APRN Alaska News
Governor Bill Walker spoke at a rally today in favor of Medicaid expansion outside the Capital Building in Juneau. The event is another strategy from the administration to get lawmakers to bring the issue to a vote in the Legislature.
Standing on the capital steps in sporadic drizzle, Anica Ord of Juneau said that as a recent college graduate she falls into the coverage “donut hole” for health insurance.
“Medicaid expansion would help young people like myself who want to getting their financial feet on the ground, and want to live and work here in Alaska,” Ord said, before issuing a very modern political call to arms: “Snap a picture, text it, tweet it, Facebook it—do the social media thing. And let’s get this bill to the floor for a vote.”
That prompted many of the hundred or so rally attendees, along with a handful of democratic lawmakers, to begin snapping selfies with their phones.
Governor Bill Walker told the crowd expanded healthcare coverage is both an economic and moral necessity for the state.
“Multiple polls show overwhelming support for expanded Medicaid. Healthcare is not a partisan issue, it’s an Alaskan issue, and we’re going to accept it,” Walker said over growing applause.
But Republicans lawmakers say the state isn’t ready, and that there is no use expanding Medicaid when the state’s current version of the healthcare system is not working.
“To throw another 20,000-plus people into a system that is already not functioning properly could really hurt the state a lot,” said Representative Steven Thompson, a Republican from Fairbanks, during a majority press briefing earlier in the day. “We need to be careful that we have things that are going to work before we start adding 20,000 to 40,000 people to a system that’s already broken.”
Thompson doesn’t believe the issue will not come to a vote this session. But Governor Walker says he will call back the Legislature if the expansion plan doesn’t come to pass.
Juneau resident Pat Sidmore attended the rally, and thinks the politics are obscuring the very real need to give health coverage to more low income Alaskans.
“My sign said that ‘when elephants fight it’s the grass that suffers,’” Sidmore said. “We have a unified government: a Republican governor, a Republican legislature, that’s the elephant symbol, and they’re fighting over this thing, and people are getting hurt.”
After his rally speech, the crowd of supporters started singing Walker “Happy Birthday.” He turned 64.
Alexandra Gutierrez contributed reporting to this article.
With the legislature scheduled to gavel out by midnight on Sunday, Governor Bill Walker has seen very few pieces of legislation make it to his desk. APRN’s Alexandra Gutierrez sat down with Walker yesterday afternoon to get his take on how the session is progressing.
Walker said he thinks it’s still possible for lawmakers to get their work done on time.
The attorney general signed the brief two weeks ago. The NAACP, Christians for Equality, and Alaskans Together for Equality all signed the petition.
Comments support equality for all citizens. The U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments about the constitutionality of such bans on April 28. They’ll issue a final decision by this summer.
Searchers have found the remains of the pilot of a plane that went missing in Alaska’s Prince William Sound.
The Coast Guard says the man’s remains were recovered after being found Wednesday evening.
Responders say the wreckage of the man’s Cessna 180 were partially submerged off the coast of Culross Island.
Anchorage station KTUU reports the pilot’s family identified him as 53-year-old Dale Carlson of Wasilla.
The search was launched after the pilot reported engine trouble Tuesday afternoon near Perry Island, 60 miles southwest of Valdez. The Coast Guard says the pilot stated he might have to set the plane down.
The Coast Guard says searchers included Alaska State Troopers and the National Guard. The Coast Guard says responders searched for 27 hours in rough weather.
Interior Secretary Sally Jewell today defended the federal government’s land management and brushed off calls from legislators in Alaska, and other states, to seize federal lands.
The price of Brent Crude hit above $63 a barrel today, the highest it’s been this year. That gives Alaskans something to cheer about, but the head of the U.S. Energy Information Administration told a Senate panel Thursday two political events on the horizon would likely bring the global price down.
Adam Sieminski says if Iranian sanctions are removed, a lot of oil would come onto the market, and no one knows if that would be gradual or all at once. Sieminski says Iran has about 30 million barrels of oil in storage, and it would likely increase its production rate if it’s not facing sanctions.
“So the total amount would be about a million barrels a day of production coming onto the market, and it’s really hard to see right now senator, how that could be absorbed without causing other production to go down, or the price to go down,” Sieminski said.
Sieminski was answering a question posed by Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski. Senators from non-producing states tend to focus on gasoline prices. Sieminski refuted the claim that allowing crude oil exports would raise the price at the American pump.
“What that does suggest if more crude oil enters the global markets, whether it’s from U.S. Exports, or from Iran, or from production anywhere, it would tend to lower the global oil price, which would tend to lower the gasoline price in the U.S,” Sieminski said.
Lifting the oil export ban is one of Murkowski’s major initiatives as chairman of the Senate Energy Committee.
The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has denied an emergency motion for an injunction that would have delayed the Big Thorne Timber Sale pending an appeal of a lower-court ruling.
Thursday’s denial was the latest action related to the Big Thorne Timber Sale on Prince of Wales Island. The U.S. Forest Service last summer made a final decision to move forward with the project, which includes about 6,000 acres of old-growth rainforest.
Environmentalists, arguing that it’s critical habitat for deer and wolves, quickly sued to stop the timber sale. Lawsuits were filed in federal court by two separate coalitions of conservation groups.
This spring, U.S. District Court Judge Ralph Beistline rejected all the arguments brought forward by the environmental groups, and ruled in favor of the Forest Service.
That court had consolidated the two lawsuits, but each set appealed separately to the Ninth Circuit.
In its Thursday ruling, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals also agreed to consolidate the appeals into one case, and to expedite the appeals process.
FBI staff were in Bethel recently on a fact finding mission related to an incident in which a former Bethel police officer arrested a man in a parking lot.
An FBI spokesperson says they are looking at a possible civil rights violation. It’s not an official investigation in the terms used by the FBI, but the spokesperson says they are looking into the incident after surveillance video surfaced earlier this month. The U.S. Attorney’s office can use information from the FBI to decide whether or not to press charges.
The Bethel police officer, Andrew Reid, was fired this spring. Following the release of the video, the attorney for Wassillie Gregory, the man who was arrested, has filed for post conviction relief on his guilty plea to a harassment charge.
City Manager Ann Capela referred questions Tuesday afternoon to an attorney working for the city, Bill Ingaldson. He declined to comment citing the ongoing investigation and a desire to not interfere in the due process of individuals.
The city council, Tuesday night, however, briefly heard from Ingaldson about the video tape in question.
There have been many questions about the events surrounding the hard drive. An account from an email from an attorney for the parent company indicated that the video was on a hard drive that went to the police department but was deleted when it was returned to the grocery store. When asked by council member Zach Fansler about the video, Ingaldson insisted there was no nefarious activity and that there were several copies made of the video.
“There is absolutely no evidence at all, it’s just not true that anything was destroyed. Copies were made of that, and in fact the attorney for the other person involved, not the attorney for the officer, but the attorney for the other person, that attorney looked at the video in my office and nothing was hidden from anyone,” said Ingaldson.
There appeared to be confusion about who actually owned the hard drive. Ingaldson says the police returned the hard drive to AC in the condition they received it, he says that’s without the video.
Gov. Bill Walker has issued a proclamation that would force legislators to act on his appointments.
The executive proclamation comes days after legislative leadership cancelled their confirmation session — and days after the governor sent a six-page letter reiterating that he would veto a contentious gasline bill and urging lawmakers not to override him. All of the governor’s cabinet members and board appointments require legislative approval before the end of the session, or else the appointments are voided. In February, legislative leadership requested a legal memo explaining the consequences of disregarding the confirmation vote.
In a press release, Walker stated he was “concerned” by the memo and the cancellation, adding that “the risk that these hardworking Alaskans will not have the opportunity of a confirmation vote is unacceptable.”
Members of Legislature have expressed reservations about some of Walker’s nominations, including his pick for attorney general and his appointments to the Alaska Gasline Development Corporation.
The joint session is scheduled for Friday at 10 a.m. While the legislators are obligated to convene at that time, they are not required to take an up-down vote on the individual appointments.
The last time a governor forced lawmakers into joint session over confirmations was in 1983, when then-Gov. Bill Sheffield sent state troopers after legislators to force them to appear on the floor.
The Alaska House has narrowly passed a bill that would claw back raises for many state workers. APRN’s Alexandra Gutierrez reports.
Rep. Steve Thompson, a Fairbanks Republican, made no effort to downplay matters when he offered the legislation on the House floor on Tuesday.
“House Bill 176 is a pretty short bill — but it’s a controversial bill,” said Thompson.
The five-line bill repeals a 2.5 percent cost-of-living adjustment for non-union public employees, which comprise about 2,000 members of the state workforce. Thompson noted the bill would save the state nearly $10 million — equivalent to 90 jobs.
“The question we must answer is: Would we rather cut more people’s jobs or keep salaries steady?” asked Thompson.
The bill was, indeed, controversial. When it came to a vote, it momentarily looked like it was going to fail on a 20-20 split, until Palmer Republican Jim Colver changed his vote.
Most of the opposition came from Democrats. Rep. Les Gara of Anchorage noted that public employee salaries have lagged behind inflation for the past few years. And Rep. Andy Josephson of Anchorage said it was inappropriate for the state to freeze wages when it already committed to a salary schedule with a raise included.
“Fundamentally I look at this and I say: Well, we made a promise. We’re breaching the promise. It doesn’t solve the fiscal crisis,” said Josephson. “And so, I have to be a no.”
But opposition was not limited to Democrats. Four — Mike Hawker of Anchorage, Wes Keller of Wasilla, Cathy Munoz of Juneau, and Gabrielle LeDoux of Anchorage — broke ranks with the majority to oppose the bill.
“I feel very uncomfortable with this bill. I was always brought up to believe a man’s word is his bond,” explained LeDoux in an eight-second floor speech.
But for many Republicans, like Tammie Wilson of North Pole, the fiscal argument won out.
“It is about a $3.5 billion deficit. That’s really what it’s about,” said Wilson. “When these agreements were made a couple years ago, I don’t think there was anybody who was sitting down on those contracts who thought we would be where we are today.”
The bill may still be reconsidered by the House for another vote before being sent to the Senate. In an interview, Gov. Bill Walker said he opposes the policy.
The Legislature is also advancing a similar move that would freeze salaries for unionized employees and back out of collective bargaining agreements. Shortly after the vote on the House bill, the Alaska State Employees Association issued a press release calling the move an “unprecedented assault on state employees.”
Based on a petition submitted about a year ago by a coalition of conservation groups, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced last week that protection for the Alaska yellow cedar tree might be warranted under the federal Endangered Species Act.
Yellow cedar is a popular commercial wood, and among the three tree species commonly harvested in the Tongass National Forest, it’s the most lucrative. If the tree becomes a protected species, though, all that would change.
The petitioners calling for federal protection of the Alaska Yellow Cedar are the Center for Biological Diversity, The Boat Company, Greater Southeast Alaska Conservation Community and Greenpeace. In their lengthy petition, they argue that yellow cedar has “precipitously declined” over the past 30 years due to global warming and climate change.
The petition notes that the timing and frequency of freeze-thaw cycles in early spring, and reduced snow cover, cause injuries to the shallow root system of the yellow cedar, and those injuries can cause a tree’s death.
Owen Graham of the Ketchikan-based Alaska Forest Association disagrees with the petition’s arguments about global warming causing a decline in yellow cedar.
“It has affected a very small portion of the Tongass over the past 100 years,” he said. “And the bulk of the decline has occurred on the non-commercial timberland.”
The petition cites studies that show more than 70 percent of Southeast Alaska yellow cedar trees in affected stands have died. Those affected stands are found on about 500,000 acres of forest, on sites from sea level to an elevation of about 300 meters, according to the petition.
The Tongass National Forest has about 17 million acres, including forest, wetlands and alpine.
The petition argues that the yellow cedar must be listed for protection to maintain existing stands from what petitioners call the overutilization of the species. Logging, in particular, is noted, because yellow cedar is targeted for its high value.
Graham said logging of any tree species on the Tongass will become complicated if yellow cedar is protected.
“Most of the stands, particularly at higher elevations, is where the yellow cedar occurs, and it’s scattered throughout the stands,” he said. “So, I guess you’d either have to partial-cut and leave the yellow cedar standing, in which case it would probably blow over, or not harvest at all where there is any yellow cedar, which is most of the higher elevation lands. The lower elevation is mostly red cedar, although there’s not a strict line between the two.”
The petitioners call for future forest planning that addresses climate change, and the effect of global warming on yellow cedar. Specifically, the petitioners call for forest management that favors yellow cedar. That would include planting and selective thinning in areas where yellow cedar has continued to thrive.
The petition notes that active management will not succeed unless there’s also a drastic reduction in global greenhouse gas emissions, to slow climate change; as well as an immediate end to all logging of yellow cedar.
Following the announcement that listing might be warranted, Fish and Wildlife will conduct its own status review of the petition’s claims regarding protection of the yellow cedar, with a finding expected by June 24. Additional information will be gathered for a year after that before a final decision is announced.
Crews from the Coast Guard and Air Force are searching for a missing pilot that went down in Prince William Sound Tuesday afternoon.
Forecasters are anticipating a mellow break up over much of Alaska this spring. Below normal snow and ice in some areas, and gradually warming spring temperatures are lessening flood concerns.
As law-makers battle over budgets in the closing days of the Legislature, the city of Anchorage is announcing a fiscal surplus.
In a press conference Wednesday, Mayor Dan Sullivan announced the city has seven million dollars left over from the last fiscal year. Some of those savings will be applied to property taxes for the year ahead, leading to a dip of about 0.1 percent in the mill-rate for home-owners.
The surplus will also go to funding police and fire academies, covering overages from the SAP software upgrade, and a pilot program focused on addiction treatment. Critics of the mayor’s administration have said it has reduced budget costs by putting off or eliminating critical spending on staffing and social services.
The state House has passed a bill that would increase the cost of hunting, fishing and trapping in Alaska.
Lawmakers voted 33-7 on Wednesday to pass Rep. Dave Talerico’s bill that would increase sporting license and tag fees for residents and nonresidents.
The bill would also create a $20 fish and wildlife decal with the proceeds expected to go to conservation programs and change the minimum age for a license to 18 instead of 16.
Lawmakers also approved an amendment to allow individuals with developmental disabilities to have someone else hunt or fish for them.
Reasons given by the Democrats and independent voting against the bill included frustration that the state was raising user fees but not looking at other revenue.
The bill now goes to the Senate for consideration.
Alexandra, or Sasha, Lindgren is a Kenaitze elder. She’s sitting at the front of the room telling a story that’s deeply personal. She’s holding a bunch of toothpicks. She pulls one out and shows that when it’s alone, it’s easily breakable. But, when it’s surrounded by other toothpicks, the bunch as a whole is nearly impossible to break.
“Sharing my story, I hope will give someone the strength to come forward and say, I need help, and that together, each of us just by sharing our stories will break cycles of abuse and violence,” says Lindgren.
It’s like people, Lindgren says. It’s much easier to stand up when others are supporting you. That’s why she’s here today, to start a conversation in her community that she says desperately needs to happen.
“Traditionally, at least the way that I grew up out in Bethel, it’s not always talked about. But I think when the elders are able to talk about it, then maybe the young people are welcome to talk about it and be aware that violence is not okay,” says Lindsey Anasogak, who works for Na’ini Social Services and coordinated this event. “Na’ini Social Services is a department within the tribe. When we met before we formed the group, we talked about it for a while, and we came upon the word Na’ini which is a Dena’ina traditional value. And the meaning behind that is courage and bravery. We chose that for a reason and we wanted to make sure our clients who came in that we know that sometimes asking for help takes a lot of courage and to be brave to come in.”
Barbara Waters is here representing the LeeShore Center, which provides outreach and education on the issue and is also a safe haven for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. She says public events like this are important because talking within a community is the first step toward solving the problem.
“We believe our victims, we listen to them, we honor their stories, and we thank them for what they share with us,” says Waters. “It brings awareness of the issue. Ms. Lindgren had a wonderful speech with us before we got started with the candlelight part of the vigil. And that awareness that there are people who have suffered from domestic violence and sexual assault, that it’s our neighbor, it’s our mother, it’s our sister, it might even be ourselves. So, I think that the community needs to get together and get involved and that’s the only way we’re going to see that problem go away.”
And it’s a big problem on the Kenai Peninsula. According to a 2013 survey conducted by the Council on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, out of every 100 adult women on the peninsula, 43 have experienced intimate partner violence, 30 have experienced sexual violence, and 52 – more than half – have experienced intimate partner violence, sexual violence, or both.
For Alaska as a whole, about 60 out of every hundred women have experienced some type of domestic or sexual violence.
“You know, when you go to all these type of awareness-type events, you go to trainings, you go to conferences and conventions, these numbers are brought up quite often and it’s something that nobody is proud of,” says David Knight, who also works with Na’ini Social Services.
He says the first time you hear the statistics, they are shocking. But sometimes, he says we get used to hearing them and we stop paying attention. He says all community members, male and female, victim, perpetrator, people don’t think they’re intimately connected with the issue need to remember that every number represents an individual person.
“I think that those numbers should drive us to do better,” says Knight.
And Sasha Lindgren says that by putting a face, a family, and a story on those numbers, perhaps more people will step forward to seek help, to provide help, or to just listen.
“We can overcome this. You’re not ever stuck being one thing and there is always an opportunity to change your life, make it better, make your life better, your community better, your tribe better. Bad does not always have to stay in charge,” says Lindgren.
It’s like the toothpicks, she says. A person may struggle alone but a community standing together has the strength to make real change.
If you or anyone you know needs help, the LeeShore Center has a 24-hour crisis intervention hotline at 907-283-7257.
The U.S. Senate last night passed a bill to continue Secure Rural Schools. That’s a federal revenue-sharing program that delivers some $14 million to local governments in Alaska, primarily in Southeast, to compensate for low federal timber receipts. The bill also helps Medicare providers nationwide.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski is pleased with the extension.
“Yeah! Two more years,” she said today.
It was part of a Medicare reimbursement bill known as the “doc fix.” It now goes to President Obama for his signature.
Secure Rural Schools wasn’t meant to be a permanent subsidy, but Murkowski says some communities surrounded by the Tongass National Forest rely on the program for a significant chunk of their budgets and should be pushed off a cliff.
“If we had not been able to provide for that funding, it would have been a cliff. These communities would be left high and dry,” she said.
Secure Rural Schools pays for local roads and emergency services, in addition to schools.
The “doc fix” portion of the bill ends the threat of a 21 percent rate reduction for Medicare providers, which stems from a cost-cutting law passed 17 years ago. Congress has been passing temporary fixes to block its effects year after year. Murkowski says the permanent doc fix will help older Alaskans and remove uncertainty for their doctors.
But the doc fix has a price tag. Congressional budget analysts say the bill will cost $141 billion over the first decade, but may save money after that. Conservative groups like Club for Growth and Heritage Action wanted senators to vote no. Sen. Dan Sullivan, like Murkowski, voted for the bill anyway. Sullivan points out that he voted to apply “pay as you go” rules, which would have required the bill to be paid for, with unspecified cuts elsewhere or revenue increases.
“But at the end of the day, even though those didn’t pass, I thought that the overall package was important for the state, important for the country,” Sullivan said, speaking of both the Medicare rate and Secure Rural Schools.
Anchorage physician Oliver Korshin says the bill was certainly important to him. Korshin sees a lot of Medicare patients, in part because of his specialty, opthomology, and also because he’s been practicing in the same place for 30 years and his patients have grown old with him.
“A 21 percent cut for my services to Medicare patients would be a devastating thing for me to swallow, or any practitioner that sees a lot of Medicare patients,” he said. “My rent hasn’t dropped by 21 percent,” nor have other office expenses.
If the doc fix hadn’t passed, Korshin says he would have had to stop taking new Medicare patients. Now, though, his door is open.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski is up for re-election next year, and her fundraising is going strong. Her campaign today reported she raised $700,000 in the first three months of the year. That beats all quarters the last time she ran, in 2010. Campaign coordinator Scott Kendall says more than 100 individual Alaskans contributed. The full report wasn’t available. Murkowski, reached on a busy day at the Senate, said she hadn’t seen the final number, but she says the early stage contributions come largely from Political Action Committees.
“Much of what we have been doing back here, in Washington, has been PAC dollars, and so I think you’re going to see that show up and be reflected,” she said.
The campaign says Murkowski’s total cash on hand is $1.5 million. She has no challenger yet.
The Legislature has advanced a contentious education bill that would allow parents to opt out of standardized tests and certain school curricula.
Senate Bill 89 aims to increase the authority of parents in directing a child’s education within Alaska schools. The measure allows parents to opt their children out of standardized tests, and educational programming dealing with sexual health.
“Any type of questionnaire, we believe, the school district should get permission from parents before they survey their child,” said Wasilla Republican Mike Dunleavy, the bill’s main sponsor. “It’s our contention that parents should be informed so that they make informed decisions.”
The measure also includes provisions limiting what kinds of health-care providers can work with school districts. In response to criticisms raised by the State Affairs Committee’s lone Democrat, Senator Bill Wielechowski of Anchorage, Dunleavy explained that under the bill if a person has “a direct line to an abortion provider” they would not be allowed on a school campus to educate them on matters related to sexual or reproductive health.
Opt out provisions put federal school funding in jeopardy when standardized testing falls below a 95% threshold. That is already starting to happen in some parts of Alaska where local school districts have enacted opt out rules of their own. This year, the Haines School District had 12 students whose families objected to standardized tests, putting it below the Federal level. The district is currently waiting to hear what this could mean for its funding.
While the state’s 54 school districts currently have local provisions on opting out, SB 89 could result in a massive funding loss for the state as a whole.
“The US Department [of Education] concern is that that may mask underperformance of students, therefore not meeting the stated purpose of those title funds,” said Susan McCauley with the state’s Department of Education. If Title requirements are not fulfilled then schools across Alaska stand to lose federal dollars.
“The total funding for those programs is $96, 758,000,” McCauley added.
SB 89 now moves on to the Senate Rules Committee.
KHNS’s Emily Files contributed reporting from Haines.
Anywhere else in the United States, $5.47 per gallon for gasoline might be pretty frightening—but in Nome, it’s a sale for spring subsistence.
Earlier this week, Bonanza Fuel dropped their gas prices by $0.25 per gallon. CEO Scot Henderson says that while they’ve been locked in to the higher cost of fuel purchased last fall, they wanted to make it easier for Nome residents to get out in the country for subsistence. Bonanza is owned by Sitnasuak Native Corporation, and Henderson says hunting and fishing are important to shareholders and their customers.
“We wanted to do everything we can to make fuel more affordable during this important time,” said Henderson. “So, instead of waiting another two or three months when the spring barge arrives to lower gas prices, we’ve decided to start lowering prices now when local residents are needing to buy more gas.”
Henderson says this is the first time he can recall that Bonanza has specifically offered a spring subsistence sale.
Like most Western Alaska communities, Nome only has three or four months in the summer when the port is open and fuel can be delivered. Distributors like Bonanza order about a year’s worth of fuel at a time, and the summer cost of gasoline typically remains the stable price through winter.
Henderson says this has been beneficial in past winters when gas prices have spiked, but this year’s immense drop hasn’t transferred to Nome.
The first summer barge delivery to Nome is two or three months out, but Henderson says things should be looking up—or, more literally, down.
“It is a bit early for me to speculate on how much of a decrease we will be seeing, but we do expect that there will be a relatively significant decrease in price from when they were set last fall,” said Henderson. Gas was $6.10 per gallon after the bulk purchases, with retail prices fluctuating throughout the year to remain competitive.
Over the last several years, Bonanza has purchased fuel primarily from Asia or refineries in the Pacific Northwest. Sitnasuak has not yet set a date for when the sale will end, but Henderson says it will be communicated well in advance.