A House subcommittee has stripped Medicaid expansion language from the state’s operating budget. The move is a setback for the Walker administration, which has made Medicaid expansion a top priority. But as APRN’s Alexandra Gutierrez reports, the fight may not be over yet.
The House Finance committee room was so crowded and stuffy that the ceiling fans were actually needed. Walker administration officials, lobbyists, staffers, and reporters all packed in to see what the Health and Social Services subcommittee would do with Medicaid expansion.
Rep. Dan Saddler, an Anchorage Republican, didn’t mince words.
“We denied all requests related to Medicaid expansion,” Saddler today the room.
The subcommittee proposal slashed nearly $150 million in federal money that would have gone toward expanding the state’s Medicaid program. Right now, Alaska’s Medicaid primarily covers low-income families, pregnant women, and persons with disabilities. Expansion would cover people who make up to 138 percent of the poverty level — or about $20,000 for a single adult. In its first years, the federal government would pay for the expansion in full, and then ratchet that amount down to 90 percent.
When it came to a vote, the subcommittee broke on caucus lines, with eight members of the Republican majority backing the removal.
Rep. Les Gara, of Anchorage, was one of three Democrats who tried to keep the money in.
“When the federal government offers 90 percent funding of roads, we grab that money without even thinking about it,” said Gara. “Here they’re offering 100 percent funding that tapers down to 90 percent funding, and we’re saying, ‘Gosh, I don’t know about the 4,000 jobs that will bring to the state. I disagree with that. I think we should accept it, and we have the information, and we’ve been given the information.”
In response, some members of the finance subcommittee expressed concern that accepting the federal money could put the state on the hook for Medicaid costs in the future. But most of the reasons given for removing the Medicaid money had less to do with the proposal than the process itself.
Rep. Mark Neuman, a Big Lake Republican who oversees the drafting of the operating budget, says Medicaid is too big of an issue to deal with as a simple line item.
“That’s about a $145 million question that we’ve been trying to get answers on,” said Neuman. “The co-chair and I spoke to the governor and asked him to introduce some legislation so we could put that in front of the public.”
He and his fellow House Finance co-chair, Steve Thompson of Fairbanks, asked for a standalone Medicaid bill in a meeting in mid-February, and again through a formal letter sent on Thursday.
Some Democrats on the subcommittee pushed back against that request. Rep. Scott Kawasaki of Fairbanks noted that members of his caucus have unsuccessfully tried to advance a standalone Medicaid bill since 2012.
“We have gotten a cold shoulder,” said Kawasaki. “So when people say we want to see a bill, it bothers me that we have a bill that has been blocked in a committee for the past three years.”
The bill the Republican majority would like to see would reform the Medicaid delivery system to lower costs, in addition to expanding the program. Juneau Republican Cathy Muñoz noted there was precedent for a case like this during the Parnell administration, where a policy that could have been implemented through the budget got its own standalone bill.
“Last session, we were in a very similar situation with the retirement issues,” said Muñoz, referring to an action that shifted $3 billion from the state’s reserves to its pension obligation account. “There was legislation that had been filed by an individual member to deal with the retirement issues, but we all felt that it was important for the governor to lead on the issue. This is a very similar situation.”
There are some procedural reasons that Medicaid expansion could get more traction as a bill than as a budget item. According to the majority caucus rules, all members are required to vote in favor of the budget, requiring some level of consensus on the issue. A bill would allow hard-line conservatives who oppose the Affordable Care Act wholesale to come out against expansion, while more moderate members of the caucus could support it.
For his part, Gov. Bill Walker is not planning to file a Medicaid expansion bill.
“There’s no need for us to file our own. There’s already legislation there,” Walker said at a press conference held in the Governor’s Mansion.
Walker did leave an opening to move forward on Medicaid, however. He said he is willing to work with the House Finance co-chairs on their questions about expansion and reform.
“We’ll sit down with them, and certainly we’ll meet with them to try to find out why they can’t use the bill that’s currently there,” said Walker.
It’s not clear what happens if compromise is not possible. The governor does have the authority to veto the budget if it does not include expansion and to call the Legislature into special session to deal with Medicaid, but Walker said it was too early to say if he would exercise those powers.
A powerful storm is forecast to push across the Interior from the west on Saturday.
A cargo ship under investigation in a possible oil pollution case will be able to leave Unalaska, after its owner posted bond on Thursday.
The 600-foot M/V Lindavia, owned by Herm. Dauelsberg of Germany, has been detained by the U.S. Coast Guard in Unalaska for the past two weeks.
Kevin Feldis, with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Anchorage, says the ship’s owner signed a security agreement with the Coast Guard to let them leave port.
“Part of that agreement: they’ve posted a $500,000 bond that will be available for any potential future penalties or criminal fines,” Feldis says.
The Lindavia can now take its seafood cargo onto its destination in Japan. But Feldis says some of the crew will stay behind in Alaska.
“A portion of the crew will be brought here to Anchorage, and the company is paying for that in order to make them available for the ongoing investigation,” he says. “Of course, like in any vessel investigation, the crew members are the ones who know what happened on the vessel and the ones who potentially have information related to any alleged environmental crimes.”
The Lindavia was still anchored outside Dutch Harbor on Friday afternoon, with Coast Guard officers from the local marine safety detachment on board. Warrant Officer Dustin Overturf says he expects the ship will be able to leave town by Saturday.
The Coast Guard is working with the Environmental Protection Agency to investigate whether the crew mis-handled oil waste aboard the ship, among other potential issues: ”Whether the proper records were kept, whether there were discharges overboard,” says Kevin Feldis. “These are the types of questions we look into in all of these vessel pollution cases.”
Feldis’ office just wrapped up another one of those on Friday. A different German company, AML Ship Management, entered an official guilty plea for oil pollution crimes after signing a plea dealearlier this month.
The Walker-Mallott administration announced Wednesday that it’s set up a working group to address the transboundary mining boom near Southeast Alaska. The news comes as British Columbia’s mine-regulation agency plans meetings with Alaska fishermen and tribal groups.
Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott head ups the working group, which includes commissioners of the state departments of Natural Resources, Environmental Conservation and Fish and Game.
It’s looking into longstanding concerns about British Columbia mines slated to open or reopen on rivers that flow through Southeast Alaska.
“We view the entire range of activity on that side, which can affect the waters and the habitat of those river corridors, as important to Alaska’s interests and to our national interests and we will engage and pursue that interest vigorously,” Mallott says.
He says the group is just getting started and is gathering information from regulators, mining critics and supporters.
A new transboundary mines group, Inside Passage Waterkeeper, recently petitioned the administration to seek government-to-government talks with British Columbia’s premier.
The group wants the governor to ask for a moratorium on new tailings storage dams, including one being tested at the Red Chris Mine in the Stikine River watershed.
Mallott says he’s not yet ready to pursue any particular course of action.
“My desire is that we not seek specific responses until we understand fully what we are engaged with. But that doesn’t mean that anything is off the table, either,” he says.
B.C. Premier Christy Clark is an ardent advocate of mining. She’s added staff to the provincial mining agency to speed permitting, so new projects can open sooner.
Bill Bennett, her energy and mines minister, came to Anchorage in November to explain his government’s approach and actions.
He met with state officials and addressed Alaska’s mining association. But says he realizes he was not meeting with the right people.
“We need to make a second trip. Whether I go along on that trip or not is still up in the air. But we certainly need to reach out and give the people of Southeast Alaska an opportunity to meet and talk to our officials,” he says.
Bennett wants to engage fisheries and tribal groups, where provincial officials can explain their mine-review process. It’s unclear whether environmental groups will be included.
“We’re not really going to come to Alaska and be lectured,” he says.
Details of mine ministry’s visit, such as dates and locations, are not set.
But fishermen and tribal members are among those most strongly protesting mineral development near cross-border rivers.
“We would welcome Mining Minister Bill Bennett with open arms. That’s one thing that’s been lacking is consultation and transparency,” says Rob Sanderson Jr., who co-chairs the United Tribal Transboundary Mining Work Group and is a vice president of the Tlingit-Haida Central Council.
Both groups cite August’s Mount Polley tailings-dam breach in eastern British Columbia. A report reviewing what went wrong there estimated a similar dam would fail every five years, releasing hazardous water, silt and rock.
Sanderson says that raises questions about the future.
“We’re doing this to protect our environment for our children and grandchildren and the yet unborn. We want them to enjoy the same things that we are enjoying right now – pristine rivers and clean water,” he says.
State officials at a lower level are already talking to British Columbia’s mining ministry.
Department of Natural Resources Large Mine Project Manager Kyle Moselle says he urged staff to travel to Southeast when they met in Vancouver in January.
“The point that I made to them or stressed to them was that many of the stakeholders that I’ve talked with … feel frustrated or disenfranchised from British Columbia’s administrative process, their environmental review process,” he says.
British Columbia has also recommended the issue be put before the Pacific Northwest Economic Region. That’s a cross-border development think-tank.
Southeast Alaska Conservation Council Mining Coordinator Guy Archibald, who is also part of Inside Passage Waterkeeper, says that’s not the best approach.
“They’re an economic development organization and they don’t really have any working groups for environmental protection,” he says.
Meanwhile, the state’s new working group will meet again in a few weeks.
Lt. Gov. Mallott, its chairman, says while he hopes it will have an impact, it faces limits.
“Alaska has no triggers to pull that would allow immediate action,” he says.
A tractor trailer owned by Fairbanks-based Colville Incorporated went off the Dalton Highway about 30 miles north of the Yukon River Bridge Wednesday.
Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation on-scene coordinator Tom Deruyter says the truck rolled over, spilling between 3,000 to 4,000 gallons of diesel. He says the diesel spilled in a forested area with about 3 feet of snow cover, and state responders and a Colville-hired contractor are preparing for a cleanup.
“The snow will have to be removed, melted and then the fuel recovered out of the snow,” DeRuyter said. ”It’s also anticipated that there’s going to be fuel in the duff layer around the trees. Now whether they try to do a removal around the trees or just clear the area and do an excavation, that has yet to be seen.”
DeRuyter says the make up of the sub-soil will determine how deep the fuel penetrates.
He says the driver of the truck is OK.
The Fairbanks North Star Borough Assembly passed a sweeping air-quality ordinance Thursday night that supporters hope will finally begin to clean up Fairbanks’s wintertime air pollution. Most members agreed the ordinance isn’t perfect, but that it’s a good start.
After nearly six hours of debate and numerous amendments, Assembly members passed an ordinance that restricts the burning of wood and coal at some times during the winter, establishes standards to determine if a heating appliance is producing too much smoke and sets penalties to compel residents to burn dry wood and use more efficient woodstoves.
Presiding officer Karl Kassel put on a referee’s shirt at the beginning of the meeting, joking it might help him make tough calls. And he used the analogy to explain why he voted for the ordinance.
“You make a call (and) both coaches are mad at you, you probably made the right call,” Kassel said.
John Davies, who along with Kathryn Dodge and Janice Golub crafted the ordinance, said the Assembly tried to take all points of view into consideration. And he says both proponents and opponents will find things to like and dislike in the ordinance.
“I’m sure that this ordinance won’t please anyone. Which means that we’re probably exactly in the right place,” Davies said.
Assemblyman Lance Roberts, who along with Guy Sattley voted against the ordinance, found much to dislike – and he thinks others will, too. So much so that he believes the issue will once again come before voters, as it has twice over the past four years.
“It’s really going to create more division,” Roberts said. “This is a divisive ordinance. And what has been ensured is that there will be an initiative or referendum on the ballot this fall that we’ll have to face because of it.”
Assemblyman Van Lawrence responded to another of Roberts’ claims, that the ordinance would impose an unfair financial burden, by pointing out the economic impact that’s created by poor air quality.
“Going to the hospital, or losing a day at work, or dying early has an economic impact,” Lawrence said. “And I’m not willing to ignore those economic impacts.”
Among the many amendments approved by the Assembly was a proposal by Dodge to allow residents who violate the air-quality standards to take classes on the harm to health caused by excessive particulate matter in wood smoke.
The Assembly also approved an amendment by Davies to set a more stringent standard for smoke opacity. The term refers to appearance of smoke with an excessive amount of particulate matter. The amendment sets a lower standard at which smoke could be found in violation of the ordinance.
The members also enlarged the air-quality control zone in which the ordinance would be effective by adding areas southwest of Fairbanks, around Rosie Creek; northwest of town around Magoffin Highlands; and to the northeast around Weller Elementary School.
The Assembly also approved an ordinance that adds a million dollars to the borough’s wood-stove changeout program.
This week we’re heading to Mud Bay, right near Haines. Melina Shields is an artist and massage therapist who lives in Mud Bay, Alaska.
A superior court ruling that invalidates the State of Alaska’s longheld practice of requiring municipal governments to contribute a specific amount toward public education remains in place for now.
Superior Court Judge William Carey on Friday denied a motion for a stay of his January decision that the required local contribution is a dedicated tax, and therefore is unconstitutional.
State attorneys filed for the stay after filing an appeal with the Alaska Supreme Court. They argue that the stay is needed so that the Legislature will know what to do about education funding this year. The Supreme Court is unlikely to rule on the appeal before the legislative session ends in mid-April.
In his Friday denial of the stay, Judge Carey writes that the state did not meet the requirements of a stay. Attorneys had argued that the state would be irreparably harmed if a stay were denied, and that the borough would not be harmed if a stay were approved. The state also argued that it was likely to succeed in its appeal to the Supreme Court.
Carey agreed that there was some irreparable harm to the state if his ruling is not delayed pending appeal. However, he writes that the borough clearly would be harmed by a stay, because it would have to pay a large amount of money with no hope of getting that money back.
Carey also writes that the state hasn’t shown how it has a likelihood of success on appeal. Carey based his January decision on prior Alaska Supreme Court ruling, and he writes that while it’s possible that the high court will reverse itself, it’s not highly probable.
The state also filed a motion for a stay with the Alaska Supreme Court, and that court announced it would wait to see how Carey ruled on the stay. So, state attorneys have another opportunity to argue the merits of delaying Carey’s January ruling.
The Iditarod Trail began as a mail route and became a protected corridor and recreational resource. Even if climate change puts an end to its use by dog mushers, the evolution of the Iditarod Trail will continue. In their own way, our corridors tell the story of Alaska, and we’ll be exploring a few of those pathways on the next Talk of Alaska.
HOST: Steve Heimel, Alaska Public Radio Network
- Walter Borneman, author, Alaska: Saga of a Bold Land
- Phil Shephard, Executive Director, Greatland Trust
- Callers statewide
- Post your comment before, during or after the live broadcast (comments may be read on air).
- Send e-mail to talk [at] alaskapublic [dot] org (comments may be read on air)
- Call 550-8422 in Anchorage or 1-800-478-8255 if you’re outside Anchorage during the live broadcast
LIVE Broadcast: Tuesday, March 3, 2015 at 10:00 a.m. on APRN stations statewide.
Today we’re discussing the race for mayor in Alaska’s largest city. Anchorage’s city politics have ripples across the state, whether in terms of funding coming from the Legislature, or launching political careers into higher office. The election is on April 7th, but recently we’ve seen the race start to take off. It’s a crowded field, with 11 candidates, hundreds of thousands of dollars pouring in from donations, and expectations of an eventual run off.
HOST: Zachariah Hughes
- Bill Popp, director and CEO, Anchorage Economic Development Corporation
- George Vakalis, manage, Anchorage Municipality
- Lt. Col. Allen Brown, public affairs, U.S. Army Alaska
KSKA (FM 91.1) BROADCAST: Friday, February 27 at 2:00 p.m. and Saturday, February 28 at 6:00 p.m.
Alaska Public Television BROADCAST: Friday, February 27 at 7:30 p.m. and Saturday, February 28 at 4:30 p.m.
Alaska’s statewide minimum wage increase went into effect on Tuesday. Now, thousands of jobs in the state pay $8.75 an hour — a dollar increase. So what does this means for Anchorage’s small businesses and consumers?
It’s the slow part of the afternoon at Peggy’s Restaurant. Customers wander in, a couple of regulars hang out at the counter. Waitress Susie Sander tallies up bills.
“Everybody loves it,” she says about the minimum wage increase. “$8.75 – honey – $8.75 an hour…”
Sander has been working at Peggy’s for 10 years. “All the money I make goes to kids and, I mean husband, but the extra dollar, honey, I can use for myself.”
William White is washing dishes in the back.
“Well, I haven’t seen it on my check yet, but hopefully on my next check it will help out a lot.”
He plans to use it for paying the rent.
Alaskans overwhelmingly voted for the increase last November. Minimum wage went up by a dollar this year and will again in January. Then, increases will match inflation. According to the state’s Department of Labor and Workforce Development, about 16,000 jobs are affected by the increase.
Dan Robinson, chief of research and analysis at the department, says the impact on the overall economy will be negligible.
“In the macroeconomic data that we look at, it will almost certainly not be identifiable as having caused a bump here or a change in trend there.”
But Robinson says it will matter to individuals. He says that 64 percent of the people who are working at jobs that likely pay minimum wage are over 25. One quarter are over 45. Most of them — 57 percent — are female.
Peggy’s Restaurant regular Curt Woodard says the increase is long overdue and the stair-step implementation makes it workable.
“The best thing they can do is just what they’re doing. Give’em a dollar this year, a dollar next year. And then it averages out and everyone can take it a little bit at a time.”
Manager Daniel Smith agrees; most businesses can handle the small increases over time. He says that’s not the issue.
“Nobody that owns a business minds it, it’s to get the rest of your customers to understand why you’re raising your prices. That you have to raise your prices because these guys cannot live on $7.75 an hour.”
Smith says they’ll only raise their prices in small increments — 15 cents on one item, 25 cents on another. He says they’ll cut some hours, too, but that’s mostly because business is slower in the winter. In the long run, they may give all of their employees a raise, even the ones not making minimum wage, just to be fair.
But for many small businesses in Anchorage, the minimum wage increase won’t make a difference. I spoke with more than a dozen business owners who say they either pay over the minimum wage already or are so small they don’t have employees anyhow.
An unmanned fuel barge that got stuck in Arctic sea ice last fall has now made it almost as far as the northern coast of Russia.
It sounds like the makings of a children’s book: the long, unexpected journey of a little barge called the NTAL-2.
The ship got lost in an Arctic storm last October, and nearly ran aground near Prudhoe Bay before getting caught up in advancing sea ice. Since then, it’s traveled almost 1,400 nautical miles without ever touching solid ground — about the distance from Maine to Florida.
“This thing is pretty much stuck in ice,” says Mark Serreze, the executive director of the National Snow and Ice Data Center. “Really just think of it as another ice floe, in many ways.”
Serreze says winter winds have pushed 134-foot barge — and the Arctic ice it’s frozen in — on a typical east-to-west track. It followed Canada and Alaska’s northern coastlines, before leaving U.S. waters, and as of this month, arriving near the Russian coast.
The U.S. Coast Guard handed off this case to their Russian counterparts months ago — but they’ve been able to keep an eye on the barge anyway. That’s thanks to a makeshift transponder from the Marine Exchange of Alaska.
“We program it ahead of time,” says executive director Ed Page. “And [the Coast Guard] basically made a Rube Goldberg design — 2x4s and sandbags and what have you — that allows it to be dropped on [the barge] and not slide off. And that’s what’s tracking it. It’s pretty simple.”
The transponder shows how the barge has moved, and how fast. Page says it’s been a better Arctic experiment than any he could have planned.
“At times it’s going along at three knots or so,” he says. “I thought it would be a lot more stationary, kind of stay in the general area. Didn’t really expect the ice to move that far.”
But Serreze, at the Snow & Ice Data Center, says it doesn’t surprise him.
“The ice cover is becoming thinner, and it’s going to be more responsive to wind, and so that means it tends to move faster,” he says. “But that also means that these pressure ridges — ridging episodes — might become more frequent. And so maybe the barge will get in trouble that way.”
So far, the barge and its thousand or so gallons of diesel fuel cargo seem to be intact. The vessel’s owner, Northern Transportation Company Limited of Canada, didn’t return requests for comment on whether they plan to retrieve the barge. Coast Guard response commander Shawn Decker says they may try recovering it in the summer, when the ice melts.
For now, it’s serving as a good lesson for the Coast Guard on Arctic operations — like how to respond to a theoretical oil spill atop the ice.
“The barge, and the track that it’s taken — think of it as sort of a tracer,” says Mark Serreze. “Now, if you had an oil spill, say, north of Point Barrow or something, it would have taken basically the same track. So I think it is kind of illustrative of the issues you might have to deal with in the future, knowing how a big oil slick would move.”
The Coast Guard is equipped to handle a spill on ice, says commander Shawn Decker. A spill in open water would be a bigger challenge; the science around how oil interacts with the Arctic environment is still limited.
But it still wouldn’t help in the case of the little barge. Decker says only a heavy-duty icebreaker could have rescued the NTAL-2 once it was ice-bound. The United States has just one of those in service: the Polar Star, which has been deployed in Antarctica all winter.
After a several month delay, the University of Alaska will launch a survey March 2 that deals with sexual assault on campus.
The Campus Climate Survey will go to 15,000 randomly selected students, faculty and staff members. It starts with questions about sexual assault awareness training and asks how well the university deals with reports of sexual misconduct.
The survey then moves on to more explicit questions about sexual harassment and assault. Here’s an example: “Since the start of the school year has someone had sexual contact with you when you were unable to provide consent or stop what was happening because you were passed out, drugged, drunk, incapacitated, or asleep?”
University attorney Michael O’Brien says results of the survey will remain completely anonymous and won’t be published.
“This is a way for the university to get a sense of how big a problem sexual assault and sexual harassment are on our campuses, how good a job are we doing at getting out the message about sexual assault and sexual harassment prevention and whether our training is getting out to our community,” O’Brien says.
It’s been the university’s goal to offer training on sexual assault to everyone in the school community. Incoming freshmen learned about rules surrounding sexual misconduct and where to go for help during orientation last August, staff and faculty were trained before the school year started, and Residential Life has been offering sessions. O’Brien says those are just a few examples.
He says the Board of Regents was trained for the first time during its meeting last week in Anchorage.
“We cannot guess who’s going to receive a report of sexual harassment or sexual assault. It could be you, it could be me, it could be a member of our custodial crew and it could be a Regent and we want them to know as well what they can do if something like that happened,” O’Brien says.
Last May, the U.S. Department of Education put the University of Alaska system on a list of about 60 colleges nationwide being investigated as part of a compliance review or for mishandling sexual assault complaints. That list is now at more than 90.
Federal auditors from the Office of Civil Rights visited campuses in Anchorage, Fairbanks, Juneau and Bethel last October as part of a compliance review, which remains ongoing. O’Brien says the auditors are still going through the more than 10,000 pages of documents the university submitted last year and need to do more interviews.
This is the first time University of Alaska will conduct a campus climate survey. Back in April, the White House had recommended that all colleges do them and provided sample questions. Initially, the University of Alaska modeled its survey after the federal government’s, but O’Brien says there were some problems.
“Harassment online wasn’t addressed in the survey and because we have such a large online e-learning community, we did not want to do a disservice to those parts of our population.
The university planned on doing the survey at the end of last year, but didn’t want it to come out at the same time as finals,” he says.
At that point, the university had received more than 20 complaints of sexual harassment and about a dozen reports of sexual assault since the beginning of the school year.
As the recreational use of marijuana becomes legal in Alaska today, the changing laws surrounding pot have already created a ripple effect in Sitka. Law enforcement is ironing out the details and businesses are catering to new clientele, with mixed opinions.
When KCAW visited Samantha Cox, she was opening a new shipment. She dipped her hands inside a cardboard box, pushed aside the plastic wrap, and pulled out a dragon. Affixing the glass tail to the body, painted red and yellow in imitation flames, she said, “I had to order this all the way from China.”
Right where the dragon’s scales would be is a mouthpiece from which the future owner will inhale smoke. “It’s a pipe,” Cox said.
Since January 5th, Evergreen Natural Foods has been selling pipes for marijuana use underHerb n’ Legend, a separate business begun by Cox and her partner Mitch McGraw that sells its wares inside the natural foods store. Before Christmas, they were tossing around ideas for how to bring more money into Evergreen.
According to Cox, they wondered, “What can we sell that’s going to bring in customers, that’s going to be unique to the town, and something that people will actually spend their money on while the economy isn’t doing so well?”
And so, they opened a marijuana accessory business. And they’re not the only ones.
Two weeks ago, Tongass Threads Consignment Store also begun to sell marijuana pipes. Owner Kathleen Hill said she too wanted to jump on the business opportunity, but decided to keep the products separate from shoppers. Her pipes are stored in a room behind the consignment shop.
As for Herb n’ Legend at Evergreen, Cox said that customers reactions have mirrored the vote of Sitkans on Ballot Measure 2. 70 percent support the new venture or at least keep quiet about it, while 30 percent are vocally unhappy.
Cox said, “After the first two weeks, I got a lot more of the older, more conservative folks, who — when they found out these weren’t vases — were not so thrilled. And there’s a lot of times where I’ll get passive aggressive comments that I can’t really speak back to. They’ll come in, they’ll be on the phone with someone else, and make the comment, ‘Oh, I’ll never bring my children here again.’”
Since public attitude toward pot is mixed, I was half expecting the new merchandise to be clustered discreetly in the corner, like the porn section tucked away in the back of a video store. But no. The accessories are right behind the counter and proudly arranged. Cox said that was intentional.
“We went to California and looked around at the different head shops there,” Cox said. “While there was some great ones, there were some that smelled bad. They mixed products that could be used for heavy, scary drugs in with their marijuana products. I want a place where people won’t feel ashamed. A place that is clean and respectable. Everybody knows it’s here and everybody knows it’s normal.”
Compared to other states, marijuana has a long history in Alaska. In a 1975 case called Ravin vs. State, Alaska was the first state to declare that adult citizens had a constitutional right to privacy that protected their marijuana use at home.
When Senator Dan Sullivan was in town last Friday, he brought this up before Sitka’s municipal attorney Robin Koutchak. According to Koutchak, “[Sullivan] said, ‘Well it’s always been legal.’ And we said, ‘Yes, well what’s going to change on the 24th is that friends can give each other marijuana.’
What remains illegal, at least until the state starts issuing licenses in May 2016, is selling marijuana and growing it for commercial purposes. Koutchak has experience with this paradox. She brings up the example of alcohol in some rural communities, where you can possess the drink, but not buy or sell it.
“We as prosecutors would laugh about that and call it ‘magical alcohol,’” Koutchak explained. “If it magically appears, you can drink it. If it magically appears, you can consume it. So this could be a real magical time in the middle.”
The other aspect of marijuana that will remain illegal, indefinitely, is consumption in public. Those in violation will be fined up to $100. In this new climate, Sitka Police Chief Sheldon Schmitt doesn’t anticipate many tickets will be handed out right away. A lot of enforcement will be left up to the discretion of the officer.
KCAW: Come Tuesday, let’s say someone is on their front porch smoking a joint or in their backyard. Neighbors can smell smoke. How would the police department respond?
Schmitt: I think as long as it’s not bothering anybody, we won’t know about it and we won’t be looking to enforce it. You made it sound like potentially this came from a complaint, from a neighbor saying, “Hey, we can smell it.” And we’d probably go talk to them first and say, ‘Hey can you take it inside? The smell is going over to your neighbors place.’ I think that would be the approach.
Schmitt said the department is more concerned about cracking down on underage use and operating vehicles under the influence of marijuana. After February 24th, he expects things to calm down fairly quickly. “I don’t expect a bunch of people smoking marijuana in the street. I think it’s going to be kind of anti-climactic actually,” said Schmitt.
What is unclear in the year ahead is whether Sitka will allow money to mix with marijuana use. Samantha Cox, of Herb n’ Legend, has no interest in growing or distributing marijuana herself. She said she’s plenty busy keeping up with orders. Sales have been booming in the lead up to February 24th. Her customer base is a mix of casual users and heavy ones, and a handful of current cancer patients.
Cox said, “Several of these patients said they would have loved to have used marijuana during their treatment, but they were so afraid of the judgment and being labeled a stoner, as if that makes some difference on their worth. There’s those people and there’s the folks that are ready for a change.”
And it’s this second kind of change, a shift in the attitude towards marijuana, that Cox says takes more than a law to make possible.
Winter has been rough around the state this year. And the lack of snow and warm temperatures have not gone unnoticed by businesses and recreational enthusiast.
My first stop is L&M hardware to speak with Parts Manager Mark Gleeson.
Mark says this is the worst winter he has seen in 22 years. But he says that life goes on and many people have just been using their 4 wheelers to get around, among other things.
“Funny enough, boats. There have been a lot of times this winter that the rivers and what not have been ice free,” he said. “So people have been using modes of transportation they don’t normally use in the winter.”
Snow machine sales have been way down at L&M this year, and Gleeson tells me that’s true around the state:
“It’s getting to the point that if there isn’t a true promise of snow, people are going to hold off a year,” Gleeson said. “And that has happened for the past two years. So we are going to be thick with unsold machinery.”
I cross 2nd Ave to visit Kyle Rolph at the L&M repair shop.
Kyle: “What’s up?”
Kyle: “That’s what my mom calls me.”
Matt: “Is that what I can call you?”
Kyle: “Depends, who are you?”
After a quick introduction, Kyle gets right to the point.
“This winter and last winter are just complete freaks of nature compared to what I know,” Kyle said. “If you went out riding for half a day, you’d probably have to stay in bed for a day, it’s so rough and nasty out there.”
He tells me that when there is good snow, he and his team can barely keep up with demand.
“I mean the mechanics are out moving lumber and stuff around, and normally we don’t have time to work on anything but mechanical things,” Kyle said.
Rolph says work is slow enough he’s actually moving to Hawaii at the end of the month. He’s leaving for a job to work on outboard motors.
Rolph: “There is never an off season over there so I’ll be busy all the time.”
Kyle: “So was the lack of snow a factor in your decision?”
Rolph: “Actually it was. You know, the days go by a lot faster when you actually have work to do.”
He tells me if Hawaii doesn’t work out, he can always come back home.
I headed over next to Delta Western. Ken Reiswig, owner of one of Dillingham’s three main fuel suppliers, says it’s not the lack of snow that is his concern.
“Warm weather and large heating fuel sells don’t go together,” Ken said. “You don’t sell lots of fuel.”
Grocery stores in Dillingham like the N&N Marketplace say business they normally see from the villages in the winter is down because the most of the trails haven’t opened yet.
I’m new here, but I can tell recreation has suffered too. Hunters are struggling to hunt, trappers to trap. Fish and Game says the numbers of reported harvests are down. Ptarmigan haven’t come down from the mountains, I’m told. Skiers can ski, but apparently not much.
What about other festivities? Charlene Lopez says Dillingham’s Beaver Round-up may be forced to cancel the dog sled races again.
“We’re trying to do what we can to beef up the schedule but also still see what we can do the traditional ways,” Charlene said. “And it is kind of terrible if we have to cancel the dog races being the second year. But we need snow for those, for the mushers and for the dogs for their safety, that’s what we need.”
So, I got off the plane about a week ago, brand new to Dillingham and Alaska. It dawned on me pretty quick that a real winter, with some real snow, is pretty important to business, fun, and life in a lot of Bristol Bay.
Maybe it’s not too late?
Sen. Lisa Murkowski Skeptical Of Forest Service’s Tongass Plan
Liz Ruskin, APRN – Washington DC
Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell defended his management of the Tongass National Forest to the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee today. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who chairs the panel, says the service isn’t allowing enough timber sales to keep what remains of the logging industry in Southeast Alaska in business.
Arctic Barge Nears Russia After Months In Ice
Annie Ropeik, KUCB – Unalaska
An unmanned fuel barge that got stuck in Arctic sea ice last fall has now made it almost as far as Russia’s northern coast.
What Does Alaska’s Minimum Wage Hike Mean For Businesses?
Annie Hillman, KSKA – Anchorage
Alaska’s statewide minimum wage increase went into effect on Tuesday. Now, thousands of jobs in the state pay $8.75 an hour — a dollar increase. So what does this means for Anchorage’s small businesses and consumers?
University of Alaska To Launch Sexual Assault Survey Next Week
Lisa Phu, KTOO – Juneau
After a several month delay, the University of Alaska will launch a survey next week that deals with sexual assault on campus.
Navigating “The New Normal” Of Legal Marijuana
Emily Kwong, KCAW – Sitka
The changing laws surrounding legalized marijuana have already created a ripple effect in Sitka. Law enforcement is ironing out the details and businesses are catering to new clientele with mixed results.
Independent Power Producers Seek Utility Regulations Change
Ellen Lockyer, KSKA – Anchorage
Alternative energy producers in Alaska may benefit from new rules the Regulatory Commission of Alaska is considering. But other independents say the state’s power statutes are so antiquated they should be completely revised.
Rough Winter Takes Toll On Dillingham Residents
Matt Martin, KDLG – Dillingham
The lack of snow and warm temperatures this winter have not gone unnoticed by businesses and recreational enthusiasts in Bristol Bay.
In a U.S. Senate hearing room this morning, Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell is defending his management of the Tongass National Forest.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski says the service isn’t allowing enough timber sales to keep what remains of the logging industry in Southeast Alaska in business. Tidwell says he’s planning sales of 70 million board feet a year for the next two years.
Tidwell: “We are putting up more. It’s not adequate. The bridge timber we talk about, to be able to provide the bridge until we can move into the second growth, we were able to put Big Thorne sale out last year. We’re optimistic we’ll be moving forward with it this year.”
Murkowski: “We’ve got a little bit of an ESA issue with Big Thorne. You and I both know that. So to say that we’ve got it out there and it’s going to be this big bridge out there, the people on Prince of Wales aren’t so optimistic right now.”
Murkowski was referring to the Endangered Species Act and an expected battle over the Alexander Archipelago Wolf.
She’s holding a series of hearings in the Senate Energy Committee on the budgets of the departments her committee oversees. Murkowski says she hoped to see more in the budget for the Tongass.
“But I don’t think you are offering anything more than you have, which is nothing,” Murkowski said. “Nothing to the people of the Tongass.”
Murkowski also says the president’s proposed budget has little funding for Secure Rural Schools.
Admiral Bill Gortney visited Alaska for the first time earlier this month since taking over the two organizations tasked with defending North America from attack. Gortney wears two hats: he is head of both the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), as well as the U.S. Northern Command (NORTHCOM). It’s one of the highest positions in the military chain of command, responsible for dealing with airborne threats–whether missiles launched from a hostile country, or a rogue plane within American air space. After a visit to Fort Wainwright and the missile fields in the Interior, Gortney came to Anchorage for an inspection of Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, and talked with KSKA’s Zachariah Hughes about the strategic importance of Alaska to the military’s mission.
Admiral Bill Gortney: The world is round—most people don’t realize that, the world is round. And your location from here allows us to get from here to defend from the Northern approach, as well as to deploy from here. The F-22’s that are stationed here can get to England or to the Middle East quicker than they can from the continental United States there down south. So it’s an incredibly important strategic asset.
As far as recently, the importance of what we do out of this great state—and oh, by the way, the pictures don’t do it justice—is the increased activity in Russian long-range aviation, the “Bear Bombers.” They are, we believe, messaging using these long-range aviation flights. And so very frequently when they come down here we launch assets, aircraft—fighters, tankers, and early warning—from Alaska, and Canada does the same thing. We coordinate that activity, whichever one makes the most sense.
Zachariah Hughes: You said “messaging,” what does that mean?
Adm. Gortney: Well, all countries use their militaries in a messaging way to display strength, should they need to. That’s what we mean by “messaging,” it’s not in a kinetic sense, it’s not hostile. It’s just ‘We’re here, we can do these sorts of things.’
ZH: The Russian long-range craft that have been entering airspace—how frequently is that occurring, and when did it start?
Adm. Gortney: Well, they’ve been doing it since they were the Soviet Union. They took a pause for—I’m not sure how many years, but just recently in the last three or four years the numbers have gone up. I’m not going to give you the percentage, because the percentage implies—ya know, if I said 500% you may get that that’s a whole lot, but five is 500% of one, right? But it has gone up significantly that we’ve notice here, and they’re flying profiles that they haven’t flown before. Now, they’ve never entered our air space, which goes out to 12 nautical miles, but they have entered what we call our Air Defense Identification Zone—and all nations have these, they go pretty far out there. And they’re adhering to the international standards that they’re supposed to out there. The numbers have gone up, but they fly it in a professional manner, just as we fly in a professional manner.
ZH: Switching gears just for a second, the U.S. is poised to take over some new Arctic responsibilities: is the importance of the Arctic changing? And the way capabilities and assets are deployed, are those changing?
Adm. Gortney: Yes, actually one of my assigned missions from the Secretary of Defense is to be the advocate of the Arctic for the Secretary of Defense. And since this is the Arctic—well, a little bit further North if you draw the line correctly—we use the Army and the Airforce, as well as the Coast Guard and a little bit of Navy out of here to do that advocacy role in the Arctic.
[The Arctic is] absolutely critical. This is a pretty harsh place to operate. It takes a particular skill-set, equipment, and people to know how to operate. And this gives us the opportunity to understand that.
ZH: With the national draw-down in the Armed Forces going on, and sequestration looming large over a lot of those conversations, how is your work going to change going forward? And is there any change in the resources you have at your disposal?
Adm. Gortney: Well, coming out of every war there’s a 27-32% reduction in the Department of Defense budget. This goes all the way back to the Revolutionary War, and of course we didn’t have a DOD back then. So this isn’t the first time we’re coming out of a major war and the budget goes down. And so this is a reality we have to deal with. How we do that as a nation is the hard part.
The other piece is that every time we’ve come out of a major war we go into an international security environment better than the one we went in. You would think that’s why you went to war. And just in the last three years, if you look at the international security environment around the world, it is not a more secure environment than we went in. And it’s nobody’s fault—we just didn’t predict it. No one predicted what’s occurred. That is what’s different this time, and that’s what causes me concern.
ZH: Do you still get to fly?
Adm. Gortney: No I don’t, I’m too old.
ZH: Do you miss it?
Adm. Gortney: I do, yeah. But I had a pretty good run. And now it’s up for the young pups to do it.
Attorneys for both sides wrapped up arguments Wednesday in a case that could reverse state prohibitions against some Medicaid-funded abortions. Attorneys for Planned Parenthood claim a state statute is too restrictive, while it violates a woman’s constitutional rights.
Two days after Gov. Bill Walker filed a bill to create a marijuana control board and a day after the drug became legal in the state, state senators are offering legislation setting terms for that board.
The 25-page bill was offered by the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday. It would require marijuana retailers and growers to be licensed by the state, instead of just getting business registrations. They would have to be an Alaska resident for at least one year before they can apply, and would need to go through fingerprinting and background checks.
The legislation also addresses the packaging and advertising of marijuana products. It requires retailers to keep the drug in child-safe containers, and limits them from marketing marijuana in a way that would be “enticing to minors” but without defining what that means. It also requires edible marijuana products to be sold in serving sizes that have a maximum of 10 milligrams of THC — the active chemical in the drug.