APRN Alaska News
Clean up and assessment work continues following a diesel spill in southern Cook Inlet over the weekend. The vessel in question is currently tied up in Seldovia, on the southern Kenai Peninsula.
The 116-foot landing craft, Thor’s Hammer, was traveling from Seward to Bristol Bay when it encountered rough seas between Gore Point and Nuka Island, which is in Kachemak Bay State Park. Winds were reported in that area at 25 knots with seas to six feet Friday night.
Steven Russell is an environmental program manager with the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation. He says the vessel itself wasn’t damaged, but its cargo was.
“They had a 9,000 gallon tank trailer onboard the vessel and it moved,” Russell said. “It didn’t necessarily break loose, but it shifted and punctured the tank trailer in two places.”
He says crews attempted to make temporary repairs at sea. They then headed for the calmer waters near Flat Island and were met by response teams including the Coast Guard and DEC Saturday morning.
Russell says the crew considered taking the vessel to Port Graham Saturday evening for repairs, but due to limited facilities and logistics, they decided to go its larger neighbor, Seldovia, on Sunday instead.
“The vessel transited from the Gore Point, Nuka Island area to lower Cook Inlet and conducted additional repairs,” Russell said. “It’s estimated that in that transit, they lost approximately 6000 gallons of Number 1 diesel fuel.”
Russell says the nature of diesel fuel in that environment is that it would break apart and dissipate quickly, with no obvious remnants after about an hour.
He says the leaks on the tanker were secured Saturday and it is not producing a visible sheen from the deck.
Once in Seldovia, Thor’s Hammer was boomed off. On Monday afternoon, about 3000 gallons of diesel was offloaded from the damaged tanker.
The vessel is still tied up at the Seldovia City Dock where it’s being evaluated and decontaminated. It’s under the supervision of the U.S. Coast Guard and Alaska Chedux, a private contractor specializing in spill response and cleanup.
“That operation will continue until the Coast Guard and others are sure that the vessel is no longer a potential environmental threat,” Russell said. “We have seen no leakage from the vessel, no sheening from the vessel since it arrived in the southern Cook Inlet.”
Russell says the Department of Interior, National Marine Fisheries Service, and National Wildlife Service evaluated potential harm to wildlife in the area and found none.
“We had certain concerns about bird areas and seal and sea lions,” Russell said. Currently, we have had no indication that any wildlife has been affected by this.”
He says there are still a few unknowns like did the fuel gush out all at once in a single area after it was first damaged or did it seep out over the miles the vessel traveled to safe harbor.
The incident team is waiting for automated vessel tracking information to more closely pinpoint its route.
Russell says the Coast Guard, which is leading the operation, should release more information over the next few days.
No injuries, or damage to the vessel, have been reported.
Anchorage police are investigating a south Anchorage shooting Monday night that left a man dead.
Anchorage television station KTUU reports police took a call on shots fired at 11:25 p.m. and responded to a home on Pokey Circle near Lake Otis Parkway and 84th Avenue.
Police found a man dead and witnesses at the home.
Police say the dead man’s next of kin has been notified but they have not released his name.
Police say they’re not looking for the shooter and that all people involved were taken to the police station.
Neighbor Kellie Robinson says she heard as many as six gunshots.
Alaska transportation officials say flood waters have receded enough for repairs to begin on the Dalton Highway.
The Alaska Department of Transportation said Sunday the repairs will re-establish a lifeline to Prudhoe Bay and the North Slope.
The ongoing flooding prompted Gov. Bill Walker to issue a second disaster declaration late last week.
Culverts are being installed on the north end of the highway to allow flood waters to flow back into the main channel of the Sag River. On the south end, crews will continue to excavate, haul and stockpile materials necessary for rebuilding miles of washed out highway.
The highway remains closed from Mile 335 to Mile 413. There’s no estimate on when the road will re-open.
As Negotiations Continue, Little Public Action From Legislature; Repair Work To Begin On Dalton Highway; Body Found in Bethel Park Identified; Alaska Native Medical Center Starts Construction Of Patient Housing; Tyonek Tribe Grateful For Land Donation; Eielson Air Force Base Investigates Ground Water Contamination; Scientist Maps Spill Potential For Seabirds; Klukwan Seniors Graduate In Class Of Two.
Residents of Togiak, Illiumna, Port Heiden, among others, came to Dillingham for scientific training. It’s part of the Indian Environmental General Assistance Program or IGAP. The researchers are looking to set a baseline data set of water quality and temperature in the region.
At Nielsen creek a few miles south of Aleknagik Lake, Aisha Upton fiddled with a fickle PH meter. After the meter shut off on her she had to turn it back on and start the test all over again. She hunched over and put the meter back in the water and counted to 20 to get an accurate reading.
“18…19…20,” counted Upton. “7.19. And the water temperature is 5.1.”
Upton flew over from Togiak for this training. This will be her first year as an IGAP coordinator. She sees it as a way to help protect the natural resources of her village and gain experience in field research. She’s also working towards becoming a marine biologist.
“I am hoping with this job I’ll have a lot more time to focus on doing a lot of environmental stuff as well as class,” said Upton.
The EPA requires that all IGAP coordinators attend an annual training, which was headed up this week by Sue Mauger, a Science Director with Cook Inlet Keepers.
“And I think it is good for both the meters and for them to brush off the winter cob webs,” said Mauger. “And get the meters running more smoothly and getting their heads back in the game for collecting samples.”
The IGAP coordinators record water quality, and new this year, they’ll also measure the water temperature.
“So of the work we are doing the water temperature, we are targeting salmon streams because we are trying to see whether we have temperatures that are any stress to salmon,” added Mauger.
Mauger is one of two full-time researchers who works with these community scientists. Dan Bogan is the other. He’s been a part of this annual training for a decade.
“I guess what motives a lot of the people that are here are the threats on the horizon in some of the villages; mining threats, development coming in and potentially changing water quality,” stated Bogan.
Bogan says the work of these environmental coordinators sets up a baseline that researchers like himself can use to see what, if any, changes happen to these water systems in the future. And that data would be hard to come by without them.
“We have 40% of the nation’s surface water in this state and know less than about 1% of it,” said Bogan. “In just about every one of these villages they are the only people out there collecting this information.”
Aisha Upton is quick to figure out the recording equipment. After finishing up the PH test, she records the amount of oxygen in the creek. She says she’s ready to put these new skills to work when she gets home.
“Get everybody informed about how important it is to save our environment and especially preserve it for many years to come, for the next generation,” said Upton.
Walrus fans everywhere can now watch the thousands of walruses sunning on Round Island live via a new set of walrus cams.
This live stream is sponsored by Explore.org, an organization that has installed these wildlife cams all over the world.
Our first cam in Alaska was in Katmai with Ranger Roy with the brown bears and salmon,” said Charles Annenberg Weingarden, the founder of Explore.org and the vice president of the Annenberg Foundation.
The idea for the cams, he says, “was to allow people to get up close and personal with nature, to allow people to reconnect, to fall in love with the world again.”
Weingarden says he’s always had an interest in marine life, but walruses especially captured his attention.
“You know they’re vocal… they sing they speak… they look lazy but they’re great singers, which I relate to… I love the way they move their heads. The tusk is amazing. They’re swimming tanks! They’re two to four thousand pounds!”
Weingarten says he was especially excited to bring cameras to a place as hard to reach as Round Island.
“Not only is it remote, it’s very weather prohibitive It’s very difficult to fly there, it’s not an easy journey,” said Weingarten. So to be able to connect the world to such a sacred place is amazing…”
The cameras live-stream from two different beaches on Round Island, where thousands of male walruses “haul out” to rest in the spring and summer. Weingarten says that’s a party everyone is going to want to check out:
“Now I’ve almost made it comical, because now that I’m watching them on the live cams, I’ve dubbed this summer – this Memorial Day weekend – the ‘Summer of Blubber’ to just enjoy and celebrate… but I just think with the walruses, it’s such a magical place.”
The Annenberg Foundation also provided funding to keep Round Island staffed after last year’s budget cuts threatened to close the island to visitors.
Check out the beach party live on Explore.org.
A new fish processor opened its doors in Kent, Washington this spring. It is operated by the Aleutian Pribilof Island Community Development Association. Revenue from the processor is expected to help fuel economies in remote communities along the Aleutian chain.
In 2013, APICDA acquired Cannon Fish Company. The Association already has two primary fish processing plants in False Pass and Atka where fish are gutted and heads are removed, but there is no secondary processor that can filet and portion fish for restaurants, cruise ships and other businesses. Larry Cotter is APICDA’s CEO.
“The fact of the matter is there is no transportation link between western Alaska and Anchorage or Southeast Alaska everything has to be shipped to Seattle,” said Cotter.
That’s why APICDA chose to open a processor in Kent – 20 miles from Seattle. For years Cannon has contracted other companies for custom processing. Cotter said the new processor translates to both a cost savings and additional profits.
“The waste that we produce, we get paid to sell that waste to somebody who converts it into meal and fertilizer. When we buy boxes of fish that come in Styrofoam, we get to sell the Styrofoam as well,” he said.
The new processor has the potential to employ 200 people. Cotter said APICDA is not recruiting in Alaska for positions in Kent.
APICDA is one of six groups in Western Alaska that are part of the Community Development Quota, or CDQ, program tasked with developing stable economies in villages like False Pass, St. George and Atka – communities Cotter says are in need of heavy investment.
“We have a plant in Atka,” he explained. “That plans operates about five months a year right now. We need to move that plant into year-round production mode as well, which will probably cost another $17 million. We desperately need a harbor in St. George and we’re already committed toward putting $10 million towards that harbor,” said Cotter.
But he said that kind of money just isn’t available from APICDA’s Western Alaska-based businesses or through royalties.
“We have to be also invested in outside profitable companies in order to generate the revenues we need to develop in our communities,” he said.
Cotter said fish headed for the Kent processor is caught by fishing families based in the Aleutians. He added Cannon Fish Company revenues increased by 20 percent in the last year. He expects the uptick to continue on an annual basis in the future.
Ground water contamination at Eielson Air Force Base may have spread off the facility. The Air Force has contacted private property owners in the nearby Moose Creek area offering to test well water for presence of a chemical presumed to be from firefighting foam formerly used at the base.
Eric Breitenberger, a manager with the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation Contaminated sites program, says there’s already known to be extensive pollution at Eielson.
“There’s a fairly large groundwater plume of perflourinated compounds, and we know that it extends to the northern boundary of the base. We don’t know yet if it extends beyond the base boundary.”
Breitenberger says the Air Force previously abandoned some older base wells that tested in excess of an Environmental Protection Agency provisional health advisory level for perflourinated compounds.
“The one in particular is called ‘P-FOSS’, perflouro octane sulfonate, and its an emerging contaminate, and what we mean by an emerging contaminate is that we have very limited data on toxicity, and particularly with regards to human health effects. Most of the health effects we know about are based on animal studies.”
The studies show blood, liver and kidney effects. Breitenberger says firefighting suppression foams containing “P-FOSS” were used from 1970 to 2 thousand. He says perflourinated compounds are known to readily spread.
“These perflourinated compounds are very resistant to degradation. They last a long time in the groundwater, so te groundwater plumes can be very extensive.”
Breitenberger adds that perflourinated compounds are in a range of industrial and commercial products and have also been detected in ground water at other interior sites, including the Flint Hills North Pole Refinery, but not in excess of the advisory level. The DEC is over seeing the water testing of Moose Creek wells. Eielson is federal Superfund Site, regulated by the DEC and EPA. Eielson had no one available to comment Friday.
Federal officials say in 2014 they intercepted nearly ten times as much heroin coming into Alaska than in 2013. The growing use of the drug is impacting urban and rural areas. This is the first in a series of three stories about the impacts of heroin in Bethel and how the community is fighting it. It begins with one woman’s struggle to get clean in Bethel.
Don’t be fooled by Tracy Faulkner’s 5’4” frame. The small brunette with thick hair and the nickname malaggai, which means “fur hat” in Yup’ik, is a former wrestling champion.
She competed against boys in high school, going all the way to state and national competition. But in her off time she hid a dark secret.
“When I wasn’t training I would go and use — steal my parents’ booze, you know, find weed. It eventually progressed to taking pills,” said Faulkner.
That started when she was 12. One semester into college drugs started taking a priority over schoolwork. She dropped out and returned to Bethel where she tried school again, but her drug use intervened. She started a food truck business, but couldn’t maintain that either. That’s when Faulkner’s need for escape escalated.
“I got addicted to Tramadol – started taking that, eventually it wasn’t doing the trick for me anymore – I wanted that same high which I first got in the beginning. Then went to Oxycontin, and then went to using heroin,” said Faulkner.
Faulkner smoked it. Others inject. She couldn’t hold a job and was stealing to support her habit. Each high, or ‘nifty’ as they’re called, cost $100 here.
There are no treatment programs specifically for heroin addiction in Bethel. Treatment centers in Anchorage have waiting lists. Rick Robb is Bethel’s Mayor and also runs residential facilities for the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation. “It seems like a few years ago it would be non-existent to rare, but now we’re seeing full-blown heroin and we’re seeing it more and more. So the numbers are definitely increasing,” said Robb.
YKHC’s behavioral health division offers outpatient and inpatient treatment for those struggling to get off drugs and alcohol. But there are only 16 beds at the local center and they’re not equipped to handle heroin withdrawal. Sometimes, Robb says, people endure the painful process in the hospital emergency room or at home.
“People can come in if they have a problem, and we’re gonna do the best we can with the resources we have to get people the help they need. I think we have to. There’s some emphasis on us. We have to improve our programing specifically for heroin and we have to learn more about it,” said Robb.
Faulkner says she distinctly remembers the day this winter when she gazed out the window at a friend’s house and realized she wanted to make a change.
“I remember looking out on the river and just seeing everybody living life and I was stuck in this dark place,” said Faulkner.
But with no detox facility in Bethel, Faulkner realized it would have to be cold turkey. She reached out to an uncle for help. He cared for her as she went through withdrawal.
“You get sick to your bones, I mean you want to crawl out of your skin. You lay in bed all day. You have the shakes, the sweats, you know. You’re puking, out the other end, you know it’s bad to where I couldn’t get out of bed,” said Faulkner.
After detox at home, she was ready to check herself into the local treatment program run by YKHC. But it wasn’t an easy process. YKHC told her it could take weeks to get an assessment necessary to access treatment. Instead of waiting she got the assessment at a local primary care clinic and was able to check in to in-patient treatment through YKHC within a few days. Robb, with YKHC, says he knows they need to do a better job of getting patients quickly into treatment. Now Faulkner is done with her treatment program. She says she gains strength from her ancestors and from her young son, who she says deserves to grow up in a healthy environment.
“It’s our younger generation that’s going to be most affected by this. I mean, our heritage, our culture is gonna be lost. For me, looking at my own child, I don’t want him to grow up in this kind of community. I want him to grow up in the community that I was raised in. Where we showed love for each other, where we cared for each other, where we stood as one,” said Faulkner.
Faulkner says she knows she’s in a unique position to help unite people in the region around the issue, and now that she’s clean that will be her focus.
Alaska State Troopers and Bethel Police are investigating after a body was found in a Bethel park. A press release from the Bethel Police Department Sunday said, in the early morning hours, around 4 a.m., witnesses reported a dead body near Pinky’s Park Boardwalk. Police responded and found the remains of a female in nearby bushes.
Investigators from the Alaska State Troopers Alaska Bureau of Investigation were dispatched to the scene from Anchorage and are working with the BPD Investigations Unit.
Currently the female has not been identified and the details of the case are not being released. But police are urging anyone with information regarding the case to call Bethel Police and speak with Investigative Sergeant Amy Davis.
Alaska State Troopers arrested a Sleetmute man Friday on a warrant for sexual abuse of a minor. Aniak-based Troopers arrested Sakar N. Zaukar of Sleetmute at his Housing Road residence around 3 p.m.
The 44-year-old was placed under arrest on an outstanding warrant for Sexual Abuse of a Minor in the Second Degree, Sexual Assault in the Second Degree, and Sexual Assault in the Third Degree.
Zaukar was remanded to the YKCC in lieu of $25,000 bail and court approved third party custodian.
Sixteen researchers from the United States, Canada, Finland, Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Russia, and Sweden will participate in the Fulbright Arctic Initiative. The group will meet in three countries for three different seminars. Each person will join a team to research developments in one of four specific areas: health, water, energy, and infrastructure. Individuals will also make international trips for their specific areas of study.
“We work in cross disciplines to find the common ground of different issues. For example, our climate up here is warming at twice the rate as the rest of the world. How does that affect communities relative to family, wellness, health and sustainability,” says Dr. Linda Chamberlain.
Dr. Linda Chamberlain’s work falls under health and she will contribute to the initiative by sharing her 20 plus years’ experience studying ACEs or Adverse Childhood Experiences. Simply put, she says ACEs are examples of childhood trauma.
“The original research on ACEs looked at all forms of child maltreatment so sexual, physical, and emotional. It also looked at neglect,” says Chamberlain.
She adds ACEs also stem from household dysfunction caused by substance abuse, domestic violence, divorce, and a litany of other issues. The other side of her work is building community resiliency.
“What can we do to keep those tough times during childhood from affecting brain development, a child’s school performance, and the long term health effects that we know can happen with this,” says Chamberlain.
But, how does the other researchers’ work impact ACEs in the Arctic and vice versa? Chamberlain explains it like this. Problems in households that negatively impact children can be triggered or worsened by outside stressors. Take climate change for example.
“That is affecting subsistence living. It affects the fish. It affects the fishing lifestyles [and] families’ economic welfare. Then you have another layer of pressure on a family or community that may already be struggling with these issues,” says Chamberlain.
And Chamberlain will in turn be a voice that pushes to understand what effect ACEs can have on the issues her fellow researchers are studying. Chamberlain expects the opportunity to learn from her Fulbright colleagues will be priceless.
“Communities like Homer are working to become trauma informed. I think we’ve learned a lot from communities elsewhere who are doing a lot of work around that and now we have an opportunity to learn from communities who live like we do in the circumpolar world,” says Chamberlain.
The researchers met for the first time this week for a program orientation in Iqaluit in the Canadian Territory of Nunavut. Through the next year they will conduct their research at home as well as travel to institutions located in the home countries of the initiative’s participants.
Chamberlain will visit Finland in June to give a presentation on ACEs and from there she’ll travel to a research center in Nova Scotia that studies community resilience.
“Then I’ll be back home laying out what my research plan will be. I’ll be spending the spring in Finland doing my research, but I’ll also be returning there in February,” says Chamberlain.
Once all the teams’ research is complete and the results are analyzed the initiative will culminate in a final meeting next year in Washington D.C. Chamberlain plans to share the end result of her research online.
Aggressive response and the public’s adherence to good fire practices are keeping forest fires down in Alaska despite tinderbox conditions in much of the state.
Through Sunday the Alaska Interagency Coordination Center reported 159 fires this year but fewer than seven square miles burned.
Unseasonably warm and dry temperatures coupled with grasses that remain brown from lack of moisture are making spring fire danger high.
The Yukon Flats and surrounding uplands, Fortymile River country, the Deltana-Tanana flats, and the Eastern Alaska Range remain under a red flag warning watch.
Fire agency spokesman Tim Mowry says two air tankers, a water-scooping aircraft and 16 smokejumpers from Boise, Idaho, were moved to Alaska last week because of the continued danger.
He says the public is to be credited for following burn laws.
A Tok man has been jailed after troopers say he fired a gun into a sporting goods store while his wife was locked inside.
The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reports that Alaska State Troopers responded to calls about a disturbance at Three Bears Outpost in Tok and found a 59-year-old man leaving the area.
Officials say he was intoxicated and had been arguing with his wife. When he tried to enter the sporting goods store to contact her, the manager locked him out.
Troopers say the man then fired three shots into the store with his handgun, narrowly missing the manager.
They charged the man with misconduct involving weapons, assault and driving under the influence.
His picture was on the wall in the small terminal building – Lt. Laird Hendricks, 25, young, like most military men and women. It said he died July 28,1941, in a B-17 crash in England and was Florida’s first war causality. No other information. The Pearl Harbor attack was five months later: December 1941. I needed to know more.
I was at the Sebring Airport in central Florida, on the Experimental Aircraft Association’s “experience history” tour. I serve as volunteer pilot-docent on a B-17, a 70-year-old World War II bomber, known as the Flying Fortress. It was used mainly out of England for daylight bombing raids over Germany. Those missions were responsible for victory in Europe.
But victory came at a high price.
Over 4,000 planes, each with 10 crew, were lost in combat. Sebring airport had originally been built in 1942 as B-17 crew training base – known then as Hendricks field.
After graduating from a small-town high school in Florida, Hendricks attended a military prep school for a year, hoping for a military career. He was selected for West Point and graduated from there just before his 23rd birthday in 1939. The Army Air Corp took only the best for flight school. Hendricks was selected. Primary flight training was in Texas – most likely in the biplane trainer of the day: the open-cockpit Stearman. Then came multi-engine training. And finally training in the B-17 – the biggest, baddest, most complex, airplane of the day. Early in 1941, Hendricks, 24, with about 200 hours of flight time, graduated from flight school – a four-engine bomber pilot and a lieutenant.
I remember being a young 200-hour pilot. It was exciting.
The Germans started bombing London in the fall of 1940. The U S. did not want to enter the fight. It’s was still more than a year before Peal Harbor. So what do we do in those situations? Send weapons. We sold 20 B-17Cs to England. The 17C was the latest model, but had problems with the autopilot, engines, and oxygen systems. They went to a Royal Air Force base in Polebrook, England. What goes with the weapons? Advisors. Sound familiar? Lt. Laird Hendricks volunteered – a choice assignment for a young officer from a rural Florida town.
He reported to Polebrook on Friday, July 25, and made an entry in diary he bought in London: “First day at RAF station Polebrook England.” His last entry was two days later on Sunday, July 28: “Taking a ship up tomorrow.”
July 28, late in the afternoon, the B-17C with Lt. Hendricks and six other RAF crew members took off on a training test flight – not a combat mission. Fewer than 30 minutes later the plane was seen by witnesses falling out of the sky with a wing coming off. All were lost. Not heroically in combat. The sacrifice was just as great though. The results as tragic to loved ones left behind. More than 4,000 B-17s were lost in noncombat flights.
I can’t help but think of those serving in Alaska who have also made that sacrifice. The C-17 crew a couple years ago at Elmendorf . The young F-22 pilot on night training mission over Gulkana. Doesn’t really matter what happened. They paid the ultimate price serving. It’s dangerous work our young military men and women sign on for – even in peacetime. They are all heroes.
Hip Hop is more than just music and dancing; it’s a culture based on bringing people together. That was the message during this weekend’s All Tribes Hip Hop Cultural Heritage Summit at Begich Middle School in East Anchorage.
Local break dancer Brianna McMillen is surrounded by an eager group of elementary school students who are spinning on their backs and standing on their heads. Camo sweatpants hang from her petite but powerful frame, baseball hat askew on her head. She’s providing an impromptu dance lesson.
“I want you to move your foot there… Then do this,” she says while demonstrating an awkward crab-like walk.
McMillen, aka Bgirl Snap1, started listening to hip hop as teenager at South High in Anchorage.
“I could relate it to an adrenal rush on nice sunny day,” she says of listening to hip hop. “Just that rush of good feeling and just like that breathe of fresh air that life is really good.”
But she says at 16, she couldn’t really express what she felt physically.
“I loved music, but I never felt very rhythmically coordinated. I was more of an athlete more than anything. I didn’t know how to dance. And when I saw breaking I saw all the athleticism in it, and all the crazy moves that they were doing. And they were still dancing to the music that was just catching my ear.”
McMillen says through breaking, she met kids from all over town and from a variety of different backgrounds. She soon learned that hip hop isn’t just creativity, it’s self-discipline. She’s using that skill as a Blackhawk mechanic with the National Guard. She says hip hop is also about understanding that people are all just people.
Summit organizer and hip hop artist George Martinez explains that hip hop was created in New York in the 1970s as a way to unify people.
“Because fundamentally it was a group of people who are unlikelies – the write-offs, people who were poor, the people of color in the South Bronx who everyone forgot about who decided that just with cardboard boxes, they could transform a sidewalk into a dance studio and give each other hope.”
Martinez says hip hop values are peace, knowledge, and having fun. The culture gives people tools to compete and air their differences through non-violent, creative means. He says underground battles are happening all the time in Anchorage to see who raps better or dances better.
Samuel Johns grew up in Copper Center living a traditional lifestyle of hunting and fishing with his family. But he also listened to a lot of Tupac. He told the crowd of 40 youth and community members that it was Tupac’s storytelling through music that taught him how to connect to older generations. Now he’s known as AK Rebel and raps about ending domestic abuse and other violence.
“When I make music, I make music that will be remembered 10 years from now because it meant something. Because it’s a real story. It’s not just something that’s meant for clubs; it’s not just something that people dance to.”
Outside of the school, tall white wooden boards lean against a lamppost – temporarily blank canvases. Fourteen-year-old Kwali Phillips shakes a can of spray paint. He’s learning about another element of hip hop, graffiti art, as he reflects on the messages he learned from different rappers.
“Just to be true to myself and don’t make an impersonation of somebody. Not to portray myself in a negative light,” he says.
12-year-old Layla Kremer says the music and the dancing unite the kids at Begich Middle School.
“If, like, a new dance comes out, like all the kids are doing it. Everybody’s doing it. Like with the Whip, Lil’ Einstein’s music. Like I’ve seen white people, black people, African-Americans, Chinese. All just hanging out and doing the exact same dance just hanging out. It brings us all closer together.”
She grabs some paint and leans over a friend to add her mark to the board.
With negotiations over the state’s multi-billion-dollar budget deficit still underway, the Alaska House and Senate met in brief and uneventful floor sessions over the weekend.
Because there was no agreement to vote on, the House session lasted 15 minutes. The Senate session was over in five. Both bodies also canceled separate Finance hearings. While no public action was taken on the budget, which requires a draw of $3 billion dollars from the state’s rainy day account or another fund, legislative leaders were optimistic that a deal could soon be reached.
Senate President Kevin Meyer, an Anchorage Republican, says there has been some progress between the House’s Republican Majority and Democratic Minority. Meyer says Speaker Mike Chenault has been talking to House Minority Leader Chris Tuck about what Democrats need to support drawing from the rainy day fund.
“If their requests are reasonable, I think the Senate will be amenable. If Mike has to give a lot to get Chris and the minority on board, then we could be at this for a while, because it’ll be a hard sell to the Senate.”
In most situations, a three-quarter vote is needed to draw from the state’s constitutional budget reserve. Democrats have withheld their support for more than a month in hopes of increasing funding for education and advancing other aspects of their agenda.
Last week, the Republican majorities had floated a plan to circumvent the Democrats using a loophole to the three-quarter rule. That threshold drops down to a majority vote, if funds in other accounts — like the Permanent Fund Earnings Reserve — are not available for spending. In a bit of tricky accounting, Republicans had proposed moving money in the earnings reserve account to the corpus of the Permanent Fund, so that money would not count against them when taking a vote on the budget reserve.
But a group of six majority members opposed that plan, out of concern that it could have a negative impact on dividends in years where the stock market was weak.
Sen. Bill Wielechowski, an Anchorage Democrat, says that fracture has reinvigorated the budget compromise.
“I do think this week something’s going to happen,” says Wielechowski. “I feel like we’re getting close to a resolution on this.”
Lawmakers have until June 1 to pass a budget before layoff notices are sent to state employees, and until July 1 before Alaska experiences a partial government shutdown.
For the first time since the regular session adjourned in April, a legislative committee took verbal testimony from the public.
The House Finance committee allotted three hours for input on the state operating budget, and more than 80 people spoke. The meeting opened with a series of former foster children coming to the microphone, and asking for more funding for social workers at the Office of Children’s Services.
Robin Ahgupuk is 20 years old, and spent 15 of those years in foster care. He experienced the agency’s high turnover rate firsthand.
“While I was in care, I had over 56 social workers in OCS,” said Ahgupuk. “The reason I had so many social workers is they were overburdened, stressed out, and overworked.”
The topics that came up after were varied. Some called for increased education funding, others Medicaid expansion, and then there were comments on a smorgasbord of other cuts made to things like public broadcasting and domestic violence programs. They also asked the Legislature not to tap the Permanent Fund to plug the state’s multi-billion-dollar budget deficit.
But there was one common theme: frustration. While many expressed their vexation with restraint, Frank Gold of Fairbanks did not hold back on his opinion of state government.
“Stop playing with Alaska’s money like it’s your own alone,” said Gold. “You were elected to make the hard decisions, the politically unpopular decision. No one’s going to come home unscathed after a cantankerous and ludicrous session in Juneau or Anchroage. There’s no doubt that at least some of you will be pilloried for the budget you finally develop.”
While most of the comment focused on restoring cuts and achieving a budget deal, the testimony turned in the final hour. About a dozen people came to the hearing to express their support for more budget cuts, after the president of the conservative political group United for Liberty sent out an action alert notifying members that “liberals are out in mass to force their spending spree on the legislators.”
For weeks, the Legislature has been at a stalemate over its budget deficit. The Republican majority has been trying to secure a three-quarter vote to tap the state’s rainy day account, but they need Democratic support to do that — which means increasing education funding and expanding Medicaid. Now that the Legislature is in its second special session, some Republican leaders are trying to find an accounting workaround that would let them plug the deficit without reaching a deal with the Democrats. APRN’s Alexandra Gutierrez joins us from the Anchorage Legislative Information Office, where lawmakers are meeting.
TOWNSEND: So, the annual costs of running the state are about $5 billion, but the Legislature has only $2 billion in revenue that it can apply to that amount. What’s the plan to find the rest of the money?
GUTIERREZ: Well, it’s not like the state is broke, even though we’ve got a budget shortfall. Beyond the state’s unrestricted general fund — which is the pot of revenue that the Legislature can use with no strings attached and which mostly comes from oil taxes — there are a few other accounts that count as state money. The traditional rainy day account is the Constitutional Budget Reserve, but there are some pretty weird rules for accessing it. It requires a three-quarter vote, unless there are no other accounts you can readily tap. If the budget reserves your only real option, then you can tap it with just a majority vote.
The rub is that the state does have another big pot of money it can access with just a majority vote, and that’s the permanent fund earnings reserve. To get easy access to the rainy day account, you need that money to go away.
TOWNSEND: So is the Legislature looking at using the Permanent Fund to fill the budget deficit?
GUTIERREZ: The short answer is no. They’re just looking at playing an accounting trick.
The way the permanent fund is set up, is there’s the corpus, which requires a vote of the people to access, and then there’s the earnings reserve account, which comes from investment earnings off the corpus. That earnings reserve is where dividends come from.
What the Republican leadership is considering doing is moving money from that dividends reserve account into the corpus.
The Legislative finance director, David Teal, describes it like this: “like moving money from checking account to savings.”
The Legislature would leave enough money to pay dividends, but they would move most of the money into the main fund itself, which lets them get an easier vote on the rainy day account.
TOWNSEND: Does the Republican leadership have the support in their caucus to do this?
GUTIERREZ: It’s not unanimous by any stretch. On Wednesday, a group of six members of the House Majority caucus — basically a mix of some of the moderate members and some of the Bsh Democrats who caucus with them — sent a letter to the House Speaker saying they didn’t like the plan. They’re worried that if you went through with it and then had a stock market crash, your dividends would be at risk. Rep. Jim Colver, a Wasilla Republican who signed the letter, the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner described the group as the “musk ox coalition” and the approach they were taking to the Permanent Fund was like a bunch of musk ox circling around a baby to protect it.
Without these six members of the majority on board, you basically don’t have the votes to implement this plan. That empowers the Democrats more when it comes to negotiations, and makes the three-quarter vote look more necessary.
TOWNSEND: So, does it sound like they could figure out a solution to all this soon?
GUTIERREZ: Well, if they don’t figure something out by June 1, layoff notices get sent out to state employees, and if they don’t pass a fully funded budget by July 1, we get a partial government shutdown. Those are some pretty important deadlines that could spur lawmakers to action.
The northern stretch of the Dalton Highway is expected to remain closed into next week.
Melt water from extensive overflow along the Sag River began flowing across the road last weekend, resulting in an initial closure Sunday effecting miles 375 to 410, south of Deadhorse, and the Prudhoe Bay oilfield. The closed area was expanded about 40 miles on the south end, and a few miles to Deadhorse on the north side, Tuesday, as water began impacting additional sections of the highway. Department of Transportation spokeswoman meadow Bailey says water no longer seems to be rising, but it will likely be several more days until the road re-opens.
“We’re still waiting for the water levels to go down, and after the water levels go down, we still have to go in and make some pretty significant repairs to quite a long stretch of road.”
Bailey says the DOT briefly had to shut down some electronic navigational aids at the Deadhorse Airport, as water came up. She says the DOT dug trenches to channel water away from the airport and some man camps, but some other lodging facilities remain flooded.
Gov. Bill Walker has issued a second disaster declaration in light of the ongoing flooding. The declaration enables DOT to request federal funds to help mitigate damage.