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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: 14 min 2 sec ago

Delta Western, Employees Clash Over Unionizing

Tue, 2014-02-18 18:49

Photo by Pipa Escalante, KUCB – Unalaska.

A labor dispute is brewing between a regional fuel distributor and its staff in Unalaska. Employees of Delta Western say the company doesn’t want them to unionize.

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Delta Western has about 16 employees in Unalaska to fill up commercial vessels and sell home heating fuel.

Early Sunday morning, about half of those workers walked off the job and onto a picket line with members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union.

“Delta Western unfair, Delta Western unfair,” protesters chanted.

Leo Dacio is a dock driver for Delta Western. He’s been with them for about five years.

He and his co-workers want to join the union. But Dacio alleges that the company has been trying to discourage them.

“Yeah, we have a 401k [retirement savings plan] but they say that the 401k company that they have won’t be dealing with us if we’re union,” Dacio said. “So they’re threatening to stop that.”

Dacio also alleged that for months, they’ve been harassed by their supervisor. During a recent snowstorm.

“He had me shovel down at the dock where I could use an equipment,” Dacio said. “But he told me to use manual labor.”

The International Longshore and Warehouse Union sent an organizer to Unalaska last week.

Jon Brier helped put together the walkout. And he says the union also filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board on the workers’ behalf.

“It’s called an unfair labor practice,” Brier said. “It’s discrimination against these folks for exercising their rights to be union.”

In the complaint, the union alleges that Delta Western threatened at least two pro-union workers with disciplinary action and had their work assignments changed.

Brier says that all seven employees who walked out on Sunday morning were to back to work by the end of the day.

On Monday, the workers delivered a letter to Delta Western asking the company to recognize them as union members.

Brier says the company has not yet responded to that letter.

Delta Western’s site manager in Unalaska declined to comment. Representatives from Delta Western’s parent company, North Star Petroleum, weren’t available on Tuesday.

This isn’t the first time Delta Western’s employees in Unalaska have tried to unionize. In 2007, they considered joining the Teamsters and then the International Longshore and Warehouse Union.

The movement to join the ILWU went to a vote. But according to National Labor Relations Board records, the measure failed to get support from a majority of workers.

Categories: Alaska News

Tok Residents Trying to Revive Biomass-Fueled Power Plant Project To Cut Energy Costs

Tue, 2014-02-18 18:49

Business and community leaders in Tok are trying to revive a plan to cut the area’s high energy costs by generating electricity with biomass.

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A year ago, Tok was on track to become the first community in Alaska to generate its electricity using biomass. Officials with Alaska Power and Telephone had proposed to harvest scrappy timber like black spruce from nearby state forest land, process it and use that biomass it to generate electricity at less cost than the diesel fuel it now uses.

AP&T spokesman Dave Stancliff says the Tok area is economically distressed and desperately needs cheaper power than the 51 cents-per-kilowatt-hour that businesses are paying now.

“Our little grocery story – y’know, it’s just tiny – it pays $37,000 a month in power bills,” Stancliff said.

The residential rate is 31 cents per kilowatt hour, which goes up to 51 cents after 500 kilowatt hours.

“It’s not unusual for a resident on a high-use winter month here in Tok to have a $500 or $600 power bill,” he said.

Stancliff says high energy costs combined with other factors are plunging the area into “an economic death spiral.”

That’s what motivated AP&T a couple of years ago to propose building a biomass-fueled powerplant that would initially generate 2-megawatts of electricity – enough for about 800 customers. The company asked the state Division of Forestry for a timber-sales contract so they could harvest trees for powerplant fuel. Forestry came up with a 25-year timber-sales contract, and let it out for competitive bid in April. But, says Stancliff, AP&T officials decided against bidding on it, because the contract terms made it hard for the company to get reasonable financing.

“There’s some language and there are some specifics within that contract that – you couldn’t take it to a bank or a financial institution and secure a loan,” he said.

After the contract failed to attract any bids, Forestry shelved the biomass project, until a few weeks ago. Stancliff says that’s when Tok business and community leaders regrouped and came up with a new plan that would enable them to attract financing. But he says they’re having a hard time convincing Forestry to agree to a contract that will help them accomplish that.

Stancliff says much of the standard-boilerplate language of their contracts shouldn’t apply to Tok’s proposal, because it’s based on harvesting timber of little commercial value. He says the timber should instead be considered a hazard, because it’s helped fuel several huge wildfires over the past couple of decades that’ve cost the state some $85 million to put out.

“Y’know,” he said, “one has to wonder, if this is hazardous fuel – and it is, it’s been identified as such; no one questions it – why people are having to pay anything. The state should actually see it as a benefit, in terms of fire mitigation (and) public safety.”

Forestry officials say it’s not that simple. Mike Curran is a senior agency official appointed to head up a biomass team to come up with ways to promote use of the resource. Curran says they’re trying to accommodate Tok’s proposal and may be able to give help by allowing more time and waiving or reducing some bonds and deposits.

“I think they may be a few things we can modify,” he said.

Curran says Forestry is not, however, able to give them all the breaks they’re asking for. He says that’s because the contract must comply with state law and regulations that among other things require the agency to represent the state’s interest in getting a fair return on the sale of state resources.

“This is a contract,” he said. “And it’s a competitive-bid sale, so when they sign the contract, there are contract stipulations, like there is in any contract, that have to be followed.”

Curran says Forestry is being cautious because it’s never dealt with biomass as a resource, so the agency is learning as it goes along in the process.

“It very much is a learn as we go, because this was the first of its kind within the state – the first potential project and contract,” he said.

Curran says if the Tok group agrees with the new contract he’s working on, it’s possible the agency will let it out for bid in early April.

Stancliff says he and the other biomass project backers will wait and see what Forestry can come up with.

Categories: Alaska News

Fairbanks Assembly Votes To Participate In Education Suit

Tue, 2014-02-18 18:49

The Fairbanks North Star Borough will participate in a school funding lawsuit filed by the Ketchikan Gateway Borough against the state of Alaska. The suit challenges the constitutionality of the state requiring organized municipalities to help cover the cost of local schools.

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Categories: Alaska News

Save Our Schools Rallying Cry Heard On Capitol Steps

Tue, 2014-02-18 18:48

Holding signs saying “Kids! Not Cuts” and “Vouchers Hurt Public Schools,” about 200 people packed the Alaska Capitol steps for a “Save our Schools” rally yesterday afternoon.

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The crowd included parents, students, teachers and community members, as well as a handful of state lawmakers.

Juneau Douglas High School Senior Tori Talley talked about growing up in a low income, single parent home, before being adopted in the sixth grade. Through it all, she said, school was one of the few places she felt safe. She said teachers bought her school supplies, and school meal programs and counseling services kept her on track to graduate later this year.

“All the teachers knew exactly what my situation was,” Talley said. “And they always would stop me in the middle of class and they’d sit with me and talk to me if I needed it. And they were still there for me. So I’ve always had an extremely supportive, caring and motivational support group.”
Talley drew loud cheers when she said she plans to go to college to study psychology.

Other speakers argued for an increase in state spending on education, and against a proposed amendment to Alaska’s constitution that would allow public funds to be spent on private and religious schools.

The amendment needs two-thirds support from the Alaska Legislature before it can appear on the ballot. Governor Sean Parnell and Republican lawmakers are pushing legislation that would put the issue to voters.

With two months left in the legislative session, Anchorage Senator Berta Gardner, a Democrat, said opponents feel confident the amendment won’t make it through.

“We believe that they don’t have the votes to move that forward,” said Gardner to loud cheers. But, she continued: “They haven’t started knocking heads together, twisting arms, making threats, all kinds of things, and we have to keep the pressure up. We’re ahead of the game. The public is absolutely with us. And we will not back down.”
Amendment supporters say it’s needed to provide parents and students more school choice.

Anchorage Democratic Rep. Harriet Drummond and the Great Alaska Schools coalition organized the rally.

Due to a lengthy floor session, many House members missed the event. Nearly all of the state senators in attendance were Democrats. The only Republican there was Soldotna Senator Peter Micciche, who’s considered a key vote on the proposed constitutional amendment.

Categories: Alaska News

Supporters Cheer Alaska Native Language Bill

Tue, 2014-02-18 18:48

The Barnes Committee Room at the Alaska Capitol erupted in cheers this morning, as a panel of lawmakers unanimously moved a bill that would make 20 Alaska Native languages official state languages.

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University of Alaska Southeast Native Languages Professor Lance Twitchell greeted the House Community and Regional Affairs Committee in Tlingit.

While English is the only official language of Alaska, Twitchell said this is not an English-only state.

“For over 10,000 years there have been other languages here, and they are still here today,” Twitchell said.

He described a crisis point in the effort to save Native languages. The average Alaska Native tongue has fewer than 1,000 speakers, the vast majority of whom are over the age of 70. The last fluent speakers of Eyak and Holikachuk Athabascan died within past decade.

Twitchell said language loss is tied to a history of repression and discrimination against Alaska Natives.

“I see dying languages and escalating suicide rates, and think, how can those things not be connected? I see the end result of cultural genocide, and think, how can we just decide to accept this?” he said. “There is no magic solution for language loss. But there is the promise of unity and recognizing that solutions exist.”

He said House Bill 216 is one of those solutions.

“I sit here as your peer. I sit here as your equal. We may speak different languages, but mine is just as valuable, just as necessary, and just as useful as yours,” said Twitchell.

Bethel elder Esther Green taught Yup’ik in the Lower Kuskokwim School District before she retired. Green said learning a language is a form of cultural preservation.

“Language and culture go together and they cannot be separated,” she testified.

Savoonga High School students Beverly Toolie and Chelsea Miklahook introduced themselves in Siberian Yup’ik. The language is no longer taught in their school, but the girls said they learned to speak it from their grandparents.

Nome Democrat Neal Foster asked if they would be interested in taking Native language classes.

“If the classes were to be reintroduced into the school, are those classes that you would want to take?” Foster asked.

“Yes,” the girls responded in unison.

Barrow Democrat Ben Nageak is the only member of the legislature who’s a fluent speaker of a Native language, Inupiaq. Fittingly, he made the motion to move HB 216 to the next committee.

Prime sponsor, Sitka Democrat Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, said he was moved by the support for the bill.

“This is a bill that very much felt as though it’s of the people, belongs to the people who testified today, and belongs to people across Alaska who believe in the cultural importance of Native languages,” Kreiss-Tomkins said.

Nobody testified against the legislation. Its next stop is the House State Affairs Committee.

Categories: Alaska News

Alaska New Nightly: February 18, 2014

Tue, 2014-02-18 18:35

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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Employers Struggle With Ballooning Cost Of Workers’ Comp Medical Bills

Annie Feidt, APRN – Anchorage

Employers in Alaska pay the highest workers compensation premiums in the country. And most of that cost goes toward medical claims. The Alaska State Chamber of Commerce has for several years, made reforming the system one of its legislative priorities. And this year, at least one state lawmaker is working on legislation to help control workers compensation costs.

Delta Western, Employees Clash Over Unionizing

Lauren Rosenthal, KUCB – Unalaska

A labor dispute is brewing between a regional fuel distributor and its staff in Unalaska. Employees of Delta Western say the company doesn’t want them to unionize.

Fairbanks Assembly Votes To Participate In Education Suit

Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks

The Fairbanks North Star Borough will participate in a school funding lawsuit filed by the Ketchikan Gateway Borough against the state of Alaska. The suit challenges the constitutionality of the state requiring organized municipalities to help cover the cost of local schools.

Democrats Use Driver’s License Bill As Vehicle For Gay Rights Fight

Alexandra Gutierrez, APRN – Juneau

A bill that would save military spouses the trouble of going to the DMV has triggered an unlikely battle over gay rights in the state legislature.

APOC Reviewing Tosi Complaint

Daysha Eaton, KSKA – Anchorage

A complaint was filed on Tuesday with the Alaska Public Offices Commission against Anchorage Assembly candidate Mao Tosi. The complaint alleges Tosi’s campaign for an East Anchorage Assembly seat violates Alaska’s campaign laws on 15 counts.

Tok Residents Trying to Revive Biomass-Fueled Power Plant Project To Cut Energy Costs

Tim Ellis, KUAC – Fairbanks

Business and community leaders in Tok are trying to revive a plan to cut the area’s high energy costs by generating electricity with biomass.

Save Our Schools Rallying Cry Heard On Capitol Steps

Casey Kelly, KTOO – Juneau

Holding signs saying “Kids! Not Cuts” and “Vouchers Hurt Public Schools,” about 200 people packed the Alaska Capitol steps for a “Save our Schools” rally yesterday afternoon.

Supporters Cheer Alaska Native Language Bill

Casey Kelly, KTOO – Juneau

The Barnes Committee Room at the Alaska Capitol erupted in cheers this morning, as a panel of lawmakers unanimously moved a bill that would make 20 Alaska Native languages official state languages.

Categories: Alaska News

Democrats Use Driver’s License Bill As Vehicle For Gay Rights Fight

Tue, 2014-02-18 18:31

A bill that would save military spouses the trouble of going to the DMV has triggered an unlikely battle over gay rights in the state legislature.

When Rep. Doug Isaacson introduced the “Military Spouse Residency Relief Act” he didn’t expect it to be controversial.

“No! I was thinking this would be a yawner – that it would just be one of those things everyone would get behind because it’s a benefit to military,” says Isaacson, a North Pole Republican.

The bill isn’t complicated. Members of the military are already allowed to keep their out-of-state driver’s licenses, so this legislation would extend that perk to their husbands and wives.

What it wouldn’t do is extend it to their domestic partners. Because the bill specifically uses the word “spouses,” same-sex couples aren’t covered by this bill because Alaska doesn’t allow gay marriage. In 1998, Alaska was the first state to define marriage as existing between a man and a woman, and it doesn’t recognize gay marriages conducted in other states.

Without the ability to get married, there’s no way for same-sex couples to avail themselves of the driver’s license benefit. Rep. Max Gruenberg, an Anchorage Democrat, sees that as a violation of another part of the Alaska Constitution – the equal protection clause. He says even if the bill deals with a tiny perk, the language in it is still discriminatory.

“I think it’s important that we not permit this kind – even if it’s a small amount – of unequal treatment to continue,” says Gruenberg.

Gruenberg first offered an amendment to include same-sex partners in the bill during a hearing of the Military and Veterans Affairs Committee last week, and it failed on party lines. On Tuesday, the same amendment was offered in a different committee. And again, it failed, with one Democrat voting for it and five Republicans objecting. If the bill makes it to the House floor, the Democratic minority may offer up the amendment again.

Both times the amendment has been offered, opponents rejected it on fairly technical grounds rather than delve into the policy question. The State Affairs Committee found the amendment inappropriate because adding same-sex partners to the legislation would have required a title change for the bill. The Military and Veterans Affairs Committee shuttled it because the Alaska Supreme Court is expected to weigh in on whether same-sex partners should be included under the umbrella of “spouse” over the next few months. The Court heard Schmidt and Schuh v. Alaska — a case concerning property tax exemptions for married couples — in 2012, and a decision is still pending.

Gruenberg doesn’t think that’s how this bill should be handled. He says the Legislature regularly considers policy that would affect pending litigation. For example, a bill that would make it optional for local governments to fund their school districts was introduced after the Ketchikan Gateway Borough filed a lawsuit on the same subject.

“The Legislature shouldn’t shirk its duty to just wait for a court to decide something, when really it’s a moral issue that’s involved – the question of equal rights,” says Gruenberg.

But Isaacson still thinks the wait-and-see approach is the right one to take with his bill.

“‘Spouse’ is ‘spouse’ however defined, and if the law changes to say that ‘spouse’ means ‘partner,’ then this will still be a benefit to all parties concerned. So that amendment is unnecessary to the intent of the bill.”

The State of Alaska already extends benefits to the same-sex partners of its employees, after a different Supreme Court decision in 2005 determined that offering them only to straight couples violated the Constitution’s equal protection clause.

Categories: Alaska News

Employers Struggle With Ballooning Cost Of Workers’ Comp Medical Bills

Tue, 2014-02-18 17:01

Employers in Alaska pay the highest workers compensation premiums in the country. And most of that cost goes toward medical claims. The Alaska State Chamber of Commerce has for several years, made reforming the system one of its legislative priorities. And this year, at least one state lawmaker is working on legislation to help control workers compensation costs. 

When a worker gets injured on the job in the Kenai Peninsula Borough and School District, Julie Cisco’s first thought is concern for the employee’s health. Her second thought, is concern for the what it will cost:

“Things have gotten so out of hand with the medical fees, that things that I know five years ago would have cost $50,000, I know right now is going to cost over $100,000. Being a steward of public money, it’s kind of hard to justify those increases.”

Cisco manages workers’ compensation claims for the borough and school district. In 2009, the average workers’ comp claim in the borough cost about $3,500. By last year, that figure had more than quadrupled to $19,000. That’s partly because employers can’t negotiate with medical providers the way private insurers can. There is a cap on what doctors can charge, but Cisco says doctors tend to bill right up to that cap:

“In some cases, I think it’s out of line, because I know what things get paid under benefits and then I see the bills we pay for injured workers for similar procedures and its substantially more, for the same procedure, done in the same facility.”

According to a 2011 report paid for by the Alaska Health Care Commission, medical providers charged 50% more for workers compensation claims than for regular health insurance in Alaska. Mike Monagle directs the state’s workers’ compensation division. He points out workers’ comp medical costs have risen dramatically, by 25%, over the last five years, despite a significant decline in worker injuries.

“It’s a profit center I think for some providers, where they’re getting squeezed in other areas, comp traditionally has become a way to maximize their profits.”

The Alaska State Medical Association and the Anchorage Orthopedic Society didn’t respond to repeated requests to comment for this story.

As part of his job, Monagle chairs the state’s workers’ compensation board. In October, the board passed a resolution calling for several reforms aimed at containing medical costs. The proposed reforms wouldn’t let employers negotiate fees, but would set a new fee schedule for providers, to try to bring rates more in line with what private insurance pays. The  resolution was approved unanimously by a board made up of both industry and labor representatives. Monagle says he’s optimistic even doctors will eventually support reform:

“Doctors are employers as well and they have to pay these same high costs. I do think you can reach consensus on these kinds of things. It’s just something in our particular state that really hasn’t happened yet. We really haven’t had a good consensus from stakeholders on how to fix this situation.”

The legislature is starting to look into the issue. Lawmakers are considering a bill right now that will close a loophole that allowed out of state hospitals and providers to charge Alaska rates for their services. That made it hard for employers to save money when employees agreed to travel out of state for expensive surgeries. And Representative Kurt Olson, a Republican from Soldotna, says he’s planning to introduce legislation this session that will address the broader medical cost issue. Rick Traini works for the Teamsters Union in Anchorage and is on the Workers Compensation Board.

“I believe there are some inflated prices. Is in the most pressing problem facing worker’s comp? I don’t think so.”

Traini signed the resolution calling for medical cost reform. But he hopes as lawmakers look to lower medical costs, they also consider increasing workers comp benefits for employees. Traini says many of those benefits- like the amount a seriously injured worker receives for retraining – haven’t changed in nearly 15 years.

“I have not seen a single resolution, regulation, put in front of the board that increases the employees’ benefit.”

Still, Traini says he doesn’t want an employer to pay more for medical care then they have to.  And employers from across the state have sent testimony to the Workers’ Compensation Board asking for help bringing down medical costs.

Julie Cisco, from the Kenai Peninsula Borough, says employers and employees have the same goal, to see injured workers get the medical care they need and return to work as quickly as possible.

Cisco: “Personally I want to see the system get back to what it was meant to do, which is benefit the employees. Somehow that has shifted, to where the system doesn’t necessarily benefit the employee.”

Reporter: “Who does it benefit?”

Cisco: “It benefits the medical providers.”

Cisco says workers comp doesn’t represent a huge chunk of her school district’s budget. But in this time of belt tightening around the state, every dollar counts. And Cisco says any money the district could save as a result of workers’ comp reform, would go right back into classrooms.

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

Categories: Alaska News

APOC Reviewing Tosi Complaint

Tue, 2014-02-18 16:19

Mao Tosi

Monday Mao Tosi received a surprise visit to his office at the Northway Mall.

“By late afternoon a gentleman came in, asked for me, dropped off some paperwork and left.”

The paperwork was a 15-count complaint against his campaign with the Alaska Public Offices Commission, or APOC. It was filed Tuesday afternoon. Tosi, a former NFL football player and activist who manages the Northway Mall and runs the non-profit, Alaska Pride Youth Programs, jumped into the race against sitting Assembly member Adam Trombley and candidate Pete Peterson at the last minute. Tosi refutes some of the allegations. He says he has never run for public office before and that most of the violations are honest mistakes that he is working with APOC to correct as soon as possible.

“There’s just things that now that we are aware of, we just want to go through and make sure those don’t become issues again. Being new to the campaign scene, is something that I think people expect me to screw up here and there but definitely would know that I would fix anything that’s wrong in there.”

Allegations in the complaint include making campaign expenditures before filing for office, not properly identifying that political ads, like bumper stickers, were paid for by his campaign and using his position at the Northway Mall to benefit his campaign, among other things. John E. Lewis filed the complaint and requested expedited review. APOC officials are not commenting at this time except to say that the complaint has been accepted. There will be a hearing but officials have not set a date. If the allegations prove true, Tosi could be fined.

Categories: Alaska News

NTSB Says Pilot Error To Blame In Fatal Midair Crash

Tue, 2014-02-18 11:30

The National Transportation Safety board has found that pilot error was to blame in the 2011 crash that killed one pilot and injured another in separate planes.

A Grant Cessna 208 was flown Scott Veal of Kenai, coming from Tooksook Bay. A Ryan Air 207 was flown by Kristin Sprauge, age 26 on return from Tununuk. The two were in a personal relationship.They were flying side-by-side on the way back to Bethel, when suddenly, Veal maneuvered his airplane above and over the top of Sprague’s airplane.

She said that she could not see him and that she was concerned about his location. According to interviews, Veal then said “Whatever you do, don’t pitch up.” The next thing Sprague remembered was seeing the wings and cockpit of the descending Cessna 208B pass by the right side of her airplane, before striking her wing.

Veal’s plane began descending, ultimately entering a steep, vertical, nose-down descent before crashing into the tundra and starting on fire. Sprague made an emergency landing on the turndra, despite her damaged wing.

Investigators later found part of the Cessna 208’s vertical stabilizer assembly, crushed and distorted, embedded in the Cessna 207′s right wing.

In the probable cause statement issued this month, the NTSB says it was the pilot’s failure to maintain adequate clearance during the unannounced abrupt maneuver that resulting in a midair collision.

Categories: Alaska News

Alaska News Nightly: February 17, 2014

Mon, 2014-02-17 17:50

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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Iditarod to Start in Willow, Not Fairbanks

Annie Feidt, APRN – Anchorage

The Iditarod Sled Dog race will start from Willow as planned. The Iditarod Trail Committee has been weighing moving the race start to Fairbanks in the last week because of low snow and icy conditions on the 65 miles of trail between Willow and Skwentna.

Measure Would Increase Public Seats On Judicial Council

Alexandra Gutierrez, APRN – Juneau

A group of Republican state senators want to change the makeup of a commission tasked with vetting judges for the governor. But some critics worry the change could shift the balance of the judicial system itself.

AFN Asks For Help in Voting-Rights Campaign

Ed Schoenfeld, CoastAlaska – Juneau

Alaska’s largest Native organization is challenging a Southeast group to lead the regional campaign to regain federal voting-rights protections.

Alaska Supporting Same Sex Marriage Bans

Lori Townsend, APRN – Anchorage

Recent court challenges to bans on same sex marriage have in several cases, resulted in judges striking down the laws, such as last week in Virginia. Alaska has a constitutional amendment that bans same sex marriage and state attorneys have filed support briefs for states fighting to preserve their own constitutional bans.

Woman Claims Killing Dozens, Some in Alaska

Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks

A woman accused of murdering a man in Pennsylvania says she killed dozens of others in four states, including Alaska. The case, involves allegations of serial killing and Satanism.

VPSO Firearms Bill Moves Ahead

Zachariah Hughes, KNOM – Nome

A legislative proposal creating a path for qualified Village Public Safety Officers to carry firearms has cleared another hurdle. SB 98 was passed on Thursday by the Senate Community and Regional Affairs Committee. But some serious concerns were raised about the proposal.

Not All Happy With Fish Board Decisions

Ellen Lockyer, KSKA – Anchorage

The state’s fisheries board wrapped up two weeks of meetings on Upper Cook Inlet commercial and sports fisheries late last week. And the dust is settling around the various user groups that have a stake in the fisheries.

Legislation Would Reinstate Medevac Membership Programs

Rosemarie Alexander, KTOO – Juneau

Airlift Northwest could bring back its popular membership program under legislation introduced in the Alaska House and Senate.The state’s Division of Insurance last November told the company to discontinue its AirCare membership, because it no longer met the letter of Alaska law.

New Geese Habitat Emerging on North Slope

Annie Ropeik, KUCB – Unalaska

The US Geological Survey says melting Beaufort sea ice is creating new habitat for geese on the North Slope and that new habitat could have implications for conservation inside the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.

 

Categories: Alaska News

Iditarod to Start in Willow, Not Fairbanks

Mon, 2014-02-17 17:16

The 2014 Iditarod will start in Willow and not Fairbanks. Officials had been contemplating moving the start because of trail conditions. Photo by Patrick Yack – Alaska Public Media.

The Iditarod Sled Dog race will start from Willow as planned. The Iditarod Trail Committee had been weighing moving the race start to Fairbanks in the last week because of low snow and icy conditions on the 65 miles of trail between Willow and Skwentna.

Iditarod Trail Committee executive director Stan Hooley said it wasn’t a tough decision to keep the start in Willow after race staff had a plan to improve the trail.

“You know, no one would look at the trail as it exists today out of Willow to Skwentna and say, ‘gee, let’s run the Iditarod on this. It’s not good right now,’” he said. “But we’ve got the ability to use heavy equipment to groom and literally build a highway, and that, I think everybody feels pretty good about.”

Palmer based Cruz Construction, a company that has experience building ice roads, has offered to groom the trail with a Pisten Bully and other specialized equipment. Hooley said without that help, the race start would have likely moved to Fairbanks.

He said given what the equipment can do, he doesn’t think there’s any risk to sticking with the traditional route. “To be able to change the consistency of that ice into something that resembles snow on a safe trail is something we’re confident we can do and people will be happy with.”

Hooley said the trail will be in good shape in time for the Willow start on March 3rd. Seventy mushers are signed up to make the run to Nome.

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Categories: Alaska News

Measure Would Increase Public Seats On Judicial Council

Mon, 2014-02-17 17:12

A group of Republican state senators want to change the make-up of a commission tasked with vetting judges for the governor. But some critics worry that could shift the balance of the judicial system itself.

Since statehood, the Judicial Council has been made up of three attorneys, three public members, and the chief justice of the state supreme court. The attorneys are there to give input on how well judicial candidates understand the law, while the public members offer a perspective on what the state should want from its judges.

Now, Sen. Pete Kelly wants public members to outnumber lawyers two to one. His measure would change the number of public members from three to 10, and the number of attorney members from three to five.

The Fairbanks Republican believes the Alaska Constitution should be amended for two reasons. One, the current configuration doesn’t allow for much regional diversity, because most attorneys don’t live in rural areas. Kelly read from the membership roster at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Friday.

“It reads like an urban Alaskan phonebook,” he said. “Attorney members: Ketchikan, Ketchikan, Juneau, Juneau, Juneau, Juneau, Fairbanks, Fairbanks, Fairbanks, Fairbanks, Anchorage, Anchorage, Anchorage, Anchorage.”

Kelly’s second qualm is that when the public members and attorney members are split, the chief justice has sided with the lawyers in a little over half those cases. He thinks that creates a conflict of interest for the chief justice.

“They can, with their vote, choose people who think the way they think,” Kelly said. “So, you have a potential molding of the [Alaska] Supreme Court by members of the [Alaska] Supreme Court. It puts them in an incredible position of power.”

Over the past 30 years, there have only been 15 situations where the public members and the attorneys have been divided on a judicial candidate. That’s out of more than a thousand votes.

But Sen. Lesil McGuire, an Anchorage Republican, said those instances can still spark controversy.

“It doesn’t sit well with the public, and it has created tremendous acrimony,” she said.

Because the Judicial Council has so much influence over which judges the governor appoints, it’s been somewhat of a lightning rod in recent years. In 2009, two applicants for judicial posts tried suing the state because they took issue with the nominating process. In 2012, a conservative advocacy group Alaska Family Action filed a complaint against the council, arguing that the council shouldn’t be able to campaign on behalf of judges. (The case concerned the retention of Anchorage Superior Court Judge Sen Tan, who received high marks from the Judicial Council but was targeted for removal by Alaska Family Action because of his ruling in a case involving the state’s abortion laws.) Last year, Kelly introduced a separate bill to prevent the council from doing just that.

During the Senate hearing, McGuire noted that making changes to the Judicial Council policy can be a sensitive prospect. But she thinks updating that policy could help prevent the state from switching to a system where judges are elected.
“When we do that, it’s not an attack,” she said.

But some Democrats worry it might be. Sen. Bill Wielechowski of Anchorage likens the measure to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s attempt to pack the US Supreme Court during his presidency.

“This has been part of a crusade for many years to get a judiciary that’s much more socially conservative,” Wielechowski said.

Sen. Hollis French doesn’t think the argument for the amendment holds up either. He said Alaska has a strong judiciary and he doesn’t see good evidence for changing it.

“But it may be that certain activist groups out in the public are unhappy with the way our constitution is interpreted, and they want to tip the scales in their favor,” said French, a Democrat from Anchorage.

Because Kelly’s measure would amend the constitution, it needs support from two-thirds of the Legislature and a majority of Alaska voters.

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Categories: Alaska News

AFN Asks For Help in Voting-rights Campaign

Mon, 2014-02-17 17:09

Alaska’s largest Native organization is challenging a Southeast group to lead the regional campaign to regain federal voting-rights protections.

The Alaska Federation of Natives is already campaigning to restore voting protections struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court last year.

Speaking at a Native Issues Forum in Juneau, President Julie Kitka asked for regional help.

“You have the history in our Native community, helping leading us to getting us to the right to vote,” she said. “We need the full weight of the Alaska Native Brotherhood and Sisterhood.”

The organizations have a hundred-year history of advocating for Alaska Native rights, including voting. The Brotherhood and Sisterhood have about 20 local chapters, called “camps,” mostly based in Southeast.

ANB Grand Camp (regional) President Bill Martin said the organizations are behind the effort.

“At our ANB convention in Yakutat in October we passed a resolution. And we’ll be there again this year, both the Alaska Native Brotherhood and Sisterhood, to voice our objections,” Martin said.

The federal Voting Rights Act used to require Alaska and some Southern states to get pre-approval for redistricting plans. That led officials to set some election district boundaries so they included significant Native populations.

The U.S. Supreme Court struck down that part of the act last year.

Bipartisan legislation proposed in January would restore some of those provisions.

AFN’s Kitka said a coalition of Latino, African-American, Asian-American and other civil-rights groups is backing the proposed amendment.

But she said it won’t do any good here — yet.

“At this time, we’re not included in that amendment,” Kitka said. “In fact, Native Americans get no protections under the formula that they use. And we calculate it would probably cost us $800,000 to file lawsuits enough … for us to be considered under that federal mechanism.”

That’s why her organization is seeking statewide support for changes to the act that would include Alaska Natives.

The Supreme Court ruling came as Alaska’s redistricting board shuffled election boundaries.

The plan used for the 2012 elections was a factor in the defeat of Southeast’s two incumbent Tlingit lawmakers. And that was before the high court’s ruling. It’s since undergone minor changes, but none expected to help either win back seats.

Kitka said restoring some of the voting rights act’s struck-down provisions would help more people cast ballots.

“Over the last few years we’ve seen increasing effort to try to really depress people voting as people try to angle for this campaign or that campaign,” Kitka said. “And so, from our vantage point, it’s critically important that we make sure we have that rock-solid foundation protection of our voting rights.”

The high court ruled redistricting pre-clearance was based on discrimination that no longer exists. Alaska’s Redistricting Board agreed, saying changes in Native voting power have more to do with population growth and rural-urban shifts than redrawing election boundaries.

Categories: Alaska News

Alaska Supporting Same-Sex Marriage Bans

Mon, 2014-02-17 17:08

Recent court challenges to bans on same-sex marriage have in several cases, resulted in judges striking down the laws, such as last week in Virginia.

Alaska has a constitutional amendment that bans same-sex marriage and state attorneys have filed support briefs for states fighting to preserve their own constitutional bans.

One such case in Nevada changed recently when the Attorney General there said they would back away from the suit after it appeared likely to be appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Alaska has an amicus curiae brief supporting Nevada’s ban. Alaska’s Attorney General Michael Geraghty said, even though Nevada officials are abandoning the case, the Alaska brief will remain.

“There are a number of challenges going on across the country and we’ll continue to support those briefs and those states that are fighting to preserve their own constitutional provisions and so that’s what we’ll continue to do,” he said.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen to the case, this specific case since Nevada has elected to let it drop, but there are other cases and will continue to percolate through the federal courts.”

Geraghty said he won’t speculate about whether Alaska’s ban will survive a future challenge.

“I’m not gonna predict how the court will eventually decide that issue, I will say that as long as we have that in our constitution, I’ll continue to support it,” he said. “My personal beliefs are not part of the equation and we’ll continue to support our constitution.”

Alaska voters approved a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage in 1998.

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Categories: Alaska News

Woman Claims Killing Dozens, Some in Alaska

Mon, 2014-02-17 17:06

A woman accused of murdering a man in Pennsylvania says she killed dozens of others in four states, including Alaska. The case, involves allegations of serial killing and Satanism.

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Categories: Alaska News

VPSO Firearms Bill Moves Ahead

Mon, 2014-02-17 17:04

A legislative proposal creating a path for qualified Village Public Safety Officers to carry firearms has cleared another hurdle. SB 98 was passed on Thursday by the Senate Community and Regional Affairs Committee. But some serious concerns were raised about the proposal.

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Categories: Alaska News

Not All Happy With Fish Board Decisions

Mon, 2014-02-17 17:03

The state’s fisheries board wrapped up two weeks of meetings on Upper Cook Inlet commercial and sports fisheries late last week. And the dust is settling around the various user groups who have stakes in the fisheries.

This session, management changes were approved for Kenai River early and late king runs, and for the central district sockeye management plan.

Supporters of the changes say that the new regulations are expected to allow more salmon, kings, and coho, specifically, to pass through the inlet into the northern district and into the river drainages of the Matanuska-Susitna Borough. Larry Engle is with the borough’s Fish and Wildlife Commission.

But those opposed to the changes say that commercial driftnetters and setnetters will be hurt, and that they have suffered a disproportionate hit in fishing time and area.

Paul Dale, president of the Kenai-based Alaska Salmon Alliance (ASA), said commercial fishers have taken a significant allocation shift, and ASA has issued a statement questioning the efficacy of the board process.

The board’s actions move the drift fleet to areas nearer to the Kenai and Kasilof Rivers and their rich sockeye runs, allowing northern-bound sockeye and coho to get by drift fleet nets.

But opponents of that plan say the board did not stand up to the recreational fishing lobby, and they claim many of the problems in the Cook Inlet salmon fisheries come from in-river sports and dipnet fishing, because the population of the Anchorage and Mat Su areas has grown over the past decade, and so has the pressure on Cook Inlet salmon stocks.

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Categories: Alaska News

New Geese Habitat Emerging on North Slope

Mon, 2014-02-17 17:01

Brants molting on Teshekpuk. Photo by Tyler Lewis USGS.

For animals that live on Arctic ice, like polar bears and walruses, rising sea temperatures usually mean a disappearing home.

But John Pearce, a biologist for the US Geological Survey in Anchorage, says that’s not always the case.

“We really don’t know how all the different species of wildlife are gonna respond to changes in the Arctic as a result of warming climates and diminishing sea ice, but folks often say there’s likely going to be winners and losers,” Pearce said.

The winners in this round: black brant geese. They spend their winters on the Pacific Coast and in the Aleutian Islands, and summer in the high Arctic.

On the North Slope, the brant frequents inland waters like Teshekpuk Lake, which feeds a wetlands system in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.

A year ago, the Bureau of Land Management put together its first-ever unified plan for managing both wildlife and resources in the petroleum reserve. They drew a line around the Teshekpuk area and closed most of it to oil and gas development.

Some of it is technically open, but the BLM wouldn’t lease it without extra consideration for the waterfowl and caribou that live there.

In the meantime, the US Geological Survey is watching to see how animals are using the wetlands. And John Pearce, their biologist, says he’s noticed changes.

Black brant are now flocking to a part of the Teshekpuk area where there didn’t use to be food for them. That’s changing as sea ice melts off and saltwater creeps further inland.

“And that’s causing more coastal flooding of these low-lying habitats and killing off the plants that are more used to fresh water and creating environments where salt water-loving plants can grow,” Pearce said.

Those environments are new coastal salt marshes, full of plants that the geese like to eat. The plants are growing faster than the black brant can crop them, meaning other species of goose and Arctic shorebird are also moving into the new marshes.

These areas used to be home to caribou. Pearce says there’s more than enough fresh water and grazing habitat for them further inland on the Teshekpuk parcel.

And there’s more than enough new marsh for the birds along the coastline. Pearce says they haven’t filled it all up yet. Right now, many of the geese are staying at Teshekpuk Lake like they always have, or splitting their time between the lake and the coast.

It’s not clear what’ll happen next. Pearce aid that he and other biologists have a lot of questions going forward:

“If the storm surges continue to come inland, are these areas just going to be permanently flooded? Or as the permafrost continues to thaw underneath these habitats, are they going to sort of sink out of reach of the brant? And is there sort of a march of this habitat inland, or do we reach a point at which it can’t extend any further inland?”

All those dynamics — short and long-term — are important to the Bureau of Land Management. They need data about where wildlife are, and where they’re going, to make decisions about where’s safe to drill and build.

Stacy MacIntosh is the acting manager of the BLM’s Arctic field office, based in Fairbanks. She says they can’t draw any major conclusions from the new information just yet.

But MacIntosh said she is taking it as a good sign that melting sea ice off the North Slope is creating habitat for a change.

“There was an unsurety as to what climate change may be doing to this area, whether or not it was going to respond positively or negatively,” MacIntosh said.

One thing is sure — oil and gas leasing around Teshekpuk is never going to be popular with conservation groups, which have so far kept it undeveloped. The closest it’s come was in 2006, when the Bush administration tried to open it for sale and lost the case to the Audubon Society and others in federal appeals court.

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Categories: Alaska News

John Kerry Creating Arctic Ambassador Position

Fri, 2014-02-14 18:39

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry says he is creating a new Arctic ambassador position.

In a letter to Sen. Mark Begich, Kerry says he will appoint a person of high stature to serve as “Special Representative for the Arctic Region” in order to elevate U.S. attention on the far North.

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Both Begich and Sen. Lisa Murkowski have pressed the administration to create the role. Begich says most of the Arctic countries already have ambassador-level diplomats pressing their national interests at the Arctic Council. Earlier this week, Sen. Murkowski criticized the Administration’s approach to the Arctic. In a letter to President Obama, she called a recent White House implementation plan “unambitious” and said its emphasis on research seems aimed at conservation to the exclusion of resource development.

She says today’s news is a step in the right direction but she nonetheless calls the Administration’s efforts to seize Arctic opportunities “lackluster” and “a national embarrassment.”

Categories: Alaska News

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