On Monday, the Ketchikan Gateway Borough Assembly affirmed that it is moving forward with a lawsuit against the State of Alaska. By voting to hire an Anchorage law firm and appropriate $150,000 toward the effort, the Assembly showed it’s serious about its effort to overturn what some local officials say is an unfair mandate requiring municipalities to fund a minimum level for local schools.
The fairness issue aside, though, what will be the Legislature’s response if Ketchikan wins its argument?
First some background. And bear with me, please. I’ll try to keep this short, and as free from legal jargon as possible.
The borough plans to sue the state because the state requires the borough to help fund local schools. Not everyone in Alaska has to do that, though, and the borough argues that isn’t fair.
There have been previous attempts to overturn that funding mandate, and they failed. But in a report to the Borough Assembly, attorney Robert Hicks writes that those earlier cases had serious flaws. The Mat-Su Borough, for example, in the late 1990s, argued that the mandatory local contribution violated equal protection laws.
In that case, the court ruled that municipalities aren’t people, so they don’t have constitutionally protected equal rights. However, Hicks argues that the court wasn’t asked to consider whether the exemption for many unorganized borough communities violates a requirement for maximum local contribution, and meets the requirement that everyone in the state have somewhat equal public obligations.
All that, though, is something for lawyers to argue about – and they will. But there is one burning question: What happens if Ketchikan wins?
Is it really likely that the Alaska Legislature, after cutting the state budget several years in a row with more cuts expected, will give Ketchikan an extra $4 million or more each year for public schools? And how about those 34 other municipal school districts that also pay their mandatory local contribution?
Senator Bert Stedman was in Ketchikan last month to talk to local Rotarians, and after his presentation, I asked him what he thought might happen.
“If the Legislature steps in and rewrites it, and/or the judiciary branch concludes that something different should be under way that it’s currently structured, we don’t know what the Legislature will come out with,” he said. “It may be worse than what we have now. You just never know.”
Stedman said he is working with other state senators, and a hearing on the issue is likely during the upcoming legislative session. He admitted the political process can be slow, though, and the lawsuit might be a speedier solution.
Borough Manager Dan Bockhorst, who has led the fight to end the mandatory local contribution, said it would be great if the Legislature came up with a solution on its own.
“The KGB has tried for six years to have a less adversarial solution than litigation,” he said. “That would certainly be preferable. What are the chances? When it becomes evident, the strength of the borough’s argument, I think the chances of a legislative solution I hope will increase.”
Both Stedman and State House Rep. Peggy Wilson agreed that the Legislature will have to come up with something if Ketchikan wins its lawsuit. Wilson echoed Stedman’s concern that what that “something” might be is unknown.
“That’s a pretty big question mark,” she said, adding that the unintended consequences of winning the lawsuit could mean, for example, less local control over schools. She wouldn’t vote that way, but can’t speak for other lawmakers.
“They might say, ‘Hey listen, if we’re paying the whole bill,’” she said.
Wilson added that if the state has to foot the whole bill for education, that will lead to cuts elsewhere.
“There will be more money that’s used for the general budget, and there won’t be as much money for the capital budget, so that means everybody’s capital budget would be less,” she said.
Bockhorst, though, said the Legislature is cutting its budget anyway, and that continuing trend is actually a reason to move forward with the challenge.
“As the state faces more and more fiscal pressures, the potential that the state will push more and more of its burden for its responsibilities onto local governments exists,” he said.
Bockhorst argued that even an unknown court-ordered legislative solution is better than what we have now.
“Whatever solution comes out of this, in my opinion, is going to be much more fair, and more palatable, and easier on the students in terms of funding and easier on the taxpayers in Ketchikan than is the current circumstance,” he said.
Another potential, more immediate consequence of the lawsuit was raised by City of Ketchikan officials.
They worry that some Alaska lawmakers will be less inclined to approve capital funding for Ketchikan’s projects, and that those lawmakers will confuse the city government with the borough. The City Council talked recently about officially distancing itself from the borough’s lawsuit.
That’s “just in case there is an impact, and there might not be an impact,” said city Mayor Lew Williams III. “You never know how it’s going to play out. But as a representative of the city, you have to think of the city’s issues and the city’s interests.”
Wilson, though, said retribution is unlikely, and Stedman didn’t anticipate any challenges to Ketchikan projects because of the lawsuit.
“I don’t look at it as suing the state because the state is doing something wrong,” he said. “I look at it more of ‘I have a different opinion of what the Constitution, what the requirements are, and let’s get it sorted out. It’s not like you’re suing your neighbor ‘cause they bashed into your car and you want them to pay you. It’s just the process we live in.”
And that process has begun for the Ketchikan Gateway Borough.
Below are a legal analysis of the education funding issue, and a memo on the topic by the borough attorney.
- Analyses of Legal Issues by Bob Hicks – Approved for Public Release 10-21-2013
- Appendices – Analyses of Legal Issues — Approved for Public Release 10-21-2013
- Dedicated Tax Memo by Scott Brandt-Erichsen – Approved for Public Release 10-21-2013
Scholars and culture-bearers gather in Juneau this week for a clan conference focusing on Tlingit knowledge and traditions. It runs Wednesday night through Sunday morning at the capital city’s Centennial Hall.
The event is called “Sharing Our Knowledge.” It includes dozens of workshops and presentations.
Juneau’s Peter Metcalfe is one of the organizers.
“There’s both academic presentations as well as non-academics who might be Tlingit speakers or might be artists. Otherwards, people who aren’t necessarily credentialed academically but have deep knowledge of the topic or subject and can speak knowledgably about it,” Metcalfe says.
Sessions include linguistics, archaeology, art and music, Alaska Native history, museum studies, indigenous law and traditional ecological knowledge.
The clan conference theme is “Our Language is Our Way of Life.” (Link to the conference website.)
Sitka’s Gerry Hope, the conference’s executive director, says the language is disappearing.
“And it was a concern of one of the organizing committee members that a number of elders are passing away. And we need to be able to talk to them while they’re here,” Hope says.
The theme is also evident in sessions on building a Tlingit library, regional language programs and a Tlingit spelling bee.
Hope points to sessions on gathering Tlingit phrases to use with children and bringing Tlingit into the home.
“I have a strong belief that language in the home is something that is often overlooked,” he says.
The conference charges a registration fee, with a day-pass option. Discounts are available for students and seniors. (Link to the conference’s Facebook event page.)
Metcalfe says it’s for more than just tribal members.
“The best part about it from my point of view is you can walk into or out of a workshop and you’ll feel welcome and understand what’s going on, with the exception perhaps of some of the Tlingit language workshops that are happening,” he says.
The Tlingit clan conferences began about 20 years ago under the leadership of the late Andy Hope III. After a 10-year pause, they resumed in 2007.
The Shrine of St. Therese kicked off a year-long 75th anniversary celebration on Saturday. The cornerstone of the chapel was laid and blessed by Alaska Bishop Joseph Crimont on October 30, 1938.
The Shrine was originally built as a place to inspire devotion to God. At the time, there were no other spiritual retreat houses in Alaska and Father William LeVasseur saw the need to build one.
But throughout its 75 year life, the Shrine has welcomed people of all beliefs. Residents of Juneau, Southeast Alaskans, and visitors go to the Shrine for all kinds of reasons.
As you drive out Glacier Highway from downtown Juneau, you eventually start winding along the coast with intermittent views of the Chilkat Mountains. Past Tee Harbor, you start driving up. Soon, you descend through a hemlock forest.
Turn left at mile 23 and find “a lot of trees, streams. As you walk down, you see log structures, you see the ocean,” describes Thomas Fitterer, director of the Shrine of St. Therese for almost 25 years. “You see a causeway. On the other side of the causeway is an island, Shrine Island. So you walk over to Shrine Island and suddenly you see a church made out of rock.”
Surrounding the church are the Stations of the Cross, each station depicting a scene of Christ’s final hours on earth and the resurrection.
“Then you look out and the ocean waves are hitting against the rocks, so you have God and nature so prevalent there that you cannot help but be influenced – whether you’re a believer or non-believer – somehow or another, one is touched by the peace, by the gift of natural beauty, and by the spirit,” Fitterer says.
From the beginning, the Shrine has been a place where everyone is welcome, even in the 1940s, Fitterer says, when religious groups tended to stay separate.
“Back then even, people of all denominations or no denomination felt comfortable coming to the Shrine and that’s been the flavor ever since and that’s something that I would never want to see lost,” he says.
The Shrine was built as a place to hold religious retreats, escape normal activities and be with God through prayer and reflection. It’s still a place to retreat, but in many different ways.
“The good thing about the Shrine,” Fitterer says, “is you can do everything from have a picnic on the beach to fish to rock climb to rock find to walk the labyrinth. It fulfills the needs of so many people in so many ways.”
The Shrine has always been seen as a place to escape this busy world full of distractions. “You’ve got your iPhone and you’ve got your tweets and you’ve got whatever else, a lot of people just get caught up into that pattern,” says Fitterer.
Over the years, visitors have told Fitterer about how much they enjoy being at the Shrine. People have talked of experiencing miracles and feeling close to God, even when they didn’t have one.
Fitterer recalls one visitor who have traveled all over the world, but felt a special presence at the Shrine, “She just could feel it, and she said I’ve never seen and felt a more beautiful place on earth.”
At the Shrine, volunteer Sam Bertoni walks to the outdoor columbarium where the ashes of his mother and another 200 individuals are laid to rest.
“Some people come and visit all the time,” says Bertoni. “I know people that come out here on a regular basis every week to put flowers or to communicate with their loved ones. Some folks come out here many times a week.”
A semi-circle of six black granite walls, each about seven feet tall and 11 feet long face the ocean.
“And it’s a fantastic view. You know I can’t afford beachfront in this life, but maybe in the next life,” Bertoni laughs.
The Shrine offers church services during the summer and other holidays throughout the year. Bertoni remembers one Easter service. “There must have been 100 people and there must have been 150 sea lions out here yelping because of the killer whales, and there was so much commotion, you couldn’t even talk. It was like a hundred dogs barking. It was really something,” Bertoni says.
Over the decades, the Shrine has grown beyond the original structures of the chapel, lodge, caretaker’s house, and the post office. It now offers five separate rental cabins which are used regularly for day use, overnights, weekends, and longer stays.
Caretakers Jack and Jeanne Jordan are in charge of the daily happenings at the Shrine. Besides being used by the Catholic Diocese of Juneau, the units are rented out by many other groups.
“We have other churches, the state of Alaska, the school district, the Coast Guard, different businesses utilize it, we have yoga groups sometimes, women’s retreats and sewing groups, scrapbooking groups, anniversary celebrations, birthday celebrations, family reunions,” says Jeanne Jordan.
It could be as simple as wanting a quiet place to walk around or as complicated as pondering the meaning of life. Jordan says people in search of something often visit the Shrine of St. Therese and find what they’re looking for.
Fairbanks area residents might be thinking the weather quickly went south.
After months of unseasonably warm temperatures and a lack of snow, the city had its first measurable snowfall on Tuesday.
The National Weather Service says that will be followed Wednesday night with Arctic cold.
Temperatures are forecast to dip to minus 4 degrees. The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reports it’s likely the first night this season that people might have to plug their vehicles into engine block heaters.
The service says temperatures should warm up by the weekend, but with it will be “active winter weather” – code for significant snowfall.
A panel has advanced a proposal recommending pay raises for Alaska’s governor, lieutenant governor and principal department heads.
The State Officers Compensation Commission met to finalize preliminary recommendations Wednesday. A public hearing is planned before a final report is submitted to the Legislature.
The director of the state Division of Personnel and Labor Relations has said the increases would be effective July 1, unless a bill disapproving all the recommendations is enacted.
Under the proposal, the governor’s salary would go from $145,000 a year to $150,873. The lieutenant governor’s salary would go from $115,000 to $119,658. Each would get another 2.5 percent beginning July 1, 2015.
Commissioner salaries would go from $136,350 to $146,143, with additional raises for 2014 and 2015 provided through a bill passed during the last legislature.
Between oil taxes, marijuana regulation, mining, and the minimum wage, there’s a mess of ballot issues that Alaskans will have to decide on next summer. But a group of sportfishermen and guides is already looking toward 2016. They’ve introduced an initiative that would ban commercial set-net operations in the state’s urban areas, including Cook Inlet. APRN’s Alexandra Gutierrez reports.
Joe Connors operates a charter outfit on the Kenai Peninsula. His Big Sky Fishcamp has lots of amenities. There are cabins with names like “the Hawaiian Hut” and the “Hacienda of Happy Jose.” But the big attraction is obviously the fishing. If you go to Connors’ website, you’ll see photos of massive king salmon caught by proud clients.
There’s just one big snag with his operation. In recent years, he’s had fewer kings to fish. With lower returns, the state has had to put fishing limits on the valuable stock.
“You couldn’t troll out off the mouth of the Deep Creek or Anchor or Ninilchik [Rivers]. That was closed,” says Connors. “In the river, they had us fishing with single hook, no bait, and restricted to the lower 10 miles of the river.”
Now, Connors is heading up a new group called the Alaska Fisheries Conservation Alliance, and their goal is to shut down the commercial set-net fishery in the area.
That user group catches fish by anchoring nets to the shore. While the set-netters mostly target red salmon, they also take some kings. This year, they ended up with about 5,000 kings in their nets. Sportfishermen got a fraction of that.
Connors thinks the impact on the king run is too much, so the Alliance is pushing an initiative that would ban all commercial set netting in urban regions. He points to bans on the method in other states, and says it’s not an allocation issue but a conservation one. He adds that the state has not been doing its job in preserving the king stock.
“The Board of Fish and Game gets deluded by the need to continue the set-net fishery because it’s a way of life, you know, whatever, whatever,” says Connors. “But the bottom line indicates — all the indicators — we have historically low numbers, and we cannot continue to have this wall of death functioning.”
The Alliance submitted their initiative application to the Alaska Division of Elections today. If the initiative passes legal review, the group would then have to collect signatures from 10 percent of the electorate to get on the ballot.
Set-netters in Bristol Bay, Kodiak, and along the Alaska Peninsula would not be targeted by the proposed ban, and neither would subsistence fisheries. And while the ban would apply to places like Fairbanks and Juneau, the Kenai Peninsula would see the greatest impact.
There are 750 set-net permits issued for the Cook Inlet region, with an estimated value of $10 million. While the initiative has language giving a rationale for the ban, it doesn’t say anything about what would happen to those permits. Connors says that the possibility of a buyback is something that could be worked out later.
“There might be discussion to that effect,” says Connors. That’s something that the public would have to decide if they want to have that discussion in the state also.”
Connors says he wants that discussion to happen over the course of a few years, which is why his group isn’t doing a major signature rush to get on the 2014 primary ballot. They’ve hired a public relations firm, and they plan to run a “voter education” effort. They also want to give the legislature some time to consider their proposal before it would actually go out to a vote.
“You can’t have an initiative process without allowing the Legislature to consider all these options also,” says Connors. “By going through the initiative process, we’re opening all of these other options. Whether the appropriate people step up and deal with it, we’ll see.”
The sportfishing lobby is a serious force in the state, and the Alaska Fisheries Conservation Alliance includes one of its most powerful players. Bob Penney, a Anchorage developer and major political funder, has already begun sending letters to legislators explaining the reason for this initiative. Earlier this year, a group he founded — the Kenai River Sportfishing Association — ran a successful campaign to unseat one of the governor’s appointees to the Board of Fish.
The initiative caught many set-netters by surprise. A spokesperson for the Kenai Peninsula Fishermen’s Association, which represents many of the area’s commercial fishermen, said they were “looking at the proposal and will have a response in the next day or two.”
Soldotna Sen. Peter Micciche was out of town on personal business Wednesday, but said he’s “going to continue to do what I need to do to protect all the fisheries in Cook Inlet. They’re all extremely important to our economy, to our recreation and to our way of life. I’m going to be active in the struggle to understand the importance of all our fisheries.”
This is the first citizen effort in Alaska to ban a gear-type via ballot. In 1995, an initiative to prioritize personal use over commercial fishing was introduced, but it did not come to a vote.
KDLL’s Shaylon Cochran and APRN’s Lori Townsend contributed reporting to this story.
The University of Alaska Board of Regents could boost tuition rates and approve the next budget Wednesday when they meet at the Anchorage campus.
The university says in a statement that tuition rates are proposed to increase $6 per credit hour for resident undergraduates and $12 for resident graduate students next year.
The next operating budget would be $388 million in state general funds. This would be on top of $547 million the university gets from federal research grants, tuition and fees, donations and other sources.
Regents will also consider a capital budget that includes $319 million in state general funds. Deferred maintenance remains the top priority, along with two engineering buildings under construction in Anchorage and Fairbanks and an upgrade to the UAF combined heat and power plant.
Roadwork continues along K-Beach Road south of Kenai to try and alleviate some of the flooding in residential areas there. The high groundwater is not only making it difficult to navigate several roads, it’s also left people without water in their homes.
The Red Cross has a shelter set up at the Kenai Armory on South Forest. When I stopped by, they had just finished getting some cots and tables set up, and volunteers were still hanging signs. But no one had come seeking relief shortly before noon.
“They’ll have a place to sleep, take a shower. We’ll have meals prepared for them every day and meals for them as they need it. We’re looking at (housing) maybe a dozen, but we’re prepared to handle as many as we need to handle,” said Red Cross district manager Bill Morrow.
The shelter is being made available as more and more residents in the area are without water, as wells and septic systems are out of service for a good chunk of the neighborhood.
I spoke to a few people over the weekend who insisted their neighbors had it worse than they did. Their toilets were still flushing and they hadn’t resorted to paper plates and microwavable dinners just yet. But for other areas, water safety has already been a concern for weeks.
Jamie Bjorkman of the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation told residents at a community meeting that well tests would be in order, but that until the water actually recedes, boiling or using bottled water would be the safest way to go.
“Once those flood waters are gone, you might want to go through a disinfection of your water system and test you system for total coliform bacteria. It indicates if there’s any harmful bacteria in your system,” she said.
The presence of coliform bacteria isn’t harmful in and of itself, but does indicate that there’s a pathway for more dangerous bacteria, like E. coli.
Ideally, the improvements made for water drainage and storage along K-Beach will help bring water levels down soon, but a hard winter freeze could be just around the corner which would undoubtedly complicate things. But Bjorkman says you can still test your septic system, even if it does freeze.
“A nitrate test will let you know if your septic system is affecting your drinking water. The reason we recommend the nitrate test at colder temperatures is because when everything freezes up, that bacteria can die if it gets cold enough, but you’ll still see nitrates.”
For residents choosing to stay at home, the Borough has provided clean-up kits and dry-chemical toilet units. Those are available at the Central Emergency Service Fire station on K-Beach.
The Bureau of Land Management is beginning a four year planning process to set a strategy for over 10 million acres of BLM land across a vast section of southwest Alaska. The Bering Sea Western Interior planning area runs from the coast up the Kuskokwim to Nikolai and follows the Yukon River up to Grayling.
The resource management plan lays out management goals, and rules for how people use the lands. BLM staff will be out in communities to hear about current uses of lands. Jorjena Daly is the Resource Management Plan lead for BLM.
“All the issues, concerns, and opportunities that we hear from the public during the scoping period will help set the sideboards essentially or the topics we will eventually address in our land use planning document,” said Daly.
The first meetings are set for in Lower and Upper Kalskag on Friday. Bethel’s meeting will be November 20th. The process also includes a close look at subsistence resources. BLM specifically issues permits for subsistence moose hunts in unit 21E around Anvik and in 22A around the Eastern Norton Sound. Daly says BLM want to hear from residents experiences.
“[For example] what changes are effecting or might effect in the future the way the public fishes and hunts on those lands. What changes people would like to see around them, and how BLM can manage those resources in the future,” said Daly.
Legislation in ANCSA allows the secretary of the Interior to withdraw and reserve lands, in effect closing areas to mining or mineral leasing. Two major sections of so called D-1 lands cover about 6 million acres. The agency is required to exam those withdrawals during the process.
“And when we do this we determine through public involvement if there is a valid need to retain the withdrawals,” said Daly. “And then what we do is essentially make a recommendation on whether to lift the withdrawals and modify them in some way.”
Scoping goes through January 17th. The next two years will include drafting the plan. It will include and Environmental Impact Statement detailing positive and negative impacts of management alternatives. The final plan should be ready in 2017. The planning website can be accessed here.
Six boats are dragging the Kialik River today in efforts to find Nick Cooke and James Napoka.
Teams from another two boats continue the search on land. Two teams of specially trained search dogs are set to arrive tonight. They will head to the scene and spend Wednesday searching for the men.
Bethel Search and Rescue says an incoming Bering Sea storm will bring a surge of water into the Kuskokwim delta where search and recovery operations are based. 1 to 3 feet of storm surge is expected, with winds up to 60 miles per hour.
Cooke and Napoka were last heard from two weeks ago today.
One of the major barge companies that serves Western Alaska has been purchased by a major transportation company that serves Alaska and the Pacific Northwest.
Back in April Lynden, which is a family of freight transportation companies, agreed to buy Northland Services for an undisclosed sum. The transaction is now complete.
In a prepared statement Lynden’s President and CEO Jon Burdick noted that Northland Service’s barge capabilities to Hawaii and Western Alaska complement Lynden’s current service offerings.
Northland Service’s President and CEO Larry Stauffer notes that Lynden provides an ideal situation to better serve Northland Service’s customers and employees. Northland Services will operate and an independent operating company within the Lynden family of companies and the current Northland management team will stay in place.
Lynden has several subsidiary companies including Alaska Marine Lines, Lynden Transport, Lynden International, Alaska West Express, Lynden Air Cargo and Brown Line.
Last month the deal was approved by an Anchorage superior court judge.
A decision on whether the Anchorage Assembly will accept money from the legislature to build a rec center with indoor tennis courts was put off at Tuesday’s regular assembly meeting. Dozens testified mostly in favor of building the facility.
For several weeks now the assembly has been considering whether to accept about $10 million from the Alaska legislature earmarked for the construction of the Northern Lights Recreation Center which would include indoor tennis courts.
Dozens wearing green tennis ball stickers reading ‘Yes on Tennis’ testified that indoor courts would make the sport more accessible for people of all incomes, including Gary Cox.
“Do something good for the health of the children and the people of this town. Build this rec center. I’ve been a PE teacher here for 26 years now. I think it’s time to not just say we care. And that would be to push the button. It’s time to do something. Vote yes on accepting the money that is there. I think if you don’t do this you’re in danger of damaging the relationship with the state legislature,” he said.
The Anchorage Tennis Association lobbied for the project and Anchorage representative Lindsay Holmes who holds a seat on the finance committee reportedly secured the money for it.
A handful of people, including Phil Isle, testified against the project saying the city should focus on taking care of what they already have.
“I’d like you to spend this money on the other things to upgrade what we have and take care of them,” Isle said. “And if you can’t do that for some rule, then give it back.”
Testimony lasted about two hours.The Assembly put off a decision on the issue until it’s next meeting on Nov. 18.
Today is election day in states like New Jersey and Virginia, where there are big governors’ races. But even though voters aren’t going to the polls in Alaska, it’s not totally quiet here. A group that wants to remove state legislator Lindsey Holmes from office is turning in their recall application Wednesday morning.
Recall sponsors believe that the Anchorage representative is “unfit” for office because she changed her party affiliation from Democrat to Republican before starting her term. They’ve collected 1,101 signatures from people supporting their application, and 808 of those need to come from registered voters in Holmes’ district.
Wigi Tozzi is helping lead the effort, and he says he’s confident that most of their signatures are valid.
“I think that one of the things that Rep. Holmes may have been counting on is the complacency of the voters in her district, and we are not complacent.”
The recall process is long and complicated. Once the application is submitted, the Division of Elections verifies the signatures and judges the argument for the recall. If the application is accepted, sponsors then have to collect another round of signatures, this time from 25 percent of the district’s voters — or 2020 signatures, in this case. Tozzi says they have volunteers ready to knock on doors, and they have plenty of tennis ball bumper stickers to hand out, referencing a controversial appropriation for tennis courts that Holmes supported.
If the sponsors trigger a special election and the recall question is successful, Holmes would have to give up her office. But there wouldn’t be a special election to replace her. Her seat would be treated like any other vacancy, where the governor has a month to decide on an appointment. Because of the recall group’s timing, there’s the possibility that could happen during the legislative session. Tozzi says that he would rather have no representation over Holmes.
“Regardless of what happens in the legislature in terms of whether or not we would create a vacancy in the middle of the session is in some respects besides the point. You can’t — you cannot — abuse the process like that and expect people to just stand by.”
Tozzi adds that the recall effort is not so much about Holmes’ conversion as it is the timing. He says that because Alaska has closed primaries, switching parties before being sworn into office weakens the election system. He thinks Holmes’ move could incentivize similar behavior from candidates who want to avoid competitive primaries and see a way to manipulate the electoral process.
Since switching parties, Holmes has largely voted with the Republican majority. She did split from her caucus to vote against a “Stand Your Ground” law and against a bill that would have required teachers to put more years in before getting tenure. Holmes has defended the switch in previous conversations with APRN. She said she had been more motivated business issues in recent years, and the move was borne from that. Holmes has also said that being part of the majority caucus has allowed her to bring more projects to her district. Holmes did not respond to a request for an interview in time for this story.
There has never been a successful attempt to recall a legislator in Alaska. A group of Ketchikan voters tried to remove former Rep. Kyle Johansen from office in 2011, but the Division of Elections rejected the argument that renouncing his leadership position and caucus membership qualified as incompetence and neglect of duties.
The state is taking on the federal government in court again. The case involves state’s rights and control of rivers.
Officials with the Alaska Federation of Natives gathered today in Anchorage, Juneau and Bethel on a teleconference to denounce the state’s lawsuit.
Newly elected AFN co-chair Tara Sweeney said subsistence defines Alaska Native people and she said, no one has the right to take that away.
“The latest action by the state of Alaska is an assault on the people of Alaska who depend upon hunting, fishing and gathering to feed their families,” Sweeney said.
AFN President Julie Kitka gave a brief history of the complicated case. Kitka said for decades, AFN has attempted to work with state administrations, congress and in court. She said Native leaders expected the first Katie John case to resolve the federal lands and waters management issue.
“Unfortunately the state has continued to fight implementation of that decision,” Kitka said.
Kitka said AFN has been involved in the litigation for more than 18 years and will continue to intervene on the side of the federal government while working toward a Congressional fix.
Rosita Worl is the chairwoman of AFN’s subsistence committee. She said she wanted to be clear about three main things: That AFN will continue the fight to protect subsistence in this case and any others that compromise those rights that although they have tried for two decades to work on a legislative or congressional fix, the state has refused to participate in a viable solution.
“The state of Alaska attempted overreach is a reckless attempt to unravel the precedents set by the lower courts and through administrative procedures,” Worls said. “This should enrage not only the Native community but all Alaskans.”
“Too much time, energy and precious funding has been wasted in the state’s ongoing attacks on subsistence. Enough is enough.”
Kitka and Worl both reiterated that the state could regain subsistence management of federal lands if it came into compliance with ANILCA.
The Obama Administration claims it has fixed some of the problems with the new online federal health insurance marketplace, but so far Alaskans remain mostly shut out.
Senator Lisa Murkowski had a chance to grill the top official in charge of the website at a Senate hearing on Tuesday, and she used it to air some of her frustrations.
Murkowski told Medicare chief Marilyn Tavenner that she’s met with Enroll Alaska Insurance agents who are trying to help Alaskans buy insurance on the exchange.
As of last week, they had signed only 3 people up for coverage.
Now they suspect the website miscalculated their subsidy. Tavenner had few real answers for Murkowski.
- “Not only can people not get on to enroll, but if they do, their subsidy calculations are incorrect.”
- “So we are aware of this issue and they are working on a fix to the system to correct the Alaska issue. It’s specific to Alaska.”
- “In the meantime what should Alaskans do? Should they stay off, as Enroll Alaska and the other navigators have suggested?”
Tavenner said Alaskans should keep trying. Murkowski also criticized Tavenner for taking the site offline from 1 to 5a.m. daily. That’s the middle of the night on the East Coast, but it means the website goes dark at 9pm in Alaska – prime time, says Murkowski, for busy parents who’ve just put kids to bed.
Tavenner said Alaskans can call the help line, or submit paper applications .
Meanwhile, more than half of the Alaskans who buy individual policies from Premera are getting cancellation notices. At the hearing, Murkowski said many have told her they worry they’ll have a gap in coverage if they can’t enroll on the federal exchange in time, and that they might get sick during that gap.
“They want to know, ‘if I fall through the cracks, will I be taken care of,’ and I don’t have an answer for them,” Murkowski said.
Outside the hearing, Murkowski said she believes the key to getting truly affordable health care plans is to work on legislation that will lower the cost of the health care itself.
Despite the extensive problems with healthcare.gov, a few dozen Alaskans have managed to enroll in a health plan on the marketplace. Anchorage resident Lara Imler is one of them.
In 2004, Imler quit her job as an accountant to become a hair stylist. Now she rents space in a small salon in midtown Anchorage. She’s a lot happier cutting hair than she was sitting in front of a computer. But she does miss one big thing about her old job.
“I had health insurance with a pretty big corporate office for about six years and it was wonderful.”
Even without health insurance, Imler spends a lot of time in doctors’ offices. The 37 year old has Hashimoto’s disease, an autoimmune disorder that affects the thyroid. The treatments and blood work she needs are expensive, but not as expensive as monthly health premiums.
“Being self employed, getting my premium at anything reasonable, wasn’t happening. I think my last quote was $1200 a month for myself.”
Imler was determined to find a better deal on the new Affordable Care Act marketplace. She logged onto healthcare.gov a few days after it went live last month. She tried on and off for the first week but kept running into messages that the site was “unavailable.” So she decided to wait a few weeks. On October 24th, she logged back in and slowly started making her way through the process.
“So you get to a point where you finally get to pick what health insurance you want and all the buttons have to be double clicked. If you don’t know that or try that it doesn’t go anywhere. It just sits there.”
Imler has a degree in computer programming. She’s even built a few Websites. She thinks that experience, helped her persevere through the trouble spots on healthcare.gov. About two hours after she started, she landed on a screen that told her she had successfully enrolled. She was pleasantly surprised by the price. Imler qualified for subsidies, and chose a mid-level plan that will cost her $110 a month.
“The website sucks, I’m not going to lie, it’s awful, it’s cumbersome, it’s a lot of work… but the idea that I might be able to afford health insurance, is huge to me.”
Imler is still waiting for enrollment confirmation from her new insurance company. She’s optimistic that will come soon. If it doesn’t, she’s willing to log back in to healthcare.gov to keep trying.
This story is part of a reporting partnership between APRN, NPR and Kaiser Health News.
Monday night, the U.S. Senate voted to move ahead with a bill to protect gay people from workplace discrimination.
Sponsors expected Sen. Lisa Murkowski to be one of a handful of Republicans who would help them get the 60 votes needed to proceed. But Murkowski was absent.
“I had made a commitment to be in Midland, Texas, looking at how Midland and some of the operators in Midland are responding to this amazing, extraordinary boom in oil shale production,” Murkowski said.
A spokesman said she also attended a fundraiser in Texas. She says when she found out the Senate was going to take a rare Monday vote she tried to get back in time but didn’t make it.
The anti-discrimination bill cleared the 60-vote hurdle without her. It is expected to pass the Senate, and Murkowski says she looks forward to voting for it.
Investigators are trying to determine what sparked the fire that destroyed a maintenance building at a North Pole cement plant on Monday morning. No one was injured, but the owners of HC Redi-Mix are feeling the pain of a multimillion-dollar loss caused by the fire – which not only destroyed the building, but also several pieces of heavy equipment inside.
Serious arson seems to be on the rise in Anchorage for 2013.
In August, someone intentionally set several fires in a heavily wooded section of Russian Jack Springs Park. And in October a man was caught on surveillance tape setting the roof of a Mountain View pawn shop ablaze.
These are just two of the 88 cases Investigator Brian Balega is juggling right now. Balega says that number includes those carried over from years’ past and he’s actively investigating 54 of them.
“I’m almost doubled,” Balega said. “Last year I dealt with 25 arsons.”
“This year my arsons since January 1, 2013 is 40.”
Of the 40 arson cases from 2013, just a handful been concluded. That’s not including the many smaller arsons that are routinely handled by the Anchorage Police Department each year.
This year APD has handled 24 arson cases, for a total of 64 total arsons in Anchorage so far. Balega says he’s seeing more serious commercial Arsons.
“This is the most commercial arsons I’ve seen,” Balega said. “I actually got four of them since the first of the year.”
“That’s unusual for me to see that many of them.”
Last year Balega says he had did not have any commercial arson cases and it’s unusual to have more than one a year.
Fire Chief Chris Bushue confirms that more serious arson is occurring in Anchorage this year.
“The numbers are what the numbers are,” Bushue said. “I’ve tried to make sure that we’re not reporting more, and that actually appears to be the case, that there’s actually more out there.”
Brian Balega is the only fire investigator for the Municipality of Anchorage.
He has worked in the positions since 2008.
In the 1980′s there were several investigators, but over the years the other positions were eliminated.