Alaska News

Legislators Say No To Energy Break

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2014-02-20 18:35

State lawmakers will not be getting a “spring break” this year.

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Traditionally, the Legislature puts everything on hold for one week in March to attend a meeting of the Energy Council in Washington, DC. It’s been going on for so long that many lawmakers and staff don’t even know when it started.

But now, the streak ends. House Speaker Mike Chenault announced on Thursday that the break would not happen this year.

“It’s my intent that the House continues to work,” Chenault told reporters.

Chenault says there will be floor sessions and committee hearings during the first week of March. His counterpart in the Senate, Charlie Huggins, has also resolved to work through Energy Council.

“Normally, as you know, we have more people in DC than we have in Juneau during that time frame, and that won’t be the case this year.”

In 2013, a third of the Legislature attended Energy Council – 10 from the House, and 10 from the Senate. This year, just six representatives from the House — Mia Costello, Eric Feige, Pete Higgins, Doug Isaacson, Ben Nageak, and Dan Saddler — will be attending. Sens. Bert Stedman and Johnny Ellis will be representing the Senate, with Sen. Lesil McGuire traveling to DC at the same time on separate business.

Huggins says with subjects like education and the development of a natural gas pipeline under consideration, many lawmakers opted to stay in Juneau this year. On top of that, leadership is hoping to gavel out in less than 90 days. The session is currently scheduled to end on Easter Sunday, and Huggins would like to close out before the holiday.

“We want to stay here, we want to work hard, and our reward may be to get out a day or so early,” says Huggins.

Huggins says money is not a factor in this travel decision. Expense reports from previous years show the cost usually exceeds $2,000 per legislator.

The Energy Council is an association of energy-producing states in the Americas that meets quarterly. The spring conference in Washington, DC, is scheduled to run from March 6 to 9.

Categories: Alaska News

Democrats Offer Their Own Education Package

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2014-02-20 18:34

Alaska Minority Democrats today offered their own education package that includes an increase in base student allocation and allows charter schools to be located within neighborhood schools when space is available.

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Incorporated in the set of bills will be an increase of the base student allocation to $404 per student, a one-time grant of $500 for charter schools to assist with startup costs, and a requirement for traffic control at and around school zones.

Democratic lawmakers hope the allocation increase will hold off teacher layoffs for next year.

The bills will be introduced Friday, more than a third of the way into the session. Sen. Berta Gardner, a Democrat from Anchorage, says of the timing: good things take a long time to happen.

Categories: Alaska News

Alaska Supreme Court Hears Oral Arguments On Parental Notification Law

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2014-02-20 18:33

The state Supreme Court heard oral arguments on Wednesday in a lawsuit that halted a voter-passed law requiring health care providers to notify parents of minors before performing abortions.

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The legal case centers on privacy grounds and equal protection grounds.

Planned Parenthood attorney Janet Crepps said the law would end up discriminating because it subjects a minor seeking an abortion to a delay that would not be faced by a pregnant minor simply seeking pre-natal care:

“The idea that the state can discriminate among pregnant minors because the health interest of some are more important than others cannot be a legitimate distinction,” Crepps said. “Properly framed, the question is whether the state has a legitimate interest in delaying access to health care for one group while allowing unimpeded access for another, the answer is clearly, ‘no.’”

Crepps said women in those two situations should be considered “similarly situated.” Arguing for the initiative sponsors, attorney Kevin Clarkson said they were not “similarly situated.” The only time a delay would be involved is if a pregnant minor made a choice:

“There is the issue of the choice, you know, once you’re pregnant, you really don’t have a choice to not have a baby other than abortion, so the focal of the law is on the abortion choice, because that’s the choice, once they’re pregnant,” Clarkson said.

Assistant Attorney General Margaret Paton-Walsh told the Supreme Court that the state’s interest justifying the delay was family cohesion.

The judicial bypass provision of the law, which allows minors to get an abortion without the consent of their parents if certain criteria were met, was also a point of contention.

Kevin Clarkson says the clear and convincing evidence standard must be adequately applied, because there is more at stake during the judicial bypass proceeding than the girl’s reproductive freedom.

“It is her parents’ fundamental right to the care, custody and control of their minor daughter,” Clarkson said. “It’s a fundamental right that both the U.S. Supreme Court and this court have recognized. They have absolutely no opportunity to be heard. They don’t even know that they have a reason to be heard because they don’t know it’s taking place.”

“The absolute minimum that we can do in this law is to tell the judge, ‘when you make your decision, be sure.’”

Janet Crepps disagreed, saying that the argument over parental rights was framed incorrectly.

“The parental notice law burdens fundamental rights of minors in order to increase parental involvement. But, parental rights don’t add to that interest,” Crepps said. “They’re not an enforceable right. Mr. Clarkson referred to them as the parents’ fundamental rights being adjudicated, but that is not true.”

The parental notification law was voted into effect through an initiative after a parental consent law was ruled unconstitutional.

Categories: Alaska News

Accuser Absent at Tosi APOC Hearing

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2014-02-20 18:32

Mao Tosi’s campaign for an East Anchorage Assembly seat was under scrutiny by Alaska Public Offices Commission Officials on Thursday. They held a hearing to address allegations of 15 violations filed in a complaint Tuesday.

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Mao Tosi.

The 15-count complaint was filed Tuesday by John E. Lewis who requested expedited review. However Lewis withdrew his request for expedited review because of his unavailability to attend Thursday’s hearing telephonically or in person. Attorney Elizabeth Hickerson, Chair of the Commission, told Tosi they would try to resolve the matter as soon as possible.

“What we think is the best thing is for the staff to work with the complaintant and  the respondent and come up with procedures and timelines that will help us resolve this matter as quickly before the election as possible,” Hickerson said.

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 sat with APOC staff directly after the hearing to begin resolving the allegations.

“With APOC officials, we’re going through each one to insure that we have taken care of these and once we finish these then I think we’re okay,” Tosi said. “You know, I just want to get finished with this so I can get back on the campaign trail.”

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.

Categories: Alaska News

Walter Soboleff: ‘He Fed The Spirit Of People From Many Walks Of Life’

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2014-02-20 18:31

A bill to establish Walter Soboleff Day in Alaska cleared a state House committee on Thursday, after lawmakers on the panel heard heartfelt testimony from the late Tlingit elder’s friends and family.

The Rev. Dr. Walter Soboleff. KTOO file photo.

The bill does not have any more committee stops before a vote on the House floor.

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Alaska Native Brotherhood Grand President Bill Martin recalled listening to Soboleff’s church services on the radio as a child growing up in Kake.

“His delivery was low key and his message was simple: Love your neighbor, for love is God,” Martin said.

Soboleff was the first Alaska Native minister in Juneau, at a time when the town was segregated. He became a cultural and spiritual leader in the community and statewide, impressing both Natives and non-Natives with his teachings.

Selina Everson with the Alaska Native Sisterhood said Soboleff meant everything to the Native community in Southeast Alaska.

“He performed marriages of our people. He gave comfort when there was sorrow. He stood by us. How else can we honor him?” Everson asked.

All four of Soboleff’s children testified before the House State Affairs Committee. Son Ross said his father always told him to feed his spirit.

“I think he fed the spirit of people from many walks of life,” Soboleff said. “In his church and in his service, and sometimes as chaplain at this legislature.”

House Bill 217 would establish Nov. 14 as Walter Soboleff Day in Alaska. That was the day he was born in 1908.  Soboleff died in 2011 at the age of 102.

“He truly was a towering figure in the Native community, statewide through the Alaska Federation of Natives, through the early Native civil rights movement,” said Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, D-Sitka, prime sponsor of the legislation.

Kreiss-Tomkins envisions Soboleff Day as similar to Elizabeth Peratrovich Day, just celebrated on February 16th. It marks the day territorial Gov. Ernest Gruening signed the 1945 Alaska Anti-Discrimination Act, which Peratrovich championed.

“That’s noted in a lot of schools – the history of anti-discrimination legislation in the state or territory of Alaska,” Kreiss-Tomkins said. “It’s really how groups, schools, institutions, choose to honor or observe the person and what the person represented.”

There’s recent precedent for the legislation. Last year, lawmakers created Jay Hammond Day to honor Alaska’s self-proclaimed “Bush Rat Governor.” In 2011, the legislature established Ted Stevens Day, honoring the state’s longtime U.S. Senator.

HB 217 has several co-sponsors, including every House member from Southeast Alaska. After the hearing, State Affairs Committee Chair Rep. Bob Lynn, R-Anchorage, and Vice Chair Rep. Wes Keller, R-Wasilla, said they would sign on, too.

Categories: Alaska News

Iron Dog Racers Depart Nome

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2014-02-20 18:30

Early Thursday, pairs of snow machines began zipping out of Nome to continue the second leg of the 2014 Iron Dog Snow Machine Race.

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Nome is the halfway mark of the 2,031-mile Iron Dog, known as the longest, toughest snow machine race in the world.

First to leave at exactly 8 a.m. this morning was team number 10, Chris Olds and Nome’s own Mike Morgan. Teams were heading out of town throughout the day based on their arrival and wrench times.

Thirty-one of the original 38 teams made it to Nome. This year was predicted to be on of the toughest races on record with open water and areas of no snow. Kevin Kastner, Iron Dog Executive Director, says the hype concerning this year’s rough conditions actually worked to the competitors’ advantage. The concern upped the racers’ caution, keeping most of them in the race.

“Really, the caution and all the concern, I think, in the end allowed most of these teams to get to Nome,” Kastner said. “Was the fact that they were so worried, were so cautious, there was so much hype, they throttled back just a little bit and I think that’s what allowed them to actually survive to this point.”

Kastner says though there’s no typical Iron Dog, on average one-third or more of the racers do not make it to Nome. This year beat those odds. And though only half-way through the race, Kastner says already it’s one of the better Iron Dog’s he’s seen.

“Given the rough conditions, given the caution, given the number of competitors and strong teams and the relatively minimal damage that we’ve seen, by all accounts it’s a great race this year,” Kastner said. “And it’s clean. The sportsmanship is fantastic. I think it’s one of our better years even though it’s a tough one.”

So far 28 teams remain in the running. 10 teams have scratched. And only one will finish first in Fairbanks on Saturday.

Categories: Alaska News

First Section Of Denali National Park Road Remains Open

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2014-02-20 18:29

The first section of the road into Denali National Park is open. The 90-mile road is usually closed beyond the park entrance area during the winter, but as of this past weekend, it’s being kept plowed to mile 12 at the Mountain Vista rest area.

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Categories: Alaska News

Anchorage Police Nab $400K In Drugs

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2014-02-20 18:28

A California man faces federal charges after Anchorage police arrested him trying to retrieve cocaine and heroin that had been shipped to a motel.

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Twenty-seven-year-old Markee Allen is scheduled to appear in U.S. District Court in Anchorage on Friday on drug possession and distribution charges.

Police say employees at the downtown Motel 6 called, saying Allen had boxes delivered after he checked out Wednesday. Federal charging documents say Allen checked back into the motel and tried to retrieve the packages.

Officers contacted him, and canine units indicated the packages held drugs. Police got a search warrant for the packages, and say they found a kilogram of cocaine and a half-kilogram of heroin.

Police say it has a street value of $400,000.

Categories: Alaska News

Trial Delayed In Coast Guard Shooting Case

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2014-02-20 18:27

The trial of a Kodiak man charged in the fatal shooting of two men at a Coast Guard station has been postponed.

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James Wells’ trial was to have started Monday, but has been postponed until March 31.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Kevin Feldis says the trial in Anchorage will likely take several weeks.

Federal prosecutors will not seek the death penalty if Wells is convicted.

Wells is charged in the shootings of Coast Guardsmen Petty Officer 1st Class James Hopkins and retired Chief Petty Officer Richard Belisle in April 2012.

The 62-year-old Wells faces six felony charges: two counts each of first-degree murder, murder of a U.S. officer and use of a firearm in a violent crime. He has pleaded innocent to all the charges.

Categories: Alaska News

Salty Dog Rally Swaggers To Southeast This Summer

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2014-02-20 18:26

The Salty Dog yacht rally is coming to Alaska this summer. Wrangell is the official end point of the rally and will be the hub of boats and merriment for four days in June.

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Former commercial fisherman and Salty Dog Rally Alaska founder Dawny Pack says this event is a long time coming.

“This is Dawny, aka Naknek Sea gal, and it’s a 15 years plus dream. All my years out of Southside, Naknek, Bristol Bay, Egegik, Clark’s Point and running downhill, we always loved breezing by Wrangell and the great, fabulous Wrangell Narrows. Since I’ve converted, about 18 years ago, to the yachting white boat from commercial, it’s been a dream to get all these yahoos to come up to Alaska,” Pack said.

Pack says yachters from around North America will join together for this epic trip up the Inside Passage.

And by around North America, she means—around—North America.

“Oh my gosh. God only knows, because they’re boats. They go around the world everywhere, right? So, we’ve got Florida, some in Mexico, some in California, Oregon, Washington…one guy is in New York. So, he needs to hurry up and get around. He’ll come over on either Seven Star or United Yacht Transport—one of the transport companies out of Fort Lauderdale over to Vancouver. So, they’ll just cruise through the Panama Canal and just flop over here,” Pack said.

All the boats will…flop up to Seattle, where the rally begins on June fourth.

From there, the group will head up the Northwest coast, stopping in Anacortes, Sidney, False Bay, Campbell River, Port McNeill, Cape Caution, Bella Bella, Green Inlet and Prince Rupert.

The rallyers will first set foot on Alaskan soil two weeks later in Ketchikan on June 15.

Then, they’ll bring their boats and, Pack says, their personalities to Wrangell, arriving two days later.

Wrangell is the official end point of the rally. But—just the beginning of the festivities, according to Wrangell’s Economic Development Director Carol Rushmore.

“So, we’re working with the tribe to do a Chief Shakes tribal house tour and performance, and then also do a traditional foods dinner. So hopefully that will work out. There’s going to be a golf tournament with a barbeque dinner and some entertainment offered. The charter guys will be offering different types of tour trips and we’ll get them signed up for some of those things. Bonnie Demerjian has offered to lead a bird walk. There are some other activities that we’re looking at trying to do spaced throughout the four days that they’re going to be here,” Rushmore said.

Rumor has it there’s also a poker night and pub crawl in the works.

With about 16 boats already registered for the rally and hopefully double that as the final count, that’s gonna be lot of people visiting these small communities looking for good times and good memories. And that’s good for Wrangell’s economy.

Carol Rushmore says the cost of the special activities are either being donated or paid for by the yachters themselves.

“So, it’s providing us a great deal of recognition in other parts of the country, through the yachting community itself about what we’ll have to offer here and what we’ll be able to provide. Plus they will be here for over a four-day period, visiting downtown, taking tours, doing the things that visitors do while they’re here,” Rushmore said.

Chamber of Commerce office manager Cyni Waddington says she hopes the rallyers will support local businesses while they are in town.

“The Chamber is one of the sponsors for the event because we’re hoping that having all these people come to town will promote our economy,” Waddington said.

She says it’s good timing for the rally as fourth of July prep will be in full swing, with food booths, activities, and of course, royalty raffle tickets.

Rally founder Dawny Pack says that’s why she chose Wrangell for the big party.

In exchange for being a welcoming community, she hopes the rally will bring money and recognition.

“The town has just been so supportive so we’re very happy to breeze by and make Wrangell our official hub. There’s a lot of boots on the ground, a ton of support, a ton of encouragement in the lower 48 and through Southeast Alaska, and it’s just been a long, long dream that’s finally coming to fruition,” Pack said.

So, put your sea legs on, the Salty Dog Rally Alaska arrives in Wrangell on June 17.

There will be an optional extra salty leg to Petersburg and Juneau from the 21st to the 24th for those who want to keep on yachting.

For more information or to enter a yacht, go to saltydograllyalaska.com.

Categories: Alaska News

U-Med Access Route Design Dependent On Wetlands Permits

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2014-02-20 17:52

A poster delineates the wetlands throughout the U-Med area. Photo by Josh Edge, APRN – Anchorage.

Earlier this week DOWL HKM engineering and the Alaska Department of Transportation held an open house at East High School, presenting the preferred U-Med Access route.

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The new road is the most direct and would connect Elmore to Bragaw near the western edge of the Alaska Pacific University campus, bordering the University of Alaska Anchorage.

Stewart Osgood is the president of DOWL HKM. He says now that the alignment is selected, the firm will submit an application to the Army Corps of Engineers to get a permit to fill in the wetlands the road will go through.

“We typically classify wetlands into relative ecological values,” Osgood said. “And so, working with the Corps, we’ll identify the wetlands that are the most valuable, avoid them and try to stay on uplands or on lower-quality wetlands with our alignment.”

The chosen route has $1 million set aside for environmental mitigation – which is the largest amount of the four potential routes. Osgood says those funds could be used on a variety of things during the construction and design process.

A poster outlines the preliminary cost estimates for each road option. Photo by Josh Edge, APRN – Anchorage.

“The mitigation number that we have here is to both change the alignment of the roadway, potentially to bridge over small sections of wetlands, and also to, in the end, if we are unable to avoid wetlands, we pay into fee in lieu of mitigation, into a wetlands bank that allows land to be purchased elsewhere that can go into conservation easements or some sort of trust to allow them to be preserved forever,” Osgood said.

A number of residents attended the meeting and voiced their dissent that the road would proceed without adequately considering the effect it could have on surrounding areas.

“We believe that before any construction is done whatsoever, that it’s imperative that the public know the true cost, the true total cost, and that includes the social, the environmental, the safety costs – period,” Dr. Peter Mjos, a past president of the Rogers Park Community Council, said.

He said residents have had limited opportunities for discussion and input since the legislature approved funding for the road last year.

“We’ve been placed in a position where we must simply look at mitigation efforts, and we are not comfortable with that,” Mjos said.

If the company is successful in securing permits needed for the wetlands area, work on the road could begin within a year. DOWL HKM expects the road to open in late 2015.

Categories: Alaska News

Geese in Petroleum Reserve Find New Habitat Amid Melting Sea Ice

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2014-02-20 11:18

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

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

Black brant geese molt on the North Slope’s Teshekpuk Lake. Photo by Tyler Lewis, USGS.

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 going to respond to changes in the Arctic as a result of warming climates and diminishing sea ice,” he says. “But folks often say there’s likely going to be winners and losers.”

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 U.S. 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, killing off the plants that are more used to fresh water and creating environments where salt water-loving plants can grow,” Pearce says.

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 says 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?” he asks. “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 it’s safe to drill and build.

Stacy McIntosh 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 McIntosh says she’s 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,” she says, “whether or not it was going to respond positively or negatively.”

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.

Categories: Alaska News

Search Crews Find Missing Nunapitchuk Man Deceased

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2014-02-20 11:14

Search and rescue crews have found the body of Wassillie Berlin. Searchers found him deceased on the trail between Atmautluak and Bethel. The Nunapitchuk man was reported missing by his brother on Saturday. Crews had found his snowmachine earlier.

Trooper spokesperson Megan Peters says an autopsy hasn’t been done and Berlin will be transported to Anchorage. Next of kin have been notified.

She says the indication is that his snowmachine ran out of gas about 5 miles outside of Atmauthluak. He attempted to walk the rest of the way. He was found between the two communities.

A trooper dispatch says that while the investigation is currently ongoing, there is no foul play suspected.

Categories: Alaska News

Bush Pilots Hit Hard By New Interpretation Of Tax Law

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-02-19 18:45

Alaska air taxi operators say the IRS has re-interpreted tax law for their industry, hitting some Bush pilots with tax bills of up to a million dollars. Alaska’s federal lawmakers are asking the revenue office to back off until they get some answers about what the rules are. The unexpected burden is driving some air carriers into debt or out of business entirely.

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At issue are excise taxes, those sums you see on an airline ticket receipt, just before the total. On an airliner, the passenger usually pays a tax of 7.5% of the price, plus $4 per flight, and the airline passes it along to the IRS.

Sitka Air service operator Scott Harris thought his Cessna 185 and de Havilland Beaver flights were exempt, because the tax has an exception for small aircraft. But there’s a catch, an exception to the exception. IRS publications say flights in small aircraft are taxable if they’re on an established route, which the IRS defines as a route operated “with some degree of regularity.”

Understanding, or misunderstanding, that term has cost Harris a pile of cash.

“‘Some degree of regularity.’ This is an IRS term that means places you go to frequently, apparently,” he says.

In the summer, Harris is busy, and he does fly repeatedly to a number of destinations – a few communities, certain lodges, favorite spots for sports fishermen. He says he never imagined the excise tax applied to flights like that. He says he spoke to IRS personnel about it years ago and no one told him otherwise. Then, in 2011, he got audited. The IRS found he went to a few destinations with “some degree of regularity” over three years and hit him with a $250,000 bill. Harris says he’s read the regulations and he’s still astounded by the IRS interpretation.

“For us there’s probably two paragraphs that cost me a quarter of a million dollars,” he says. “And they’re so vague! I don’t know how anybody could read these and say, ‘Yep, you’re going to a lodge in Southeast Alaska, you gotta be taxed.’”

He considered appealing, but the IRS said that would open him up to greater scrutiny.

“So the unveiled threat to me was, ‘Yeah, sure appeal. Go ahead. And when we come back to check it again we’re going to look at everything your float planes do, everywhere they go, how often they go there and we’re going to go back seven years.’ So imagine the dollar value in that. It’s insurmountable.”

Soon, he says, IRS enforcement officers were calling, asking for a list of his assets. Harris says that was it for him. He took out a loan and paid the full $250,000.

“We do government work here. We do lots of things. I can’t afford to have my name out there in public as a tax evader, with a tax bill and being levied, so there was no negotiating,” he says,

The IRS responded to questions for this story by emailing links to publications on its website. Alaska’s U.S. senators and Congressman Don Young have written joint letters to the IRS for two years. They say they’ve heard of IRS agents bullying air carriers while refusing them clear
guidance.

In 2012, the IRS did write a memo addressing a few scenarios Bush pilots face, and it draws some interesting distinctions. It says carriers don’t need to collect the tax for sightseeing on a small plane, even if they land for, say, bear-viewing. If the passengers deplane and board a boat to view bears, that’s still not taxable. But if they deplane to fish, the IRS says that’s a taxable flight. At least, it is the way many flight services sell it, by letting customers choose among several locales and offering to go every day. That constitutes “some degree of regularity,” according to the IRS.

Jane Dale of the Alaska Air Carriers Association says even after the 2012 memo, the regulations are too murky for her organization to give much guidance to its members. At one point, half of the audited carriers she knew of had been forced to sell or shut their doors. Dale’s group is urging
the IRS to take a softer approach.

“We would encourage education over audits,” Dale says. “It would likely take less manpower by the agency, and with clear regulations, certainly groups like the Alaska air Carriers association would help education and put that information out.”

Jack Barber, of Alaska Air Taxi on Lake Hood in Anchorage, says his IRS audit eight years ago hit like a thief in the night. He didn’t have the $240,000 the service said he owed. He filed for bankruptcy protection. Last he looked, the bill had climbed to over $800,000. Barber says the battle has cost him his financial security and, he says, his marriage.

“It’s about destroyed my life,” he says.

He says he still isn’t sure when to collect the tax but he’s changed his business. He took down all the brochures that list his flight-seeing rates, lest those be seen as a schedule. And he tries not to fly anywhere with any degree of regularity. The term itself aggravates him.

“It’s an overreach on the IRS’s part. You know, if a comet comes flying by earth once a year, you might think that’s some degree of regularity,” he grumbles.

In a letter to Alaska’s federal lawmakers in December, the acting IRS commissioner said the matter is under review, and he pledged to have results soon.

Categories: Alaska News

Ketchikan Assembly Nixes Draft Letter To Gov. Parnell

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-02-19 18:45

Ketchikan Gateway Borough Assembly members had a spirited discussion Tuesday night over a letter that had been submitted by two Assembly members as a suggested response to Gov. Sean Parnell’s comments in the community last week.

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During his visit to Ketchikan, Governor Parnell said the borough’s lawsuit against the state over education funding could have repercussions for the community, specifically related to state funding for local projects. Some people interpreted that as a threat, but Parnell later told The Associated Press that he didn’t intend his comments to be taken that way, and he would not punish Ketchikan for its lawsuit.

Despite his clarification, the proposed letter of response, drafted by Assembly Members Agnes Moran and Glen Thompson, strongly questioned Parnell’s statements, and claimed that his comments diminished the borough’s trust in the state.

The letter was submitted as an agenda item, which made the draft public before the full Assembly could vote on it.

That was a major point of discussion when the Assembly did meet to talk the issue over.

Assembly Member Alan Bailey said, “I believe it is nothing less than crass, and truly an embarrassment.”

Bailey, who has not supported moving forward with the lawsuit, went on to say that the letter, and how it was submitted, did not serve the best interest of the community. He questioned the adversarial approach, and said the governor and the state need to know that the letter does not represent the opinion of the Assembly as a whole.

“Therefore, I am recommending an amended motion to condemn the tone and content of this draft letter, and to censure the writers of this document responsible for what I believe are actions which are not in the best interest of the community,” he said.

Assembly Member Moran was absent from the meeting, but Thompson was there. He defended the letter, and the method used to propose it. He said the only way to submit such a letter is publicly, because otherwise it would violate the Open Meetings Act. Thompson added that he tried to withdraw the item later, because members of the public told him it was too strongly worded, not because he changed his mind.

“I still stand behind what was said in that letter,” he said. “I think the governor abused his power as the chief executive when he threatened retaliation against citizens exercising their constitutional rights to challenge a statute in court. I think it was an egregious abuse of power that rises to the level of tyranny, and I will not go quietly into the night and I will not grovel before my government.”

Thompson said he never expected the letter to pass an Assembly vote, he just wanted to put it out there for discussion.

Other Assembly members noted that in the past, official responses from the Assembly went through a different process, where the manager asks during a meeting whether the Assembly wants to respond, and then is given direction.

Mayor Dave Kiffer said, “The writers of this letter knew that the minute they put it in the agenda, whether that’s our procedure or not, it would be out there. It wouldn’t have to pass; it wouldn’t have to get any support. It was out there. You could have gone and said, ‘Look, we want to respond to the governor. What do you all think?’”

Kiffer noted, though, that censuring Moran and Thompson seemed too strong of a response, as well. Bailey agreed to remove that part of his amendment, and it eventually passed 4-2, with Thompson and Assembly Member Mike Painter voting no.

Assembly Member Bill Rotecki proposed a second amendment directing the mayor to write a letter to Governor Parnell, clarifying that the draft letter in the agenda item did not reflect the opinion of the Assembly. That passed 5-1 with Thompson voting no.

After that long discussion, the Assembly talked about the annual Legislative Liaison Fly-In, and whether to cancel it. There was concern that the lawsuit issue would taint all discussions with legislators. But the Assembly eventually agreed to maintain the fly-in, and limit participation and discussion to only items that were approved during last fall’s community capital project process.

You can listen to last week’s interview with Gov. Sean Parnell here.

Categories: Alaska News

YK Delta Teen Smoking Rate Well Above National Average

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-02-19 18:45

A Mayo Clinic study of teen smoking rates in the Yukon Kuskokwim delta region found young people there use tobacco at high rates. Nearly 30 percent of 11 to 14 year olds and 63 percent of high school students use tobacco, compared to less than 20 percent of teens nationally. Dr. Christi Patten is the lead author of the YK Delta study. She says focus groups with kids in the region helped them design the intervention program for the youth, but the results were not good.

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Categories: Alaska News

Alaska Senate Opposes Creation Of Beringia International Park

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-02-19 18:45

The Alaska Senate has unanimously passed a resolution opposing the Beringia International Park – an idea agreed upon in 1991 by then-Presidents Bush and Gorbachev.

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Categories: Alaska News

Juneau Childcare Workers See Higher Wages

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-02-19 18:45

Juneau childcare workers are getting paid more and staying in their jobs longer than they were just a few years ago. That’s according to an organization that runs a pilot program designed to improve access to childcare in the Capital City.

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Categories: Alaska News

Alaska Supreme Court Decides Pipeline Worth Billions, Not Millions

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-02-19 18:15

Photo courtesy of the Department of Natural Resources.

The State Supreme Court reaffirmed on Wednesday that the Trans-Alaska Pipeline is worth $10 billion.

Oil companies had argued that the pipeline should only be assessed at $850 million, and they based that number on the tariffs collected. At that lower value, the property taxes they pay to cities like Fairbanks and Valdez would be dramatically reduced.

The Supreme Court found that tariff income isn’t the only value derived from the pipeline. Its worth also comes from its ability to transport the billions of barrels of oil from the North Slope.

While the decision only concerns the 2006 assessment, oil companies have made similar arguments over the pipeline’s for other tax years.

Categories: Alaska News

Murkowski Continues To Push For King Cove Road

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-02-19 18:01

Murkowski addresses the Alaska State Legislature on Wednesday, February 19, 2014. (Skip Gray/360North)

Sen. Lisa Murkowski has promised to continue fighting for a road connecting King Cove to Cold Bay.

In her annual address before the State Legislature on Wednesday, Murkowski described the Interior Department’s decision to block the project as “heartless and wrong.” She says it’s an extreme case of federal overreach.

“Now the King Cove decision is more than a road,” said Murkowski. “I think we all recognize, it is more than a road. It is emblematic as to how the federal government believes that it has to somehow protect Alaska from Alaskans.”

The 10-mile gravel road would run through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, and it’s long been a source of contention between the federal government and Alaska supporters of the project. King Cove residents say having a connection to a nearby airport is a matter of public safety, while the Interior Department and environmental groups believe the road would damage bird habitat and set a bad precedent for refuges.

Murkowski has made construction of the road a major priority for her office. She’s repeatedly called for the Interior Department to agree to a land swap that would allow the project to go through. And last year, she escorted Interior Secretary Sally Jewell to King Cove to show her how difficult it is to medevac people from the remote community.

Murkowski got applause from state lawmakers when she said she plans to keep the pressure on.

“I have been told to get past this issue. Let’s just get past this issue. Let me tell you: That is not going happen,” said Murkowski. “In addition to my role as mediator, and ambassador, and all that, I can also be a hell-raiser. And I am going to be a hell-raiser on this. I am going to channel my inner Ted Stevens, and we are going to get this road.”

After her address to the Legislature, Murkowski told reporters that she’s thinking about putting holds on future nominations by President Barack Obama until the road issue is addressed.

Categories: Alaska News

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