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Get Alaska statewide news from the stations of the Alaska Public Radio Network (APRN). With a central news room in Anchorage and contributing reporters spread across the state, we capture news in the Voices of Alaska and share it with the world. Tune in to your local APRN station in Alaska, visit us online at APRN.ORG or subscribe to the Alaska News podcast right here. These are individual news stories, most of which appear in Alaska News Nightly (available as a separate podcast).
Updated: 39 min 5 sec ago

Report Finds Mixed Blame In Raid On 40 Mile Miners

Thu, 2014-03-13 17:44

Governor Sean Parnell has released a report on last summer’s law enforcement sweep of placer mines in the 40 Mile area. It finds mixed blame for the heavy handed law enforcement that upset miners.

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Categories: Alaska News

Tanana Chiefs Conference President Steps Down

Thu, 2014-03-13 17:44

Longtime Tanana Chiefs Conference President Jerry Isaac stepped down Thursday, after 8 years at the helm of the consortium that represents 42 Interior Alaska native villages.

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Categories: Alaska News

Health Food, Water Offered Through Petersburg School District Grant

Thu, 2014-03-13 17:44

Students’ physical well-being is paramount to how well they perform in school. The Petersburg School District is hoping to improve that through a four-year, $600,000 grant which started this school year. An update on the grant was given to the district’s school board at their last meeting.

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So far, the Healthy Living Grant has helped wellness projects in all of the schools. That includes ten modern water fountains being installed that feature a place to fill water bottles.

Ginger Evens is the Health Living Grant Coordinator.

“The kids are loving it,” Evens says. “You can see them going and filling up their water bottles. The water is much colder, it’s filtered.”

Petersburg is one of nine districts in the state to receive the grant through the Department of Health and Human Services under the Obesity, Prevention and Control Program. Evens says drinking water was one of the main components of the grant.

“We had water. We had accessible water but the kids were not going to all the water fountains because they didn’t like the way it tasted, what it looked when they put it in their water bottles so this is very exciting that this is happening,” Evens says.

The hope is that if students are drinking from their water bottles, they’re not consuming other sugary drinks.

The healthy living grant is also helping to fund breakfasts for high schoolers and fifth graders. For the older students, it’s called the Second Chance Breakfast Program. Before this year, breakfasts were not available for the teenagers. Now, about 35 students a day eat at the school in the morning.

“Kids who have free and reduced lunch can use that for the second chance breakfast or they can purchase it and the kids really seem to be enjoying it,” Evens says.

Carlee Wells, Foods Service Program Director, agrees.

“It’s amazing, it’s 35 people that are eating something and they’re all complete meals, nutritious meals for the most part and so that’s awesome,” Wells says.

Wells also gave an update to the school board on how the grant is helping. She says it’s funding a new pilot program for the fifth graders through the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. She says before the program they were feeding 80 meals per week. Now that’s jumped to 150.

“So we’re looking, you know, seeing if that increases our participations, feeds our kids, and how that impacts those students,” Wells says.

The middle school students have had a breakfast program in place that allows them to eat at school if they want but school board member, Sarah Holmgrain, says it’s the high schoolers who might need that meal the most.

“I’m willing to bet a lot of them go out the door not eating breakfasts whereas in middle school, parents still tend to make sure they get a breakfast or they are eating at school so this is great,” Holmgrain says, “I’m really happy to hear that this has been done.”

The healthy living grant also supports the esteem-building Girls on the Run program in the grade school as well as after-school snacks for all students.

Another new health related program the school district is implementing will allow parents to keep tabs on the finer details of the school’s menu. It’s a new computer software program.

“What this is going to allow us to do is we’re going to be able to have all of our calorie counts and all of our nutritional data for every parent who wants to know,” Wells says. “So, this is going to be amazing, super amazing.”

She says part of the grant is proving to the state that the district is meeting their nutritional requirements…which, she adds, Petersburg has no problem doing.

Categories: Alaska News

J. Torres Encourages Young Comic Creators

Thu, 2014-03-13 17:44

J. Torres speaking in Unalaska on March 3. Photo by Luc Sevilla.

A lot of elements go into a simple comic book. There’s artwork, there’s editing — and most importantly, for the Filipino and Canadian comic writer J. Torres, there’s the script.

The award-winning author visited Unalaska’s schools and gave a presentation at the library last week, as part of a statewide tour.

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Archie, Batman, Teen Titans: J. Torres has worked on some of the most famous comic book series out there.

But Torres told kids and parents that the big-name books are no sweat, compared to the challenge of dreaming up his own comics. That’s because he need artists to help bring his stories to life:

Torres: “If I put, ‘Panel one: Batman flies through a window,’ I’m done! The artist doesn’t have to get me to describe who Batman is and what he looks like, right? But if I say, ‘Rufus is standing on the doorstep of his grandmother’s house,’ the artist is going to say, ‘Who the heck is Rufus?’ So I have to describe Rufus and what the grandmother’s house looks like.”

Rufus is the hero of “Bigfoot Boy,” a comic Torres wrote for younger readers. Rufus is an average kid who find a magical amulet. When he puts it on, he can transform into a Sasquatch.

Torres says “Bigfoot Boy” is his favorite comic, and he wanted to do share it in Unalaska.

Torres was in town on the Alaska Spirit of Reading tour, which brings authors to the state every year. After Unalaska, he’d be off to Sitka and Juneau to visit schools and hold public readings.

Torres: “Usually, when an author does a reading, he or she stands here and reads from the book.”

But comic books are visual. And besides, Torres doesn’t draw them. He writes them — the stories, the dialogue, everything down to the sound effects in each panel.

So he decided to do things a little differently. He invited the children in the audience to read the words he wrote, which were projected on a screen.

Torres: “Almost like doing a play. So okay, who’s going to play Rufus for me? You! Okay, come on up, Ethan.”

In the first chapter, Rufus — played by volunteer Ethan Iszler — gets sent to stay with his grandmother. His parents drop him off in the unfamiliar neighborhood as birds chirp in the background:

Children: “Tweet, tweet, tweet, tweet!”

Mom: ”Northwood is a cool place. You’ll see, Rufus. Just listen to your grandmother, okay?”

Rufus: “Yes, mom.”

The kids responsible for sound effects had their hands full. In one panel, Rufus sat in his grandmother’s living room while she took a nap — and a string of Z’s ran across the screen:

Children: ”Zzzzzz.”

Torres: “No! Snoring!”

Children: [snoring sounds]

They got the hang of it as Rufus wandered through the woods. A Bigfoot approached in the shadows:

Children: ”Bump! Skkkkkk.”

[laughter]

Torres: “Can we get a round of applause for our readers?”

[applause]

After the reading, Mary Heimes, a fourth grade teacher, wanted to know:

Heimes: ”What advice do you have for some budding elementary school comic book writers?”

Torres: “Write, draw — all the time, as much as you can. Practice makes perfect. It’s like anything else. You want to be a good ice skater, go ice skate. You want to be a good piano player, play piano.”

Even if you live on an island in the Bering Sea, anything’s possible. Torres says that he works with artists and editors from all over the world, even though he lives in a comfy suburb of Toronto.

Torres: “So that’s the beauty of working in comics — and also books and illustration — in this day and age. You don’t have to leave your house if you don’t want to! You can do it from anywhere in the world, including Alaska.”

The important thing is to immerse yourself in what you love, Torres says. That’s why he read lots of comics as a kid, and still does now.

And that may be why there was a run on comic books at the end of Torres’ talk. Library assistant Robi Harris was mobbed by kids wanting to check out the latest installment of “Bigfoot Boy.”

That included junior high student:

Ethan: “Ethan Iszler.”

Harris: “I know, I know.”

Ethan: ”Okay. Am I here that often?”

Harris: “You’re here enough.”

Ethan: “I’m only here to get, to — “

Harris: “There’s nothing wrong with coming in the door! We like to see you!”

Ethan: “Oh, thank you. Thank you.”

There’s a good reason why Ethan’s there so often. He says he’s writing his own comic book series. For now, it’s just stick figures, but it’s a start.

Categories: Alaska News

Anchorage Assembly Approves Muldoon Park

Thu, 2014-03-13 17:26

Photos © Jerrianne Lowther: Chester Creek in natural creekbed east of Muldoon Road.

The Anchorage Assembly voted Tuesday to designate land at the center of a controversy in East Anchorage for a park.

The Assembly voted 9-2 to designate the land near the intersection of Muldoon and Debarr streets for use as a park.

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East Anchorage Assembly member Adam Trombley, wrote the ordinance approved by the Assembly. He says the park is a win for the community he represents.

Photo © Jerrianne Lowther: Realigned creek near Grass Creek Village & Begich Middle School west of Muldoon.

“Well I mean, my gosh, look at the area. I mean you have very high density housing – very tight. You do have some parks intermixed in there but not a lot of open green spaces,” Trombley said. “I think that’s going to enhance the property value. People are gonna want to move there because hey look – there’s a huge park there’s a huge park there. I’m from a young family. I’m gonna wanna move near the area because there’s a huge park. That’s gonna help redevelop the area according to the east district plan.”

Trombley is fighting for re-election against candidates Pete Petersen, a former state representative, and Mao Tosi, a former NFL player and community activist who manages the Northway Mall.

The municipality purchased the nearly 30 acres of land in 2006 for $5 million from the federal government, which had seized it in a drug case.

Chester Creek runs through the property, and East Anchorage residents have been pushing for a park there for several years.

Mayor Dan Sullivan has fought to keep the land near the street for commercial purposes and could veto the Assembly’s decision. Sullivan has seven days, until March 18 to veto the decision. However, the assembly could override his veto with 8 votes.

Some Assembly members said the body should have waited until the East Anchorage district was finished in August before making a decision.

Assembly members Chris Birch and Amy Demboski were the only no votes on changing the designation of the land for a park.

Categories: Alaska News

Alaska News Nightly: March 13, 2014

Thu, 2014-03-13 17:03

Individual news stories are posted on the APRN news page. You can subscribe to APRN’s newsfeeds via emailpodcast and RSS. Follow us on Facebook at alaskapublic.org and on Twitter @aprn.

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State Assessment Review Board Candidate Withdraws

Alexandra Gutierrez, APRN – Juneau

A Californian who had been tapped by Governor Sean Parnell to serve on a high-profile state board withdrew his name from consideration on Wednesday evening.

Despite Revisions, Opposition To Permitting Bill Still Vocal

Alexandra Gutierrez, APRN – Juneau

After nearly a year of waiting for a rewrite of HB77, members of the public had plenty to say about the changes. They got their first chance to speak to them at a Senate Resources Committee hearing yesterday. APRN’s Alexandra Gutierrez reports that most of the testimony on the Parnell administration’s permitting bill was as negative as it was brief.

FDA Reviewing Application To Produce Genetically Modified Salmon

Liz Ruskin, APRN – Washington DC

The head of the Federal Drug Administration told a U.S. Senate committee today her agency is still working on its review of an application to produce a genetically modified salmon.

Feds Seeking Local Advice On Environmental Protocols

Zachariah Hughes, KNOM – Nome

Members of the federal agency that oversees marine mammals held a teleconference in Nome on Wednesday to solicit region-specific advice on emergency response. It’s part of a process to draft environmental protocols for the Arctic that incorporate local expertise.

Report Finds Mixed Blame In Raid On 40 Mile Miners

Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks

Governor Sean Parnell has released a report on last summer’s law enforcement sweep of placer mines in the 40 Mile area. It finds mixed blame for the heavy handed law enforcement that upset miners.

Tanana Chiefs Conference President Steps Down

Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks

Longtime Tanana Chiefs Conference President Jerry Isaac stepped down Thursday, after 8 years at the helm of the consortium that represents 42 Interior Alaska native villages.

Anchorage Set To Host 2014 National Nordic Skiing National Championships

Josh Edge, APRN – Anchorage

The 2014 U.S. Nordic skiing National Championships and SuperTour Finals are set to start in just over a week in Anchorage.

Health Food, Water Offered Through Petersburg School District Grant

Angela Denning, KFSK – Petersburg

Students’ physical well-being is paramount to how well they perform in school. The Petersburg School District is hoping to improve that through a four-year, $600,000 grant which started this school year. An update on the grant was given to the district’s school board at their last meeting.

J. Torres Encourages Young Comic Creators

Lauren Rosenthal, KUCB – Unalaska

A lot of elements go into a simple comic book. There’s artwork, there’s editing — and most importantly, for the Filipino and Canadian comic writer J. Torres, there’s the script.

The award-winning author visited Unalaska’s schools and gave a presentation at the library last week, as part of a statewide tour.

Categories: Alaska News

Anchorage Set To Host 2014 National Nordic Skiing National Championships

Thu, 2014-03-13 14:02

Photo by Sarah Brunson/U.S. Ski Team.

The 2014 U.S. National Championships and SuperTour Finals for cross-country skiing are set to start in just over a week in Anchorage.

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Originally, the races were slated to take place on the trails in Kincaid Park. But since snow has been hard to come by in Anchorage this winter, Race Director James Southam says Thursday officials decided to move the races to alternate locations.

“All the distance races are gonna be at the hillside ski trails; racing around the Spencer Loop and the Besh Loop,” Southam said. “And then the sprint race is gonna be held at the APU ski trails over by the Alaska Pacific University campus.”

Southam expects up to 150 skiers from around North America to participate. He says it’s a unique opportunity for Alaskans to see some of the best skiers in the nation competing in person.

“It’s gonna be the first time, and really the only time all season, that our World Cup athletes like Kikkan Randall, Holly Brooks, and Sadie Bjornsen will be competing in the U.S., much less Alaska,” Southam said.

Races start on Saturday, March 22 and run through Friday, March 28.

Categories: Alaska News

Coast Guard, Unalaska Police Investigate Fatal Accident At Sea

Thu, 2014-03-13 12:58

The Coast Guard and Unalaska police are investigating a fatal accident that took place aboard a 376-foot factory trawler this week.

Police chief Jamie Sunderland says crew members on the Alaska Ocean were doing some repair jobs at about 9 p.m. on Tuesday night.

“It looks like an acetylene tank was leaking inside of a cabinet, which was ignited by some nearby welding,” Sunderland said.

The resulting explosion blew a door off its hinges. It struck one of the crew members – 48-year-old Franz Dalquen of Arizona.

“He was pronounced dead just a few minutes later – about a half hour later – by the medic on the vessel.” Sunderland said.

Sunderland says the Alaska Ocean was about 125 miles outside Unalaska at the time of the accident. The vessel made it back to port Wednesday night, where they were met by Unalaska police.

Sunderland says the police have already ruled out foul play. But the medical examiner in Anchorage will still perform an autopsy.

The Alaska Ocean is owned by Glacier Fish Company of Seattle.

Categories: Alaska News

Coast Guard Calls Off Search For Missing Bering Sea Fisherman

Thu, 2014-03-13 12:49

The Coast Guard has called off its search for a fisherman who fell overboard from his vessel in the Bering Sea on Wednesday.

The Coast Guard isn’t releasing the man’s name, but friends, family and local news reports say he is Eric Eder. Eder was fishing aboard the F/V Seeker. The Coast Guard says it’s an 87-foot trawler based in Newport, Oregon.

Eder fell from the Seeker Wednesday morning, 10 miles northwest of Unimak Island. Another vessel in the area, the F/V Seafreeze Alaska, alerted the Coast Guard. Several nearby boats were already looking for Eder by the time a Jayhawk helicopter crew got to the scene.

The F/V Seeker pictured in 2006. Photo courtesy from marinetraffic.com.

The Jayhawk searched for a few hours, only pausing to refuel in Cold Bay. Around 4:30 p.m., they turned the scene over to the Coast Guard Cutter Alex Haley, which came from a patrol near Unalaska.

The Alex Haley searched until about 10 p.m. Wednesday. That’s when petty officer Grant DeVuyst says the Coast Guard suspended its search.

“That’s always a difficult decision to make for a search and rescue team,” DeVuyst said. “Our thoughts and prayers are with the family and friends of the missing.”

DeVuyst says the Jayhawk, the cutter and the good Samaritan vessels had searched for about 10 hours total. He says they’re ready to keep looking if they get any new information about Eder’s whereabouts.

DeVuyst says they’ve been in touch with the mariner’s family to let them know the Coast Guard’s active search is over for now. DeVuyst says in cases like this, the mariner is legally considered missing by the Coast Guard.

It’s not clear yet how Eder fell from the Seeker. Coast Guard Sector Anchorage will conduct an investigation.

There was a gale warning in effect for the Unimak Island area on Wednesday, with about 10-foot seas, winds up to 40 miles per hour, snow and freezing spray.

Categories: Alaska News

Rescuers Search for Man Overboard Near Unimak Island

Thu, 2014-03-13 11:13

The Coast Guard is still searching for a mariner who fell overboard from a fishing vessel near Unimak Island Wednesday morning.

The man fell from the F/V Seeker, 10 miles northwest of Unimak Island, according to Coast Guard Petty Officer Grant DeVuyst. The Seeker is a 98-foot trawler out of Newport, Oregon.

DeVuyst says the Coast Guard was alerted to the incident by the good Samaritan fishing vessel Seafreeze Alaska, a 296-foot trawler-processor based in Seattle. DeVuyst says several other vessels searched unsuccessfully for the mariner before a helicopter crew got to the scene.

The F/V Seeker pictured in 2006. Photo courtesy from marinetraffic.com.

“I’m not sure exactly … whether they saw someone in the water or just noticed he was missing,” he says. “We just know that there was a report of a man in the water, so our number one priority was to get a helicopter in the air and get them over the area to start searching.”

The Coast Guard sent an MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter from Cold Bay, where it’s forward-deployed for the fishing season. DeVuyst says the helicopter made one initial search and had to come back to refuel before making another attempt.

As of around 4:30 p.m. Wednesday, DeVuyst says the Coast Guard Cutter Alex Haley had arrived on scene to start searching. The Jayhawk crew had returned again to Cold Bay. DeVuyst says the cutter’s MH-65 Dolphin helicopter is off the vessel due to weather concerns, but it’s ready to deploy from the ground if needed. The cutter is expected to search into the evening.

“There’s some rough weather out there, which of course just makes a search more difficult,” he says.

DeVuyst says there were eight- to 10-foot seas on scene when the cutter arrived.

Marine forecasts for the Unimak Island area show a gale warning and a heavy freezing spray warning through Thursday. Snow and winds up to 40 mph are also forecasted.

Categories: Alaska News

Coast Guard Assists in Two Medevacs From King Cove

Thu, 2014-03-13 11:11

A Coast Guard helicopter crew spent Tuesday morning performing back-to-back medevacs between King Cove and the community of Cold Bay.

A fisherman from the crabber Miss Courtney Kim got hurt on Monday night when a crab pot fell on him, inflicting multiple injuries. The vessel was near Sanak Island — not far from King Cove, which has a health clinic.

The vessel headed into town, while the Coast Guard made arrangements for an MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter crew to leave its forward-deployment in Cold Bay and meet the fisherman the next morning.

But Petty Officer Grant DeVuyst says the flight crew soon got wind of another emergency.

“Between the report of the injured mariner who was getting taken into King Cove by his vessel, and the time that the helicopter showed up, there was a report of an infant suffering from respiratory distress,” DeVuyst says.

The Coast Guard helicopter picked up the sick baby and his mother from King Cove on Tuesday morning, and flew them to Cold Bay. From there, the family boarded a commercial medevac flight bound for Anchorage.

Then, the helicopter crew doubled back and picked up the injured fisherman from the F/V Miss Courtney Kim. That man was also taken to Anchorage on a commercial medevac flight, arranged by the Coast Guard.

DeVuyst says it’s not uncommon for the Coast Guard to assist with medevacs out of King Cove.

“There’s only certain types of aircrafts that can get on-scene,” DeVuyst says. “Our air crews are trained to fly in pretty extreme conditions up here. You’ll see in Alaska a lot that we assist with things of that type, just because of the weather and the remoteness.”

Residents of King Cove have been lobbying the federal government for years to build a road through the Izembek wildlife reserve, which separates them from Cold Bay’s all-weather airport. They say that a one-lane gravel road would provide them with more reliable access to commercial medevac flights.

Categories: Alaska News

Search For Missing Boat Owner Suspended

Thu, 2014-03-13 11:10

Station Ketchikan’s 47-foot motor life boats are seen during Wednesday’s search for John Anderson. Photo submitted by Danny Hoggard.

The search for John Anderson, who went missing sometime late Tuesday night and is believed to have fallen off his houseboat, was suspended Wednesday evening, pending further information.

Chris John of the Ketchikan Volunteer Rescue Squad said Thursday morning that searchers covered the area well all day Wednesday. At this point, he says, it’s a matter of waiting for evidence to wash ashore.

John says the local search community will keep an eye on the shoreline. He says all evidence points to Anderson having fallen into the water, and because it was a stormy night on Tuesday, Anderson likely was wearing heavy waterproof clothing. That clothing could delay recovery efforts.

John estimated a few days up to two weeks before the search is resolved.

The search for Anderson began late Tuesday night after his houseboat, built on a barge, grounded on some rocks near The Plaza mall. The houseboat had been anchored next to nearby Pennock Island. Coast Guard personnel who boarded the boat found warm coals on the stove, and hot food inside – indicating that the owner had very recently been on board.

A dog found on the boat was released to Anderson’s friends.

Categories: Alaska News

State House Finance Committee Passes $9.1 Billion Operating Budget

Thu, 2014-03-13 11:04

The $9.1 billion state operating budget has passed the House Finance committee. It’s down about $1.6 million from the original bill, much of that due to a cut in school construction and debt service money.

The House version of the operating budget is about $43 million less in unrestricted general funds than what the Governor proposed.

Categories: Alaska News

Despite Revisions, Opposition To Permitting Bill Still Vocal

Thu, 2014-03-13 00:00

After nearly a year of waiting for a rewrite of HB77, members of the public had plenty to say about the changes. They got their first chance to speak to them at a Senate Resources Committee hearing on Wednesday. APRN’s Alexandra Gutierrez reports that most of the testimony on the Parnell administration’s permitting bill was as negative as it was brief.

The tone of the hearing was set with the first person to testify.

Bobby Andrew had flown in from Dillingham to speak on behalf of Nunamta Aulukestai, an association of tribes and village corporations in the Bristol Bay region. Last year, the group had taken the stance that the bill had gone too far in overhauling land management policy, and Andrew said the release of a new version on Monday had not changed their position. He testified that even though some of the more controversial parts of the bill had been rewritten, his association thought the legislation still gave too much authority to the natural resources commissioner and that it did not give the public enough opportunity to weigh in on certain permitting decisions.

That was as far as Andrew got before a timer went off, and Committee Chair Cathy Giessel told him to close his testimony.

GIESSEL: Bobby, your two minutes is up. Why don’t you summarize?
ANDREW: That was quick.

The committee pushed through testimony at a screaming pace, not even stopping to let legislators ask questions. About 50 individuals got to speak, and a hundred more were told to submit their testimony in writing instead. Just two people came out in favor of the legislation: Mary Sattler, a manager with Donlin Gold, and Mike Satre, who spoke on behalf of the Council of Alaska Producers, a mining association.

Most of the people who spoke against the bill suggested it would limit public involvement. They focused on language setting a higher bar for legal standing to appeal a decision. They found problems with a section allowing the Department of Natural to issue general permits for a broad range of activities that multiple users can operate under, and they said a single 30-day comment period was not adequate time to address those kinds of permitting decisions. (The previous version of the bill did not require any public notice or comment period.)

But as the hearing wore on, testimony began to focus on the public process being used to move a bill dealing with public process.

Rosemary McGuire, a fisherman and writer from Cordova, described the situation as ironic.

“I think it’s perfectly ludicrous that we’re not getting enough time to comment on a bill that removes our ability to comment,” said McGuire.

Giessel, an Anchorage Republican, defended the way the testimony was handled immediately after the hearing adjourned. At that point, she had decided there would be no more oral testimony because of time constraints.

“We’re not hearing anything new. Did you hear anything new and unique in the testimony? I did not,” Giessel told reporters. “And therefore, there’s really no productivity to hearing the same thing over and over again, especially when it can be submitted in writing.”

But Giessel softened shortly after the meeting, and she decided to schedule another hearing for public testimony on Friday afternoon because of the large public response to the bill. While testimony will still be limited to two minutes, Giessel has indicated that this time she will hear every person who signs up.

Sen. Click Bishop, a Fairbanks Republican who serves on the Resources Committee, thinks giving people more time to review the bill could affect public sentiment on it. The legislation is long and complex, and a number of sections have been substantially reworked. For example, where the old version prohibited individuals and tribal groups from petitioning for water reservations as a way of conserving fish habitat, the new version lets them submit applications but allows the streams to be used as those applications are pending.

“They’ve only had 48 hours to look at the bill, and I think – just a hypothetical on my part – that if some of those people had maybe more time to digest the language, maybe they would be a little softer on their stance,” said Bishop in an interview.

Bishop says that he too is still digesting the bill – his office is still reviewing it, and he needs more time with it to decide whether he will support it.

Bishop is seen as a critical vote for the bill to pass, as is Soldotna Republican Peter Micciche, who worked with the Parnell administration on the rewrite.

Bishop says public testimony will factor into his decision.

“Give the people their due — that’s the law of the land, that’s what we do in here,” said Bishop. “We write legislation. We listen to the people. And then we try to fix legislation.”

The Resources Committee plans to make further adjustments to the bill after testimony is complete. It is then expected to be sent to the Senate floor if it can secure the votes. The legislation already passed the House last year.

Categories: Alaska News

Without Necessary Votes, Senate Leadership Pulls Controversial Education Amendment

Wed, 2014-03-12 18:08

Sen. Mike Dunleavy, chairman of the Senate Labor and Commerce committee, listens during a committee meeting, Feb. 18, 2014. (Photo by Skip Gray/Gavel Alaska)

Over the past two legislative sessions, conservative lawmakers have prioritized an amendment that would allow public money to be spent at private schools. Wednesday was supposed to be the grand showdown, where the State Senate would take a vote on it. The measure did not even make it to the floor, because it did not have enough support to pass.

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For the past few days, staffers, reporters, and lawmakers alike have made a pastime of counting the votes for Senate Joint Resolution 9.

It’s rare that legislation will go on the floor calendar unless it’s guaranteed to pass. But as an amendment to the Alaska Constitution, SJR9 needs two-thirds approval to go forward, and a sizable contingent of Democrats and moderate Republicans have vocally opposed it.

As many suspected, the support just was not there. After delaying the floor session Wednesday for a couple of hours to talk strategy, leadership announced they would hold the bill in the legislative limbo that is the Senate Rules Committee instead of bringing it out for a vote.

Sen. Mike Dunleavy, a Mat-Su Republican who is sponsoring the bill, says that does not mean the bill is dead.

“I know some folks may look at this and say this is a way of politely killing the bill,” says Dunleavy. “That’s not my intention at all, and that’s not the intention of leadership. It’s just getting some additional information and having some additional discussion with folks this week.”

Dunleavy says he wants information on the legality of education programs the state is already offering, like the Alaska Performance Scholarship. But he would not elaborate any more on that information except for to say he thinks it could turn a couple votes.

Dunleavy adds he wants to see the amendment back on the Senate schedule as soon as possible. And he thinks there’s value in having a floor debate even if there is not certainty a measure will pass.

“You want to be careful that there’s not a gaming of the system, where all the decisions are made off the floor,” says Dunleavy. “There should be floor debates. There should be floor votes. And there will be votes that pass, and there will be votes that fail.”

Sen. Gary Stevens, a Kodiak Republican who has been a firm opponent of the measure, says it’s going to be an uphill battle for those who want it to pass. While the amendment may not be technically dead, it’s arguably comatose.

“Clearly they didn’t have the votes,” says Stevens. “They needed 14 votes. And I talked to several members of the caucus who all oppose it, and I think at least five members of our 15-member caucus are opposed to it.”

Stevens says pulling SJR 9 allows Senate leadership to keep the measure alive and save a little bit of face. Like Dunleavy, he would not have minded having a discussion on the floor about what the measure means for the state. While Dunleavy argues that SJR 9 could expand options for students and their parents, Stevens is worried it would lead to an expensive voucher system and drain resources from public schools. He was prepared to speak to that on Wednesday.

“The debate is good, and we should do that more,” says Stevens. “I think there’s sort of a tendency though on the part of the majority caucus not to want to put something on the floor and have it fail. It’s sort of a sign of weakness. And very seldom does that happen in this body, very seldom do you see either the House or the Senate put something on the floor when they know it’s going to fail.”

Out of more than a thousand bills introduced since 2011, only three pieces of legislation have failed on the floor, according to data compiled by Gavel Alaska.

A companion to SJR 9 has also been introduced in the House, but it has yet to come to a vote in that chamber. Any amendment to the Alaska Constitution needs two-thirds approval from both chambers of the Legislature and then support from a majority of registered voters in the state.

Categories: Alaska News

Arctic is Top Priority for Homeland Security – But One of Many

Wed, 2014-03-12 18:02

Sen. Lisa Murkowski today pressed the Secretary of Homeland Security to make the Arctic a priority for the Administration, particularly for the Coast Guard. She got no disagreement.

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Homeland Security is the Swiss Army Knife of government departments. It has a huge range of duties, so when its $38 billion budget request came before a Senate panel today, Secretary Jeh Johnson heard a wide range of pleas. Senators emphasized the need to protect the border, encourage trade and improve disaster response. For Sen. Murkowski, though, it’s all about the Arctic. With ocean travel increasing, Murkowski told Johnson the world is looking to the United States for leadership in the region.

Whether it’s cruise ships going over the top, whether it’s container vessels going through the Bering straits, the level of activity that we’re seeing there is unprecedented, and how we handle it is going to be key going forward.

Someday, Murkowski told him, his department may have to contend with German tourists coming ashore at Barrow. She says the Coast Guard – also part of Homeland Security — should have more icebreakers. It has only three, and one is in dry-dock. Murkowski also asked him to consider homeporting one of the Coast Guard’s national security ships in Kodiak, because the nearest now is in California.

I’m told that it’s 24 days to get a national security cutter from Alameda up to the Chukchi- Beaufort Sea area. That’s a long way to be underway when we have an incident that would require that level of a vessel up there.

Johnson said what he told every senator: He agrees with them. He says the Arctic is a priority to the Administration.

I believe, first and foremost that our priorities in the Arctic surround increasing commerce there.

He said replacing the older of the heavy ice breakers, the Polar Star, is still in the long-term acquisition plan. Johnson says no decision has yet been made about the Polar Sea, the icebreaker not in service.

But over all I do recognize the importance of having heavy ice breakers.

Across the Capitol, the head of the Coast Guard faced criticism from a House panel today over its $10 billion portion of the Homeland Security budget request. Some members said it was wasteful, others said the amount dedicated to modernizing the fleet is inadequate. At the Senate hearing, though, the focus was on each senator’s home-state priorities. After Murkowski talked about the Arctic, it was Kansas Sen. Jerry Moran’s turn to discuss his top goal for the department: safeguarding agriculture.

Categories: Alaska News

SHARP-II Program Under Fire

Wed, 2014-03-12 18:01

A State House committee has eliminated funding for a state program that helps medical professionals repay their student loans if they serve poor or rural patients. It’s called the SHARP-II program and clinics say it’s an essential tool to convince physicians and other medical professionals to care for patients in under-served communities.

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Kim Cohen has a tough time recruiting physicians. As executive director at the Anchorage Neighborhood Health Center, the pay she can offer her doctors is limited. They can earn 50 percent more in the private sector.

“A lot of people that want to help the poor and want to go into community health have large student loans,” Cohen said. “So one of the things we can offer them- we can’t give them a high salary, is we can help them pay off their student loans through this program.”

A House finance subcommittee cut $1.2 million for the program, eliminating next year’s funding. If the cut goes through, a doctor at Anchorage Neighborhood Health Center, who was just approved for the program, would lose his spot along with 38 others who were supposed to start receiving loan repayment.

Representative Mark Neuman, a Republican from Big Lake, is responsible for making the cut. He says it wasn’t an easy decision, but the budget needed trimming.

“The health and social services is a difficult budget and when you get into years when you just don’t have money to cover your costs, you’re forced to do reductions,” he said.

Neuman says he felt better about eliminating funding for a few programs, like SHARP, than making small trims to many more. And he says SHARP was a more appealing target than funding that would go to serve seniors or foster kids.

“I think I read some notes here that the average practitioners was getting almost $30,000 a year, that’s almost a lot of peoples yearly salary and when you have to start reducing budgets, where do you start?” Neuman said. “They’re all good programs, we’d like to support them all but the state just does not have the money.”

And Neuman points out providers will still be eligible for the SHARP I program, which also repays loans and is partly funded by the federal government. But Tom Chard who is executive director of the Alaska Behavioral Health Association, says the federal program is not meeting the needs of Alaska. Chard is on the committee that decides which medical professionals can participate in the program.

“We as a state said, look, we think we can design parameters to better meet our outcomes here in state and we’re willing to put a little bit of money in to match that,” Chard said.

The federal SHARP program is limited to providers working in rural areas of Alaska. Chard says the state program recognizes urban areas in the state are also struggling to attract medical professionals to work with low income patients. Chard thinks the program is a bargain.

“$1.2 million, the proposed reduction amount, is a lot of money, but we’re going to actually save a ton of money through putting positions into these places that are otherwise hard to fill, very hard to recruit for, otherwise would go vacant or be filled by a temporary position,” Chard said.

It costs clinics a lot more to hire temporary doctors to see patients.

At the Anchorage Neighborhood Health Center, Kim Cohen says she feels like she’s been sucker punched. When Governor Parnell declined federal funding for Medicaid expansion, he said clinic’s like Cohen’s would be able to provide a safety net for patients who would not be eligible for Medicaid.

“First they don’t expand Medicaid, and that’s hard enough because 42 percent of my population at the Anchorage Neighborhood Health Center do not have insurance,” Cohen said. “And now they’re taking away my ability to help pay for my physicians by repaying their student loans so now I’m like how are we supposed to be the safety net of the community if we don’t have doctors to provide for the patients we’re supposed to be seeing.”

Parnell kept the SHARP-II funding in his version of the operating budget. The Senate could restore funding for the program when it begins work on the budget. If that happens, the House and Senate would work out their differences in conference committee.

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

Categories: Alaska News

Low Income Sitkans Fall Through Medicaid ‘Donut Hole’

Wed, 2014-03-12 18:01

The Affordable Care Act is a big law with plenty of ripple effects, but at its heart is a pretty simple premise: Americans who lack health insurance should be able to go online and pick a plan, and if their income falls beneath a certain threshold, then the federal government will cover part of the cost.

That is, unless you live in Alaska, or one of the other states that has opted out of the federal Medicaid expansion. Then, you can actually make too little money to qualify for help.

This is what some are calling the “Medicaid donut hole.” And falling into the donut hole can be a frustrating experience.

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One night in early March, Wayne and Sarah Taranoff walked into a room at the University of Alaska, Southeast, for an open enrollment session on the Affordable Care Act. They didn’t come with high hopes.

WT: [We came] basically just to see what the options were. I didn’t think there would be any and there wasn’t.

RW: And why is that?

WT: Because we’re in the bracket that got screwed.

ST: We make too little. And they didn’t expand the Medicaid.

The Taranoffs own a gift shop on Katlian Street, in Sitka. They are self-employed, and haven’t had health insurance in decades. Wayne Taranoff has diabetes. One year, he said, they spent about sixty percent of their income on medical bills. But their store doesn’t bring in much money.  If they tried to buy health insurance on their own, it would cost “more than we make,” Wayne said.

“We only make about $8,000 a year,” Sarah said. “The store only makes enough to pay its electricity, and its phone bills.”

Under the Affordable Care Act, anyone who makes up to four times the federal poverty level is eligible for tax credits and subsidies that cover the cost of insurance bought on the new health insurance exchanges. In Alaska, that means an individual who makes more than $14,580 and less than $58,320 is likely eligible for some kind of help.

But people like the Taranoffs, who make less than $14,580 a year, can’t get subsidies. That’s because, when the law was originally written, everyone under the federal poverty limit was supposed to be covered by an expansion of Medicaid.

In 2012, the Supreme Court upheld the Affordable Care Act, in a landmark ruling. But, they ruled, the federal government couldn’t force states to expand Medicaid. In Alaska, Governor Sean Parnell decided to opt out of the expansion.

“I believe a costly Medicaid expansion, especially on top of the broken Obamacare system, is a hot mess,” Parnell said in a press conference announcing the decision, in November 2013.

Under the original concept, states were supposed to expand the pool of people eligible for Medicaid, so that the program covered not just families with children and people with disabilities, but also low-income adults who don’t have kids at home, like the Taranoffs. The federal government would cover the full cost of the expansion for the first three years, and at least 90% of the cost after that.

But Parnell argued that the federal government couldn’t be trusted to keep its end of the bargain.

“The decision comes to this,” he said in November. “Can states trust the federal government to not cut and run on its share of the cost?”

The Taranoffs said they are angry that Alaska has not expanded Medicaid. But they actually find the whole Affordable Care Act disappointing. They would have preferred a single-payer system, like Canada’s. The idea of being forced to buy insurance bothers them.

SW: We’re being forced to pay private insurance companies.

WT: Well, not us. We don’t make enough.

SW: We can’t get anything.

The Taranoffs won’t have to pay a penalty for remaining without insurance. They can file a hardship waiver. They’ll simply remain as they were: uninsured, and shouldering the cost of medical bills themselves.

According to a state-funded study, about 43,000 Alaskans fall into the same category as the Taranoffs. Of those 43,000, about 17,000 are Alaska Native, and qualify for tribal health benefits. The rest, if they want to buy insurance on the exchange, would have to pay full cost.

Meanwhile, at the enrollment event in Sitka, organizers estimated that out of the 25 or so people who came in to get help finding health insurance, seven left empty-handed. They, too, fell through the Medicaid donut hole.

Categories: Alaska News

YK Delta Halibut Quotas Halved

Wed, 2014-03-12 18:01

The statewide halibut and black cod season opened last Saturday. When YK Delta fishermen participate in the Community Development Quota allocations this summer, they will see their halibut quota cut nearly in half.

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Dawson Hoover is the Communication and Community Benefits manager for Coastal Villages Region Fund.

“It’s devastating for a lot of fisherman. We have 184-plus boats that have a couple people in each boat, for a lot of people its their main source of income for the year, these cuts are devastating for our residents who need to pay the bills to sustain their families,” Hoover said.

The 2014 quota stands for Coastal Villages stands at 107,000 pounds, that’s the biggest cut among the CDQ groups and accounts for a 48 percent drop over last year. The International Pacific Halibut Commission finalized the quotas in January. CVRF proposed doubling the CDQ’s quota. Last year’s quota was some 210,000 pounds. It took less than two weeks to catch the entire quota. Hoover says it may take only a week this year. He says CVRF wants a review of the science that exists on nearby halibut stocks.

“We know that there aren’t any recent studies done in the area we fish in. The word of mouth from our fisherman is that towards the end of the commercial fishing season last year,” Hoover said. “They are catching bigger halibut, the girth was bigger. Because there aren’t any studies done, and because of the bigger fish they are catching, we believe that we shouldn’t have gotten these big cuts.”

Hoovers says he doesn’t anticipate any changes in the 2014 quotas. Statewide, the Total Allowable Catch (TAC) limits for Alaska halibut and black cod are set at 16.8 million pounds and 33.6 million pounds respectively.

Categories: Alaska News

Fairbanks Resolution Endorses Fukushima Radiation Monitoring

Wed, 2014-03-12 18:01

The Fairbanks city council passed a resolution Monday in support of state, federal and international monitoring for radiation from the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan.

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Reactors at the facility were damaged during the major earthquake in Japan three years ago this week, and there’s concern about continued long range radiation. Fairbanks borough assembly member John Davies testified in support of the resolution.

He said he has no evidence that there’s currently a problem with radiation impacts in Alaska, but that monitoring is warranted.

Categories: Alaska News

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