The normally dry subject of committee referrals is creating a bit of a stir in the Capitol.
Last week, a group of five senators introduced a resolution to amend the Alaska Constitution to allow for a school voucher program. The measure was supposed to be heard in the education committee. That is, until it suddenly wasn’t, as Sen. Gary Stevens – a Republican from Kodiak and chair of the education committee – discovered while traveling in Kentucky on business.
“I learned an important lesson last Friday. Never, never, never leave town. No matter how calm and uneventful you think things will be in your absence, don’t believe it. Stay in Juneau until the bitter end,” Stevens said.
The voucher resolution was removed from his committee, and will instead be heard in judiciary and finance. A similar resolution to strike language from the Constitution that prohibits direct funding of religious school stalled in education during the last legislature.
During the Senate floor session on Tuesday, Stevens announced that he would hold hearings on the issue of vouchers, even if his committee wasn’t processing the measure. He described it as the “most momentous education issue” that he had encountered during his years in the legislature, and he also said he didn’t believe in bottling up legislation just because he didn’t support it.
“I have no objection to the resolution moving ahead, though I don’t personally agree with it, and I would, if eventually it makes it to the ballot box, probably vote against it based on our constitutional principle of separation of church and state. You see, Mr. President, I really like the first amendment to the Constitution. I like it a lot,” Stevens said.
When talking about the constitutional question of funding religious schools, Stevens quoted James Madison to back up his position. He also cited Alaskan founding father, Jack Coghill – former lieutenant governor and father of Sen. John Coghill, a cosponsor of the voucher resolution and the current judiciary chair.
Coghill, a Republican from Fairbanks, said in a later conversation that he didn’t mind having his father’s arguments used against his own. He also said that he thinks vouchers are an education issue, but that the resolution should come through judiciary first.
“So, what Sen. Stevens is saying is accurate and probably one of the debates. But we can’t even have that debate until we ask the people, ‘Can we have that debate?’ And he says it’s unconstitutional. Well, he’s right in that our Constitution now has that barrier,” Coghill said.
This isn’t the first time this session that committee referrals have been questioned. Last week, Senate Democrats objected that a bill defining what qualifies as a “medically necessary” abortion was not referred to the health and human services committee and that a measure concerning the development of a hydroelectric site in a state park was not directed to resources.
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The U.S. Postal Service recently announced an end to Saturday delivery. People will stop receiving letters on Saturdays by the end of summer.
A postal reform bill is expected before then, and bypass mail will likely be targeted for reforms.
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Attu Island is overdue for some spring cleaning. Seventy years after World War II, the island is still littered with shards of old Coke bottles, lead-based batteries, leaking fuel drums and unexploded artillery.
This summer, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the remote island as a refuge, will survey the extent of World War II debris and contamination. As KTOO news intern Kelsey Gobroski reports, the entire ecosystem could be affected by the decades of pollution.
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We’ve all heard politicians talk about how businesses need to change to succeed in today’s marketplace. A group of Alaska entrepreneurs shared their success stories, in hopes of inspiring others, at last week’s Innovation Summit in Juneau.
Most of us have heard stories of an Alaskan with an idea for a business that just takes off.
There’s the boatyard that became a major tour operator. Or the beer-lovers who now sell in more than a dozen states.
Representatives of some of those businesses talked about how they made it work during the recent Innovation Summit at Juneau’s Centennial Hall.
One is a business that provides the flexibility needed for local hire.
Huna Totem Corp. Board Chairman Russell Dick says its Icy Strait Point tourist attraction does just that. He says the seasonal business employs village residents who don’t want a year-round job.
“Nobody works in these communities to work for a Microsoft,” Dick says. “Their idea of lifestyle compatible is the ability to go deer hunting, the ability to go berry gathering, to do these things that make living in a rural community critically important to them.”
Dick is also president and CEO of Haa Aani’, a Sealaska subsidiary pursuing economic development in Southeast. It’s been helping village residents set up oyster farms and sell their product.
He says it’s a collaborative business model, not a grant program.
“We as a for-profit entity were willing to put money into this, we’re willing to put in time. But we’re not going to solve the problems within the region,” he says.
Another innovator is Allen Marine, based in Sitka.
The family-owned business began as a ship-repair yard. It fixed up a derelict boat and began providing tours. Growing demand led the company to buy, then build more vessels.
Wildlife-viewing excursions expanded to Juneau and Ketchikan, and the company eventually formed its own small cruise line, Alaskan Dream.
Vice President Jamey Cagle says its onboard shops are part of its business plan.
“We try and support and procure as many local products as we can, whether it be the foods on board or the gifts that we sell,” Cagle says. “And we’ve found that to be a very successful program for us. It’s what our customers like to see and the quality’s good.”
Juneau-based Alaskan Brewing Company’s innovation is resisting pressure to grow too fast and create too many products.
Brewing Operations Manager Brandon Smith says the craft beer market has expanded significantly since the company began operations.
“You look at some breweries and they have 60 different products and it gets kind of insane,” he says. “We have a somewhat different philosophy there, that we want to do a smaller number of products very well and not confuse the consumer with the dizzying array of things that we put out.”
The company has also invested time and money into new technology. The most recent innovation is a boiler system that burns spent grain, saving heat and shipping costs.
Another business, Juneau’s Gastineau Guiding, tapped into the cruise-ship excursion market during a time of rapid passenger growth.
Owner Bob Janes says it wasn’t alone. He says his business recognized opposition from residents needed to be addressed.
“We saw tours driving through neighborhoods. People weren’t sure whether the trails were going to be packed with tourists every day. So there was a lot of dissention in Juneau,” he says.
He cites the Tourism Best Management Practicesprogram and similar efforts with reducing conflicts and allowing for smoother growth.
Yet another innovator is a much larger company, Anchorage-based Alaska Communications Systems.
ACS CEO Anand Vadapalli says his company took a new direction by partnering with a longtime competitor.
“For those of you who have been in Alaska at least 10 years or more, you have a sense of the degree of competition and rivalry that exists between ACS and GCI,” Vadapalli says.
“But guess what? Last year, ACS and GCI announced a joint venture to combine our wireless networks together to form the single largest wireless network in the state of Alaska.”
That, he adds, is to compete against telecom giant Verizon, which plans to begin service in the 49th state this year.
University of Alaska Southeast Management School Dean John Blanchard moderated the panel.
“We’ll hopefully be inspired to go and incorporate some of those great those ideas as we move the needle a little bit further in creating innovative ideas for Southeast Alaska,” he says.
Some regional business and government leaders are pursuing such an approach through the Juneau Economic Development Council’s cluster initiative.
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The Tanana Chiefs Conference has gathered leaders from interior Alaska Native villages in Fairbanks to talk about Yukon River salmon. There’s frustration with the depressed state of Yukon River Chinook stocks.
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Imagine a domesticated salmon raised on land and eating plants. Depending on your point of view, it’s a nightmare or a dream on the edge of becoming true.
Johanna Eurich reports on research discussed this week at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Boston.
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An Alaska Native leader and former lawmaker remained in the hospital Tuesday after suffering a heart attack Monday in Juneau.
Providence Alaska Medical Center in Anchorage listed Albert Kookesh in critical condition as of late Tuesday afternoon.
Kookesh co-chairs the Alaska Federation of Natives and chairs the Sealaska regional corporation’s board of directors.
His family could not be reached for immediate comment. But Sealaska posted an update on its website saying he is resting after undergoing surgery to correct a blockage.
The update says doctors plan to wake him up from sedation Wednesday.
It says his family asked that no flowers be sent because Kookesh is allergic.
The Angoon Democrat served eight years in the House and eight years in the Senate. He lost a re-election bid last year after redistricting separated him from many of the communities he represented.
Kookesh has also been involved in a number of regional and nationwide Alaska Native organizations. He has a law degree and has been a seiner and a store- and lodge-owner.
In a recent interview, he said he was contemplating rejoining the fishing fleet.
An intense lobbying campaign by Alaska’s congressional delegation has paid off for residents of the Aleutian community of King Cove. A group of them will have the chance to meet face-to-face with Interior Secretary Ken Salazar at the end of the month. As King Cove Corporation administrator Della Trumble explains, the goal is to convince Salazar to allow a road through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge.
“Hopefully have him say yes, we can have this road, and not go with what [the U.S.] Fish and Wildlife [Service] has… what their recommendation is, which is the no action alternative,” Trumble says.
The group will be ten to twelve people, including several who can speak personally to the challenges of getting from King Cove to the all-weather airport in Cold Bay. Trumble says she hopes their stories will get the Secretary to listen.
“As an example, one of the elders that’s traveling with us had gone to Cold Bay on a boat with his wife who was being medevaced out of King Cove. And basically they got off-lifted from a crab boat, in a crab pot, from the boat to the dock in Cold Bay. And that’s just not acceptable.”
Ultimately, the Secretary of the Interior is responsible for deciding whether the project moves forward. Since the Fish and Wildlife Service announced their opposition to the road earlier this month, all three members of Alaska’s Congressional delegation have been pressuring Salazar to override their analysis. He’s expected to leave his post sometime in March, and hasn’t said whether he’ll make a decision on the project before then.
If he doesn’t, both Senator Lisa Murkowski and Representative Don Young have threatened to hold up congressional confirmation of his replacement, Sally Jewell.
The delegation from King Cove will meet with Salazar on February 28. They had already been planning a lobbying trip to Washington, D.C. for later this spring, but it was pushed up in light of the meeting.
Anchorage Police shot and killed a man they were pursuing earlier Tuesday. The man who died is 25 year old Carl Richard Bowie the III of Anchorage.
The incident started around 10 a.m. when the Anchorage Police Department received a call about a man prowling around cars at the Dimond Center parking lot. Officers followed the man who was driving a truck that was reported stolen from a southwest Anchorage neighborhood Tuesday morning. Officers attempted to stop the vehicle but the driver continued into a residential neighborhood in South Anchorage. Anchorage Police Chief Mark Mew says that’s when officers fired.
“The suspect vehicle apparently turned around the cul-de-sac, rammed a patrol car, then rammed another patrol car and at some point two officers fired at the vehicle and driver, both were struck. The vehicle lost control and ended up in its current position in a driveway. The driver was killed,” Mew said.
The driver was pronounced dead at the scene at 10:52 a.m. A female passenger inside the vehicle was uninjured and was taken into custody. This case is still under investigation. The police department’s policy is not to release the names of the officers involved in the shooting for three days.
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The first bill to land on Gov. Sean Parnell’s desk will be one that he introduced.
The measure relaxes regulations on cruise ships, and lets them use mixing zones when they release waste. By doing that, it strikes part of a citizens’ initiative requiring vessels to meet clean water standards at the point of discharge.
Minority Democrats in the Senate cited that as a reason for opposing the bill during their floor speeches. Sen. Johnny Ellis, who represents an Anchorage district, said his constituents had concerns about the legislature rolling back a measure that they had voted on.
“These were not environmentalists. They were not part of the organized conservation community. They were regular Alaskans, who participated in the citizen’s initiative and encouraged me in no uncertain terms to be very, very cautious about overturning citizens’ initiatives. That that’s a dangerous road to go down when we think that can be toyed with lightly,” Ellis said.
Sen. Lesil McGuire, a Republican from Anchorage and a supporter of the bill, responded that some voters might have misunderstood what the initiative actually required.
“When you sit back and look at voter psychology, when people go into the ballot booths, it’s not clear that voters always understand what they’re voting on, to be honest. Alaskans are very smart, savvy people — intellectuals — but a lot of it comes down to the information that they’re presented with as they go into that booth,” McGuire said.
She said that the original initiative had used charged language to describe the way cruise ships processed their waste water.
Debate also focused on whether cruise ships had the technology available to meet more stringent standards, and it considered impact to the state’s fisheries. Conservation groups, tribal organizations, and some members of the fishing industry had come out in opposition to the bill, with the cruise ship industry saying that they need the regulation change for their vessels to get permitted in Alaska.
The bill ultimately passed the Senate on a 14-6 vote. Sen. Lyman Hoffman, a Democrat from Bethel, joined the majority in approving the measure. The bill passed the House earlier this month on similar party lines.
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About a hundred officials from cities and towns across the state met in Juneau last week for the Alaska Municipal League conference. Part of the conference involved lobbying state lawmakers for funding for local projects. In Sitka, officials are hoping for more than $40 million to fund an important hydro electric expansion project. That might be more money than state is willing to fund in lean budget year. But as the Sitka leaders found out, it’s always worth a try.
Just after 9 a.m., Sitka Assembly member Phyllis Hackett walks up to the Alaska Capitol.
“I feel like I’m heading to a funeral,” she joked. “All in black, that is.”
That’s a statement about her business suit, not a prediction for the task ahead.
“Oh, my gosh, no. Are you kidding me?” Hackett said. “I’m way too optimistic for that.”
Hackett is with Mayor Mim McConnell, municipal Administrator Jim Dinley and government relations Director Marlene Campbell.
They’re on their way to see Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell. He’s the first of many meetings that day, and they’re among 100 local officials from across the state are doing the exact same thing on this rainy Thursday, at the end of the Alaska Municipal League’s winter conference. During the meetings, each tries to convince a lawmaker why their own community’s needs should take priority.
Haines Mayor Stephanie Scott is among them. She described a meeting with Treadwell on Wednesday.
“And I said to him, ‘Lieutenant Governor, I live on the only toll road in Alaska, and it’s called the Inside Passage. And we need a vessel to drive on that road,” Scott said.
Her priority on this trip is the Alaska Class Ferry. Plans for a 350-foot vessel were unexpectedly changed by Gov. Sean Parnell, who opted instead for two smaller vessels. But these visits are about a bigger picture, too.
“The representatives and senators need to know that they’re not operating in a vacuum,” said Scott, who also is a board member for the Municipal League. “Their constituencies are out there, thinking and learning and questioning and suggesting, so that it really is a process — a democratic process.”
Sitka’s priority on this trip is to get funding for the Blue Lake dam. The city is raising the height of the dam by 83 feet. Bids for construction came in way above engineers estimates — nearly double the cost, in fact. That’s left the city scrambling for money.
Hackett is sitting in a chair outside the office of state Rep. Cathy Muñoz, a Juneau Republican.
“Cathy Muñoz is the only representative from Southeast on the finance committee,” Hackett said. “So it’s really good to hear one of her staffers say she wants to meet with everybody from Southeast.”
Hackett said the day was “a little intimidating” at the beginning, but that she’s getting comfortable meeting with state lawmakers. This is Hackett’s first trip to lobby on behalf of the city.
“You hear all these things about how you’re supposed to talk to people, and what you’re supposed to say, and what you’re not supposed to say,” she said. “I’m pretty homegrown for that.”
Still, she says the meetings have gone well, and that legislators have been receptive to at least hearing about Blue Lake.
“It doesn’t mean that we’re going to be getting assistance this year, because times are tough at the state,” she said. “But at least there hasn’t been anybody closing the door in our face, or yawning while we’re talking.”
So far, the state has kicked in nearly $50 million for Blue Lake — about half the initial cost of the project. Half of the city’s current request would be about $20 million.
“The chances of getting $20 million in this year’s capital budget is near zero,” said state Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka.
He’s sitting in a rocking chair at the end of a conference table in his office. And he says there are a few factors working against Blue Lake: The capital budget, which funds one-time projects, is going to be smaller this year. Legislators also aren’t very likely to advocate for a big-ticket project that could take money out of their own districts. But even within a district, the competition for money is fierce. Stedman taps on a nearby notebook with all of the capital budget requests for his Senate District.
“It’s what, a 2-and-a-half inch binder? That’s got to be a good two inches of paper,” he says. “Each sheet is a separate project. I haven’t totaled them up, but there are 23 communities in our Senate district. We’re one of 20 Senate districts.”
Still Stedman says it’s not a pointless trip for the Sitkans, or other local officials who hope to help their communities. Even if Blue Lake doesn’t get much money this year, energy is a huge concern across the entire state, and Stedman says it’s good for legislators to know the whole picture. And if he were in the shoes of Hackett and McConnell and the others from Sitka?
“I’d spend my time on the third floor with the governor’s office,” Stedman said. “And I’d spend some time with AEA, the Alaska Energy Authority.”
Anyway, he says Blue Lake is a short term obstacle in the way of Sitka’s long-term solution – a hydro project at Takatz Lake.
But still, what about those long odds? Why spend time meeting with legislators about something that seems unlikely to happen?
“Never make assumptions,” said Sitka Mayor Mim McConnell. “Don’t assume, always hope. We went in there with the hope that maybe, somehow, we’ll be able to get some funding.”
McConnell says they told legislators that if nothing happens, and the city has to bond out for the entire project, electrical rates could rise by as much as 60 percent. They told legislators that two new businesses make their products using propane because there’s just not enough electricity, and that a third — a proposed fish waste processing plant — called off plans to build in Sitka because it wouldn’t have had enough electricity.
“Obviously nobody made any promises,” she said. “But we got a lot of sympathy. And it was sincere sympathy.”
And some legislators told them that if they felt stonewalled by anyone, to give them a call for help.
“It wasn’t just an empty comment,” McConnell said. “There was actually something behind it, I think.”
The legislative session is about a third of the way through, which means it’s too early for anyone to know exactly whether the budgets will contain even a portion of the $43 million the city requested.
McConnell says she’s willing to make another visit if it will help, but that for now, it’s time to watch and wait.
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U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski says in light of the Kulluk’s grounding, the government needs to look at all aspects of Shell’s Arctic drilling operations.
“It’s not just the drilling operation itself. It’s the whole initiative. You gotta move the assets up north and then back. All aspects of the operation need to be tended to,” Murkowski said.
Speaking on Talk of Alaska on Tuesday, Senator Murkowski called the grounding a “marine incident.”
The oil and gas industry, and its supporters in Washington D.C., have labeled the grounding a transportation issue. But today, Senator Murkowski said it’s more than just that.
“I share the concerns of many, that all areas were not fully attended to, to a level of assuredness to us as Alaskans, to us as Americans,” Murkowski said.
Both the Department of Interior and the Coast Guard are conducting separate reviews. The Interior study is due out in a couple of weeks.
A Wrangell café is combating hunger. For about 13 weeks per year, it donates its Monday night profits to a charity that works to end child hunger in the United States. On those nights, it also gives patrons a good meal for whatever they are willing to pay.
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Ever wonder what all those Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race volunteer checkers eat? Well, APRN’s Ellen Lockyer found out during a visit to an Anchorage warehouse where supplies were getting packed up for flights to Skwentna, Nome and other checkpoints along the thousand mile trail.
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A recent episode of the popular cooking show Top Chef: Seattle was filmed in Juneau. The show was taped last August at various locations around the Capital City. Some Juneau residents were actually employed to help on set. But everyone was contractually-prohibited from saying anything about it — even acknowledging that it ever happened.
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Alaska’s congressional delegation today introduced new Sealaska land-selection bills.
Both would turn about 70,000 acres of the Tongass National Forest over to Sealaska, the regional Native corporation for Southeast Alaska.
Murkowski’s version includes numerous changes meant to reduce opposition from environmental groups, tourism businesses and small communities.
She says it would still complete a promise made 40 years ago by the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.
“In terms of what we set out to do, which is to provide completion to Sealaska in terms of allowing them to select their lands that were committed, this will help finalize that selection and really work to balance the interests of all of those in the region,” she says.
Both bills transfer about 68,000 acres to Sealaska for timber harvest and development. They remove about 26,000 controversial acres on or near northern Prince of Wales Island and replace them with other parcels.
Sealaska Vice President and General Counsel Jaeleen Araujo says the new acreage is near some previously-logged areas.
“There was some infrastructure already in place on north Prince of Wales, so we had to find other alternatives that would have proximity to infrastructure that would be helpful in timber development,” Araujo says.
She says Sealaska supports the new measures.
The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, an umbrella environmental group, has been one of the groups critical of the legislation.
SEACC Attorney Buck Lindekugel says he hasn’t seen Young’s bill and is still looking through Murkowski’s measure. But he sees some significant improvements.
“Senator Murkowski has shown some solid leadership and tried to address some thorny issues that were raised by Southeast Alaskans. There is a lot of bittersweet stuff here, particularly with some of the timber lands. Nobody’s going to be happy with all of them. But both Sealaska and Senator Murkowski helped avoid some real controversial places,” Lindekugel says.
He says his group will run the measures by its membership before taking a formal position.
The Alaska Forest Association backs the measures.
Executive Director Owen Graham says Murkowski’s version makes too many concessions. But he says they’re needed to keep the logging industry alive.
“We’re holding our nose on the conservation areas. We don’t think there’s anything special about them. They’re certainly not needed because there are other protections for the land. But we’re willing to accept those conservation areas in order to get this bill done quickly,” Graham says.
Both bills also cut the number of small parcels set aside for tourism, energy or other economic development. They also reduce the acreage to be selected as sacred or cultural sites.
Murkowski’s version increases the required stream-buffer zone from 66 to 100 feet to protect three salmon spawning areas. It also balances Sealaska’s timber selections with 150,000 acres of conservation areas.
Don Young spokesman Michael Anderson says that’s where his version differs.
“The House bill doesn’t contain any conservation set-asides. Though the two bills convey the same overall acreage to Sealaska, the House bill includes a few more small parcels. The House bill does not include any buffer requirements beyond what is required in the Alaska Forest Practices Act,” Anderson says.
Similar legislation was introduced in previous Congresses.
Young’s version passed out of the House as part of a larger lands package last year. Murkowski’s bill did not make it to the Senate floor.
She says it will have a better chance this year. That’s because Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, took over chairmanship of the chamber’s Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
“He has pointed out to me numerous times that he’s very pleased with the fact that we have engaged in this level of sit-down and dialog with everyone from the administration to the energy committee staff, to those within all aspects of industry, whether they’re fishermen, environmental groups, tourism. I think he’s impressed by the process that he’s seen,” Murkowski says.
She says Wyden has agreed to move several land bills out of the Natural Resources Committee. Sealaska would not be part of the first package, which will only include measure that already cleared the committee. But she says it could be in a later version.
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Alaskans marked Elizabeth Peratrovich Day on Saturday, in honor of the Tlingit woman whose testimony to the Alaska Territorial Legislature helped pass the Anti-Discrimination Act in 1945. A small crowd gathered at the Alaska State Museum in Juneau to hear a talk from Barbara Cadiente-Nelson, a board member of Sealaska Native Corporation, the Douglas Indian Association, and a member of the Alaska Native Sisterhood.
A Homer charter boat captain who pled guilty to distributing drugs to minors and possession of child pornography has been sentenced to 10 years in prison. The captain, 34-year old Randall Hines, also will have to pay $160,000 in restitution.
Suspect James Michael “Jim” Wells is expected to appear in court this week. An arrest was made on Friday for a double-murder at the Communications Station on Coast Guard Base Kodiak last spring.
Numerous interviews and physical evidence led Alaska State Troopers to arrest the 14-year old Kake boy they believe is responsible for the death of 13-year old Mackenzie Howard. That’s according to the Deputy Commander of the Major Crimes Section for the Alaska Bureau of Investigation.