make too little. And they didn’t expand the Medicaid.

The Taranoffs own a gift shop on Katlian Street, in Sitka. They are self-employed, and haven’t had health insurance in decades. Wayne Taranoff has diabetes. One year, he said, they spent about sixty percent of their income on medical bills. But their store doesn’t bring in much money.  If they tried to buy health insurance on their own, it would cost “more than we make,” Wayne said.

“We only make about $8,000 a year,” Sarah said. “The store only makes enough to pay its electricity, and its phone bills.”

Under the Affordable Care Act, anyone who makes up to four times the federal poverty level is eligible for tax credits and subsidies that cover the cost of insurance bought on the new health insurance exchanges. In Alaska, that means an individual who makes more than $14,580 and less than $58,320 is likely eligible for some kind of help.

But people like the Taranoffs, who make less than $14,580 a year, can’t get subsidies. That’s because, when the law was originally written, everyone under the federal poverty limit was supposed to be covered by an expansion of Medicaid.

In 2012, the Supreme Court upheld the Affordable Care Act, in a landmark ruling. But, they ruled, the federal government couldn’t force states to expand Medicaid. In Alaska, Governor Sean Parnell decided to opt out of the expansion.

“I believe a costly Medicaid expansion, especially on top of the broken Obamacare system, is a hot mess,” Parnell said in a press conference announcing the decision, in November 2013.

Under the original concept, states were supposed to expand the pool of people eligible for Medicaid, so that the program covered not just families with children and people with disabilities, but also low-income adults who don’t have kids at home, like the Taranoffs. The federal government would cover the full cost of the expansion for the first three years, and at least 90% of the cost after that.

But Parnell argued that the federal government couldn’t be trusted to keep its end of the bargain.

“The decision comes to this,” he said in November. “Can states trust the federal government to not cut and run on its share of the cost?”

The Taranoffs said they are angry that Alaska has not expanded Medicaid. But they actually find the whole Affordable Care Act disappointing. They would have preferred a single-payer system, like Canada’s. The idea of being forced to buy insurance bothers them.

SW: We’re being forced to pay private insurance companies.

WT: Well, not us. We don’t make enough.

SW: We can’t get anything.

The Taranoffs won’t have to pay a penalty for remaining without insurance. They can file a hardship waiver. They’ll simply remain as they were: uninsured, and shouldering the cost of medical bills themselves.

According to a state-funded study, about 43,000 Alaskans fall into the same category as the Taranoffs. Of those 43,000, about 17,000 are Alaska Native, and qualify for tribal health benefits. The rest, if they want to buy insurance on the exchange, would have to pay full cost.

Meanwhile, at the enrollment event in Sitka, organizers estimated that out of the 25 or so people who came in to get help finding health insurance, seven left empty-handed. They, too, fell through the Medicaid donut hole.

Categories: Alaska News

YK Delta Halibut Quotas Halved

Wed, 2014-03-12 18:01

The statewide halibut and black cod season opened last Saturday. When YK Delta fishermen participate in the Community Development Quota allocations this summer, they will see their halibut quota cut nearly in half.

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Dawson Hoover is the Communication and Community Benefits manager for Coastal Villages Region Fund.

“It’s devastating for a lot of fisherman. We have 184-plus boats that have a couple people in each boat, for a lot of people its their main source of income for the year, these cuts are devastating for our residents who need to pay the bills to sustain their families,” Hoover said.

The 2014 quota stands for Coastal Villages stands at 107,000 pounds, that’s the biggest cut among the CDQ groups and accounts for a 48 percent drop over last year. The International Pacific Halibut Commission finalized the quotas in January. CVRF proposed doubling the CDQ’s quota. Last year’s quota was some 210,000 pounds. It took less than two weeks to catch the entire quota. Hoover says it may take only a week this year. He says CVRF wants a review of the science that exists on nearby halibut stocks.

“We know that there aren’t any recent studies done in the area we fish in. The word of mouth from our fisherman is that towards the end of the commercial fishing season last year,” Hoover said. “They are catching bigger halibut, the girth was bigger. Because there aren’t any studies done, and because of the bigger fish they are catching, we believe that we shouldn’t have gotten these big cuts.”

Hoovers says he doesn’t anticipate any changes in the 2014 quotas. Statewide, the Total Allowable Catch (TAC) limits for Alaska halibut and black cod are set at 16.8 million pounds and 33.6 million pounds respectively.

Categories: Alaska News

Fairbanks Resolution Endorses Fukushima Radiation Monitoring

Wed, 2014-03-12 18:01

The Fairbanks city council passed a resolution Monday in support of state, federal and international monitoring for radiation from the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan.

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Reactors at the facility were damaged during the major earthquake in Japan three years ago this week, and there’s concern about continued long range radiation. Fairbanks borough assembly member John Davies testified in support of the resolution.

He said he has no evidence that there’s currently a problem with radiation impacts in Alaska, but that monitoring is warranted.

Categories: Alaska News

Shakespeare Is Alive In The Capitol City, 24 Hours A Day

Wed, 2014-03-12 18:01

The Riverside Shakespeare is commonly used during Bard-A-Thons. (Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)

If he were alive today, William Shakespeare would be 450 years old in April. In honor of the event, the capitol city is celebrating with its first Bard-A-Thon, 24 hours of Shakespeare readings for eight consecutive days. The non-stop Shakespeare kicked off on Saturday.

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Cahal Burnham is missing school at Montessori Borealis to read the part of Luciana in Act 2 of “The Comedy of Errors.”

“Dromio, thou snail, though slug, thou sot!” he exclaims.

Cahal and four other people are reading the play at the downtown library, while across town at the Alaska State Library, three people are participating by video conference.

City librarian Amelia Jenkins is in charge of organizing each reader’s part.

“Would you like to be Dromio of Ephesus?” she asks Cahal.

“Uh, yeah sure,” he replies.

“Balthasar?” Jenkins calls out, hoping to solicit a volunteer.

When no one replies, event organizer Beth Weigel poses the question over video conference and state librarian Daniel Cornwall volunteers to be Balthasar.

In Act 3 of “The Comedy of Errors,” one of Shakespeare’s most beloved comedies, 10-year-old Cahal reads the part of Dromio of Ephesus, a servant. Dromio’s master and well-respected merchant, Antipholus of Ephesus, is played by 63-year-old Bruce Rogers of Fairbanks.

Antipholus: “Thou drunkard, thou, what didst thou mean by this?”

Dromio: “Say what you will, sir, but I know what I know.
That you beat me at the mart I have your hand to show;
If the skin were parchment and the blows you gave were ink,
Your own handwriting would tell you what I think.

Antipholus: “I think thou art an ass.”

Cahal is with his mother, but it was his idea to participate in the Bard-A-Thon. His interest in Shakespeare stems from reading the children’s book series, “Alvin Ho.”

Cahal laughs. “He was throwing Shakespearian insults out and this was one of them: ‘Be gone ye beshibbering onion-eyed flap dragon.’ It’s funny,” he says.

Bruce Rogers is Artistic Director of the Fairbanks Shakespeare Theatre, which is getting ready to perform its 15th Bard-A-Thon in April. He’s been facilitating middle-of-the-night sessions at Juneau’s Perseverance Theatre, reading parts 1, 2, and 3 of the historical “Henry VI.”

“Nothing else to do when you’re up that late,” Rogers says. “Have another cup of coffee and read a little Shakespeare.”

Juneau organizer Beth Weigel says the Bard-A-Thon is a way for Shakespeare amateurs to begin understanding the literature.

“If you’re at home trying to read it silently, sometimes it doesn’t make sense. It makes more sense when you’ve got different voices reading and you hear the words and you can get a little bit of the jokes that come in and out,” Weigel says.

Thirty-nine plays will be read during the Bard-A-Thon, which is getting statewide attention. Prefer Shakespeare sonnets? Join in reading 100 of  the Bard’s poems at 8 a.m. Friday morningat the Douglas Library.

“Hamlet” marks the finale of Juneau’s Bard-A-Thon. Nome public library plans to participate through video conference.

Categories: Alaska News

Alaska Senate Committee Supports Native American Veterans Memorial

Wed, 2014-03-12 18:00

The Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. will be the site of an American Indian Veterans Memorial. A resolution supporting the memorial cleared an Alaska Senate committee on Tuesday. Photo by cayusa, Flickr Creative Commons.

The Alaska Legislature could join the chorus of voices calling for an American Indian Veterans Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. An Alaska Senate committee on Tuesday passed a resolution supporting the project.

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Native Americans have fought in every United States military conflict since the Revolutionary War, and have some of the highest per capita service rates of any ethnic group.

Since Alaska became a U.S. territory and later a state, Alaska Natives have served their country as well. During World War II, the Alaska Territorial Guard included more than 6,000 volunteer soldiers from more than 100 communities.

“American Indians have established a long and distinguished legacy of military service,” said Kalyssa Maile, an intern in the office of Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage. ”Senate Joint Resolution 19 affirms the Alaska Legislature’s support of Alaska Native and Native American veterans, and recognizes their great sacrifices for our country.”

Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, sponsored Senate Joint Resolution 19, which supports construction of an American Indian Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. Photo by Skip Gray, Gavel Alaska.

Wielechowski sponsored SJR19, approved Tuesday by the Senate State Affairs Committee. He said the American Indian Veterans Memorial is supported by theAlaska Federation of Natives, the National Congress of American Indians and Vietnam Veterans of America, among other groups.

“There were several people that came up from Florida to attend AFN and push for this resolution,” Wielechowski said. “I attended the Vietnam Veterans of America national conference in Florida last year and they were there. I spoke with people there. They were urging us to do this as well.”

Congress approved the Native American Veterans’ Memorial Act in 1994, but the project didn’t go anywhere. Stephen Bowers, a member of the Seminole Tribe of Florida and a Vietnam veteran, started lobbying Native American groups to support the memorial in 2011. Bowers says it’s long overdue.

“It’ll mean that finally someone is recognizing the fact that the American Indians fought for this country and against the European invaders back since 1492,” he said.

While Bowers says many supporters want the memorial to be built near the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, President Obama late last year signed legislation to place it at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian, two miles away. Bowers says the location isn’t as important as getting a memorial concept approved, a process he says will take several years.

“When they built the National Mall, they didn’t make it easy for organizations or for anyone to put a statue or a memorial on the mall,” said Bowers.

He expects the National Museum of the American Indian to sponsor a contest and form a committee to shepherd the project through the design phase.

Senate Joint Resolution 19 now heads to a vote on the floor of the Alaska Senate.

Categories: Alaska News

Alaska News Nightly: March 12, 2014

Wed, 2014-03-12 17:28

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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Without Necessary Votes, Senate Leadership Pulls Controversial Education Amendment

Alexandra Gutierrez, APRN – Juneau

Over the past two legislative sessions, conservative lawmakers have prioritized an amendment that would allow public money to be spent at private schools. Wednesday was supposed to be the grand showdown, where the State Senate would take a vote on it. The measure did not even make it to the floor. The bill was pulled because it did not have enough support to pass.

Arctic is Top Priority for Homeland Security – But One of Many

Liz Ruskin, APRN – Washington DC

Senator Lisa Murkowski today pressed the Secretary of Homeland Security to make the Arctic a priority for the Administration, particularly for the Coast Guard.

Program Helping Medical Professionals In Under-Served Communities Pay Back Student Loans Comes Under Fire

Annie Feidt, APRN – Anchorage

A State House committee has eliminated funding for a state program that helps medical professionals repay their student loans if they serve poor or rural patients.  It’s called the SHARP-II program and clinics say it’s an essential tool to convince physicians and other medical professionals to care for patients in under-served communities.

Low Income Sitkans Fall Through Medicaid ‘Donut Hole’

Rachel Waldholz, KCAW – Sitka

The Affordable Care Act is a big law with plenty of ripple effects, but at its heart is a pretty simple premise: Americans who lack health insurance should be able to go online and pick a plan, and if their income falls beneath a certain threshold, then the federal government will cover part of the cost.

That is, unless you live in Alaska, or one of the other states that has opted out of the federal Medicaid expansion. Then, you can actually make too little money to qualify for help.

This is what some are calling the “Medicaid donut hole.” And falling into the donut hole can be a frustrating experience.

Fairbanks Resolution Endorses Fukushima Radiation Monitoring

Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks

The Fairbanks city council passed a resolution Monday in support of state, federal and international monitoring for radiation from the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan.

Reactors at the facility were damaged during the major earthquake in Japan three years ago this week, and there’s concern about continued long range radiation.  Fairbanks borough assembly member John Davies testified in support of the resolution.

He said he has no evidence that there’s currently a problem with radiation impacts in Alaska, but that monitoring is warranted.

YK Delta Halibut Quotas Halved

Ben Matheson, KYUK – Bethel

The statewide halibut and black cod season opened last Saturday. When YK Delta fishermen participate in the Community Development Quota allocations this summer, they will see their halibut quota cut nearly in half.

Alaska Senate Committee Supports Native American Veterans Memorial

Casey Kelly, KTOO – Juneau

The Alaska Legislature could join the chorus of voices calling for an American Indian Veterans Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. An Alaska Senate committee on Tuesday passed a resolution supporting the project.

Shakespeare Is Alive In The Capitol City, 24 Hours A Day

Lisa Phu, KTOO – Juneau

If he were alive today, William Shakespeare would be 450 years old in April. In honor of the event, the capitol city is celebrating with its first Bard-A-Thon, 24 hours of Shakespeare readings for eight consecutive days. The non-stop Shakespeare kicked off on Saturday.

Categories: Alaska News

Iditarod 42 Most Certainly One Of The Toughest

Wed, 2014-03-12 12:15

Martin was greeted by hugs galore from friends and family, handlers and his Nome hosts. KNOM Radio Mission photo.

This year’s Iditarod is not only record-breaking, it may have broken some mushers as well.

The 42 annual race will not soon be forgotten.  It’s being called on of the toughest in the race’s history.

There isn’t a veteran Iditarod musher who doesn’t agree this year’s was one of the toughest in the race’s 42 year history.  Aliy Zirkle is a 14-time finisher.  This year, she says the challenges between Anchorage and Nome were endless.

Moments after arriving at the finish line, Dallas Seavey crouches down in his sled, overcome with emotion. KNOM Radio Mission photo.

“Everyday has been harder than the next day, every day has been harder,” she said.

Early on, the Happy River Steps cracked sleds, snapped gang lines and left mushers bruised. The run through the Dalzell Gorge and over the Farewell Burn forced a dozen teams to scratch in a single day.  Teams faced long stretches of snow free trail in the Alaska Range, between Kaltag and Unalakleet and along the Bering Sea Coast.  But it was a fierce, Arctic wind that really shook Aily Zirkle on her final run to Nome.

“That was the most challenging couple of hours of my life dog mushing and that was very touch-and-go as far as whether I was going to make it to safety or not with my dog team,” Zirkle said.

Safety is the last checkpoint on the trail. The irony of its name isn’t lost on Zirkle. She says hurricane-force winds could have easily blown her petite sled dogs straight into the inky, roiling waters of the Bering Sea.

“For some reason they keep saying there’s no snow out here, but then there was a ground blizzard and you couldn’t see, so there’s snow somewhere,” Zirkle said. “If a person were to stop out there, that was a life or death thing there.”

At least two mushers did stop as the wind howled. Jeff King’s dog team got stuck for more than two hours just outside the last checkpoint on the trail. Hugh Neff’s team hunkered down overnight on thick glare ice outside White Mountain.  Eventually, both scratched from the race.

Mitch Seavey, who finished third and won last year, half-joked that he’d have to write a book about how he got his dog team down the trail.

“There’s a thousand things that happen, you know,” Seavey said. “One particular instance, we were trying to cross a sloping section of glare ice and the wind was blowing so hard from our right that one couldn’t stand up on a normal day, much less on glare ice and caught the sled dragged the entire team 100 yards backwards.”

Working his way down the line first with salmon strips, Martin came back down the line with pets, hugs, and kisses for his team. KNOM Radio Mission photo.

Seavey’s son Dallas won this year, claiming a second championship.  It’s likely the two will return to defend what’s becoming something of a family tradition. But things are different for Martin Buser.  He’s run the race 31 times, more than any other musher.  His arrival in Nome was extremely emotional. After a tearful greeting with his lead dogs at the finish line, Buser hugged his wife Kathy for a long time.

“You never have to do this again if you don’t want to.”

Buser is disappointed in his performance as a musher. He says he doesn’t believe he did well by his dogs.

“I’ve been out of control for so long. I can’t balance, I can’t do anything. I can’t steer a sled, I keep wrecking and falling,” he said. “I can’t do the dogs justice, that’s what’s so bad.”

Despite his long-lived mushing career, it’s unclear if Buser will come back to the race.

“I never say ‘never.’ You don’t get me to fall in that little trap,” he said. “I’m the only one that has never said ‘never,’ that way I don’t need to come back.”

Receiving congratulations from Iditarod Trail Committee Executive Director Stan Hooley. KNOM Radio Mission photo.

The same question came up for another long-time veteran.  More than once, Sonny Lindner has commented about retiring from the sport, but this year, he says it’s official.

“Well I started in ’78,” Lindner said.

He’s finished the race 21 times.  He says this year’s run was reminiscent of them all.

“Well, it had little part of all of them,” Lindner said. “The bad parts, I think.”

With that, Lindner climbed on the back of his sled, called to his dogs and took off out of the finish chute for what very well be the last time in a career that spans nearly as many decades as the race itself.

Categories: Alaska News

Not Guilty Plea For Fall Diving Death Near Ketchikan

Wed, 2014-03-12 11:59

A fisherman pleaded not guilty Monday in Ketchikan Superior Court to manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide. The two charges against 32-year-old Joshua Wodyga stem from a crew member’s death last fall while diving for sea cucumbers near Ketchikan.

Levi Adams of Kansas was declared dead at Ketchikan Medical Center on Oct. 8 after he was transported there from the F/V Ostrich.

In court on Monday, District Attorney Steve West said that Adams died from carbon monoxide poisoning, and West blamed the air compressor.

“The air compressor he used has a plate permanently attached to it that says not for human use,” he said. “The instructions specifically say don’t use this for breathing – that’s what he was using it for. And the mechanic went over it and said the defendant did a terrible job maintaining it.”

Superior Court Judge Trevor Stephens set a trial date for June 3, and asked the attorneys for bail suggestions. Diane Tobin, representing Wodyga for Monday’s arraignment, asked for a low bail of $500. She said that while the charges are serious, Adams’ death was accidental. Tobin noted that Wodyga has close ties to the community and is not a flight risk.

“This is a responsible young man,” she said. “He is in a relationship, tantamount to a marriage. He has a 2-year-old daughter, he also has a 10-year-old daughter from a past relationship. They are very important people in his life.”

Judge Stephens set bail at $1,000 cash, and appointed the state Public Defender Agency to represent Wodyga.  The next scheduled hearing in the case is April 2at 1 p.m.

Categories: Alaska News

Ketchikan-POW Ferry Aids Seafood, Retail, Tourism

Wed, 2014-03-12 11:56

A small southern Southeast Alaska ferry line is of large value to the region’s economy. That’s according to a new report studying the Inter-Island Ferry Authority.

The authority, known as the IFA, carries about 52,000 passengers a year.

A single ferry leaves the eastern Prince of Wales Island port of Hollis each morning. It arrives in Ketchikan about three hours later, and then waits ‘til the evening to sail back.

The Inter-Island Ferry Authority ship Stikine sails through Ketchikan’s Tongass Narrows. Photo by Ed Schoenfeld, CoastAlaska News.

A new study shows it’s an important part of the region’s economy. (Read the report.)

“No one is no more dependent on IFA’s daily timetable than those trying to get fresh or live seafood to market,” says Meilani Schijvens of Juneau-based Sheinberg Associates. She authored the report, funded by a state grant to the authority.

Schijvens says the ferry carries 3 million pounds of seafood a year, with a value of $15 million.

Researchers talked to Prince of Wales Island fishermen, divers and logistics workers for the report.

“And the businesses told us that without the IFA, they wouldn’t be in business,” Schijvens says. She says the ferry also supports seafood processors in Ketchikan.

The report says tourists and others traveling to the island spend close to $6 million a year. And islanders headed to Ketchikan purchase about $10 million in goods.

“We talked to the floor manager in Wal-Mart there and he let us know that approximately 10 percent of all of his customers are coming off the ferry. And those numbers add up,” Schijvens says.

A map of southern Southeast shows the route taken by the IFA ferry. (IFA image)

The Inter-Island Ferry Authority study also shows close to 4,000 students sailing the route in a year. About the same number traveled for medical care in Ketchikan or elsewhere.

Other details of economic and human impacts are included in the full report. (Read the report.)

“I think what it means to us is being able to explain to other people what we mean to them,” says Dennis Watson, the IFA’s general manager. He’s also mayor of Craig, the largest city on Prince of Wales.

He says it’s important to note that the ferry authority covers three-quarters of its costs through ticket sales. That‘s far more than the state ferry system, and better than its cousins in Washington state and British Columbia.

Watson says that still leaves about a $750,000 hole in the IFA’s $4 million-a-year budget.

The Parnell administration has put $500,000 in a funding bill, though there’s no guarantee it will make it through the Legislature.

Watson says some of what’s left will be raised internally.

“The board has entertained a fare increase just for adult walk-ons. The seniors and children or vehicles won’t be affected by it,” he says.

That’ll be a few dollars on top of the $46.25 one-way fare.

The Inter-Island Ferry Authority has provided Prince-of-Wales-to-Ketchikan service for about a dozen years. It also ran a northern route for a few seasons, but it didn’t attract enough passengers.

Before that, the Alaska Marine Highway System made port calls, but they were less frequent.

Report author Schijvens says that didn’t do a lot for island residents.

“They absolutely made it work for them at the time. But this is so much better, in terms of being able to have student groups travel, and to go from Prince of Wales to Ketchikan and back again during the day, and not have to get up in the middle of the night, and being able to go one way by ferry and to also come back by ferry,” she says.

Before it began, IFA critics predicted it would have to rely heavily on state funding to survive. The report says conditions have changed and the authority is doing well, given the situation.

That includes fuel costs that have risen five-fold since then and the island’s population shrinking by about a fifth.

Categories: Alaska News

Second Fat Tire Bike Race is Held in Talkeetna

Wed, 2014-03-12 11:52

Photo by Phillip Manning, KTNA – Talkeetna.

This past weekend, the second annual Mike Sterling Memorial Bike Race was held in Talkeetna.  Unlike summer events like the Clean Air Challenge or the Big Wild Ride, this race featured a type of bike specially built for ice and snow.

Fat tire bike racing has grown significantly in popularity over the last few years.  The bikes are not an uncommon sight in and around Anchorage, and more riders outside of the city are joining in.  At last weekend’s race, approximately eighty competitors pedaled their way for twenty, forty, or sixty miles on off-road trails.

The race is named in memory of Talkeetna resident Mike Sterling.  Greg Matyas, owner of race sponsor Fatback Bikes, explains how Sterling helped him plan for the first Talkeetna race before his passing in 2013.

“Mike was the sole reason for me coming up and checking out the trails, there.  He would talk non-stop about how nice it was,” Matyas said. “I had the pleasure of going up several years ago and seeing it for myself, and I agreed.”

“I spoke with Mike many times about possible courses and distances I had in mind.  He made some suggestions, and here we are.”

The race began at 9:00 a.m. on Saturday, with temperatures a few degrees below zero.  By the afternoon, it had warmed up considerably, and riders who had finished were hanging out on Main Street talking about the beautiful view of Denali afforded by the race’s route as well as the good weather.

Paul Pierce of Anchorage was one of the competitors in the 60-mile division.  It is his second year competing in the event, and he had high praise for the trails and groomers.

“It was better than last year.  I came up last year and this was far better….You can definitely tell people spent a lot of time out there…real labor of love putting the trail in,” Pierce said. “It’s great.  I didn’t really know trails like this existed around Talkeetna until last year.  They’re excellent.  It would be well worth a trip up here on just about any weekend to check those trails out.”

Pierce has been riding fat tire bikes for about five years.  He says his bike, which he proudly describes as one of the original aluminum models produced by Fatback, has changed more than just recreation for him.

“I see a lot of people who are into it just for the novelty of the fat tire.  I think if you want to ride your bike up here year-round, you can’t go wrong,” Pierce said. “I was a year-round commuter for ten years, maybe.  The first five were on skinny tires.  That was commuting, and now it’s riding for fun.”

Fun on the trail is not the only aim of the race, however.  After all, Alaska is full of great wilderness rides.  Race sponsor Greg Matyas says he and his fellow sponsors like to have the race in Talkeetna because of…Talkeetna.

“The town of Talkeetna is such a fun place to visit, and it lends itself very well to putting on an event like this,” Matyas said. “One of the requirements for me for putting on the race is to end on a high note.  For me, that’s not ending in a parking lot in the middle of nowhere.  People can cross the finish line and have a beer in their hand within a minute.”

With the race beginning and ending mere feet from the door of race co-sponsor Denali Brewing Company, it’s safe to assume that many riders took the opportunity to do just that.

Categories: Alaska News

Two Men Sentenced In Shooting At Sitka’s Pioneer Bar

Wed, 2014-03-12 11:45

Sitka’s District Court has sentenced two men linked to a September shooting at Sitka’s Pioneer Bar.

Fifty-five-year-old Richard Davis will serve two months in jail for assault and misconduct involving a weapon.  Twenty-two–year-old Tyler Westlund already served five days in jail, and still owes a $1,000 fine for criminal mischief resulting in property damage. The two men were not from Sitka – Davis is from Juneau and Westlund is from Port Townsend, Washington.

The incident started in September when Davis and another man were arguing inside of the men’s restroom of the Pioneer Bar. The pair reportedly have had a longstanding-feud. According to court records, the man fled the bar when Davis pulled a gun from his waistband.

Davis fired the gun, leaving a hole in the floor. Davis then handed the gun to Westlund who ran out of the bar with it tucked in the waistband of his pants. At the time of the shooting, Police said Westlund was Davis’s deckhand on his fishing vessel.

No one was injured in the incident.

Categories: Alaska News

Small Victories, Big Problems for Buccaneer In Alaska

Wed, 2014-03-12 11:29

Since Buccaneer Energy arrived on the scene in Alaska in the summer of 2011, it has seen a few victories and a host of unexpected problems.

Thanks to incentives passed by the Alaska State Legislature and investment of taxpayer dollars in new oil and gas exploration in Cook Inlet, the Australia-based company had big plans for Alaska.

A key part of the plan was the 400-foot-tall jack-up rig Endeavor, which arrived in Kachemak Bay in August of that year with the intention of getting right to work on several leases the company held throughout the inlet.

Endeavor jack-up rig. Photo by Bill Smith

It wasn’t long, however, before Endeavor became the first of many problems for Buccaneer. While the 30-year-old rig sat idle at the Homer Deepwater Dock, it was discovered that it needed many repairs. The company had to scrap plans to drill at Tyonek and the Cosmopolitan Unit while Endeavour awaited permits and inspections at the Homer harbor.

Then, during a massive windstorm in September, the Endeavor damaged the Deepwater Dock and was forced to extend its legs into 18 feet of mud in Kachemak Bay in order to stabilize the rig. Officials with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game eventually decided that the presence of the Endeavor – even with its legs extended – did not violate provisions of the Kachemak Bay Critical Habitat Area.

In the spring of 2013, as Buccaneer prepared for a busy summer drilling season, the company’s relationship with the Homer community, which had not seen any oil and gas activity since the 1970s, suffered a setback. The City of Homer accused the company of falling more than six weeks behind in its dock payments, owing a total of more than $75,000.

At the same time, a group of local workers who had been repairing the Endeavour rig walked off the job, saying they had also not been paid in weeks. Buccaneer eventually settled its debt with the city and blamed the labor dispute on a subcontractor. That argument quickly found its way into the court system.

The Endeavour rig did eventually drill at Cosmopolitan Unit last summer, finding a gas deposit at a depth of about 4,300 feet and flaring a well at that location.

Meanwhile, Buccaneer saw some success with its onshore project at Kenai Loop, near the Kenai Wal-Mart, although the company is now locked in a legal battle with Cook Inlet Region Incorporated over whether that project was conducted properly. The two sides will go back to the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission for another hearing next month.

While the company struggled to meet deadlines for its work in and around Cook Inlet, Buccaneer also found itself under fire at home in Australia. An attempted board of directors’ coup was fought off last July and company CEO Curtis Burton kept his job. But the message was clear that many of Buccaneer’s shareholders were not happy with the company’s direction.

A series of capital raising efforts and selling of assets followed, with Buccaneer giving up much of its stake in several Cook Inlet leases and onshore projects.

Last December, as the company prepared to move its onshore Glacier drilling rig from Kenai to Homer, to begin work on its West Eagle project out East End Road, the shakeups continued at Buccaneer. Alaska President Jim Watt was fired, as was Vice President Allen Huckabay and Alaska Spokesperson Christina Anderson.

2014 began with Buccaneer selling off its remaining 25 percent share in the Cosmo Unit and half its interest in Kenai Offshore Ventures, the partnership between a Singapore-based investment firm and Alaska taxpayers that helped fund the purchase of the Endeavor rig.

With new loans secured, the company began work at West Eagle in January. A few weeks later, however, the company faced its latest hurdle when the only well it drilled at the location came up dry and it was forced to abandon the project.

Now, with Buccaneer Energy’s stock on the Australian Stock Exchange sitting at less than a penny per share, some shareholders are calling for the Australian Securities and Investments Commission to conduct an investigation of the company’s activities.

The State of Alaska will be on the hook for much of the cost of Buccaneer’s efforts in the area.

In his latest quarterly report, Burton said the company has so far recovered $30.5 million from the state through ACES, with another $24.5 million co-invested in the Endeavor jack-up rig through the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority.

Categories: Alaska News

North Pacific Seafoods Fined $205,000 for Ammonia Dumping

Wed, 2014-03-12 10:57

A Kodiak seafood processor has been fined over $200,000 after pleading guilty to illegally dumping 40 pounds of ammonia into the city’s sewer system in 2011. The announcement came Tuesday from U.S. Attorney Karen Loeffler in Anchorage.

North Pacific Seafoods chief engineer Bill Long is scheduled to be arraigned in state court on Friday on a charge of violating the permit regulated by the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation.

The count North Pacific Seafoods pled guilty to was a violation of the federal Clean Water Act. The company is based in Seattle and is a subsidiary of Japanese seafood giant Marubeni.

The 40-pounds of ammonia, which is used in cooling and ice making in canneries, broke the secondary treatment at the city’s sewer treatment plant, causing a violation of the city’s Clean Water Act permit.

The dumping was detected Nov. 29, 2011 and was traced by the Kodiak Public Works Department to North Pacific’s APS plant on the Kodiak Waterfront. Long initially said the ammonia dump did not come from his plant, but later admitted to the discharge.

A joint investigation by the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation determined that the facility had been discharging ammonia into St. Paul Harbor before and after the sewer incident.

The city of Kodiak will receive $55,000 of $205,000 fine to be used for hazardous wast response training. The terms of probation ordered by Judge Ralph Beistline also require that North Pacific Seafoods provide training for its employees at all five facilities in Alaska regarding proper handling of hazardous wastes and specifically ammonia.

Categories: Alaska News

Labor Language Reinserted In Gasline Bill

Tue, 2014-03-11 21:33

The latest version of a bill advancing a natural gas megaproject restores language concerning collective bargaining.

The Senate Finance Co-Chair Pete Kelly announced on Tuesday evening that the committee will scrap the less specific language they had planned to use when dealing with labor terms. Instead, the new version of the bill will include provisions encouraging Alaska hire and addressing “project labor agreements.” That means labor organizations will be involved in setting the wages and benefits for work on the project. Union and non-union firms could both secure contracts with the provision.

Sen. Click Bishop, a Fairbanks Republican, pushed to include the language in the bill.

“We want to make sure that as far as practicable, that the producers and the state contract with Alaska businesses,” said Bishop.

The North Slope gas project is seen as a jobs bonanza by many members of the Legislature – it would involve the construction of an 800-mile pipeline and cost at least $45 billion. The oil companies that are party to the agreement already signed off on the idea of project labor agreements when they inked a deal with the Parnell administration in January.

The Senate Finance Committee also accepted two separate amendments to the bill on Tuesday. They added a non-compete clause, which prohibits state officers involved in gasline negotiations from taking work with the other parties involved in the contract for three years after their termination date. They also specified that the Alaska Gasline Development Corporation should represent the state’s interest in a natural gas liquefaction plant, rather than creating a subsidiary to do so.

The changes build on the revisions the Senate Finance Committee debuted on Monday, which include bumping the tax rate from the 10 percent proposed by Gov. Sean Parnell up to 13 percent. That would give the state 25 percent equity in the project.

The bill is expected to be sent to the Senate floor for a vote within a week.

Categories: Alaska News

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