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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: 6 min 43 sec ago

Gov Focused On Working With Legislators On Medicaid

Fri, 2015-04-10 17:34

With time winding down in the scheduled 90-day session, questions remain about whether or not legislators can agree on Gov. Bill Walker’s proposal to expand and reform Medicaid.

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House Finance Committee co-chair Steve Thompson said he’s concerned with whether thousands of people can be added to a system he calls broken.

Senate Health and Social Services Committee chair Bert Stedman says he thinks that financially it works in the state’s best interests to go ahead with expansion and reform.

If expansion doesn’t pass, some believe Walker, by law, could seek authority from the Legislative Budget and Audit Committee to accept and spend federal money tied to expansion and that even if the committee disapproves, he could move forward.

A Walker spokeswoman says the administration is focused on working with lawmakers.

Categories: Alaska News

Shell Seeks Restraining Order Against Greenpeace

Fri, 2015-04-10 17:34

Meanwhile, Shell’s attorneys appeared in federal court this afternoon to argue for a restraining order against Greenpeace.

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The environmental group sent a half-dozen activists to camp on one of Shell’s Arctic rigs as it’s towed across the Pacific Ocean. If Shell gets its way, the group would have to surrender to the master of the Blue Marlin effective immediately.

Shell is also seeking a preliminary injunction, which would keep Greenpeace away from the rest of its Arctic fleet. The oil company got a similar buffer zone during its last drilling season in 2012.

Judge Sharon Gleason did not issue a ruling on either of Shell’s requests this afternoon. A decision is expected in the coming days.

Categories: Alaska News

Public Comment Period Opens Up For Shell’s Chukchi Plan

Fri, 2015-04-10 17:34

If you want to comment on Shell’s plan to drill in the Chukchi Sea this summer, now is your chance. The U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management announced Friday that it considers Shell’s latest exploration plan and supporting documents sufficient enough to begin an official review. The determination kicks off a public comment period that lasts through the end of April.

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Shell’s multi-year plan calls for returning to the Chukchi Sea with two rigs to drill up to six wells, all into its Burger Prospect. That’s in shallow water about 70 miles northwest of the village of Wainwright. The company can only operate during the summer and has to pull its equipment out before fall ice returns.

Shell drilled one partial well in the area in 2012 but was not allowed to penetrate the petroleum layer because its containment dome was inoperable. It was one of a series of mishaps that marred the season.

The earlier plan called for a dozen support vessels. This time, Shell says it expects to have about 30, including tugs, anchor handlers and ice-management vessels. Although Shell expects to again use Dutch Harbor as a resupply base, it proposes to keep its well containment barges and tugs moored in Kotzebue Sound.

Federal regulators now have 30 days to consider Shell’s exploration plan.

Environmental groups issued a volley of critical statements today, calling Arctic drilling unsafe and the regulatory process rushed.

Categories: Alaska News

Tanaina Announces Move To St. Mary’s Episcopal Church

Fri, 2015-04-10 17:34

St. Mary’s Episcopal Church. (Photo by Josh Edge, APRN – Anchorage)

It has been just over two months since Tanaina Early Childhood Development Center was informed it would need to vacate its space at the University of Alaska Anchorage. Now, the center has reached an agreement to stay temporarily at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church.

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Tanaina was already planning on leaving their space at UAA for the summer while renovations are made to the Wells Fargo Sports Complex. So, the center was reaching out to St. Mary’s, but, Tanaina director Stephanie O’Brien says once the center found out it had to find a new home, the discussions changed course.

“Those conversations became a, ‘well how long could we stay here,’ and St. Mary’s is extremely kind and has been very generous to offer their space to us for as long as we need,” she said.

Students at St. Mary’s preschool prepare to go outside. (Photo by Josh Edge, APRN – Anchorage)

Reverend Michael Burke – the rector of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church – compares Tanaina’s situation to that of a neighbor who lost their home.

“Tanaina has lost their home, and that’s just tragic,” he said. “And we’re just a neighbor; we’re just a neighbor that says, ‘OK, we’ll double up as best we can and we’ll help and support you through this period while you figure out your next steps.'”

The church already serves 29 community organizations and non-profits each month. Despite all the activity, though, Burke says there’s plenty of room for Tanaina.

“We believe the people of St. Mary’s are up to the task; we believe Tanaina us up to the task,” Burke said. “We’ll all have to be patient with one another and we’ll have to be acutely aware of other people’s needs, but, I think this is something we can do.”

Burke says hosting Tanaina will not impact St. Mary’s Creative Preschool, but it will require some extra work over the weekends to accommodate the church’s Sunday school programs.

Discussions between UAA and Tanaina have been ongoing since early February. And Stephanie O’Brien says they will continue to explore future partnerships with the university.

“But right now their answer is ‘no,'” she said. “So we’re just kind of focusing on ok, great, we’re moving to St. Mary’s, they’re an amazing place to be, an amazing group of people and I think we’ll be a good fit.”

St. Mary’s playground. (Photo by Josh Edge, APRN – Anchorage)

The University was providing Tanaina it’s current space free of charge. Tanaina will be paying rent in their new location, but O’Brien says St. Mary’s gave the childcare center a generous offer.

“It’s definitely affordable for us, and we’re able to be able to make the payments and take on those bills – totally fine,” O’Brien said. “Our enrollment will need to be at 100 percent at all times. So, we’re actively enrolling for our summer program for school-aged kids; we’ll have some spaces come up in preschool.”

Tanaina will keep it’s entire staff, and O’Brien says they will still be able to handle the same number of children.

Tanaina’s last full day at UAA is May 8 and reopen at St. Mary’s on May 12.

Categories: Alaska News

NPFMC Addresses Chinook Bycatch

Fri, 2015-04-10 17:34

This week, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council has been looking at ways to cut back on the number of Chinook salmon that get scooped up by commercial trawl boats in the Bering Sea.

The goal is to send more salmon back to subsistence users around the state.

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It hardly needed to be said — but as state biologist Katie Howard pointed out in a presentation to the North Pacific council:

“These recent declines in run abundance for Chinook salmon [are] really a statewide phenomenon, but it has been very notable in Western Alaska stocks,” Howard said.

That’s led to commercial closures and subsistence restrictions around the region. At the same time, Western Alaska salmon made up about half of all the Chinook that were pulled up commercial trawl boats, out looking for pollock in the Bering Sea.

Researchers have spent the past few days trying to explain how the North Pacific Council could change that.

One option is make trawl vessels fish earlier in the year — when there are fewer salmon feeding in the Bering Sea. Another is to increase the penalties for the boats with the worst track records.

Alan Haynie is with the Alaska Fisheries Science Center.

“There’s a speed limit. And if you go over the speed limit, there’s something that you’re going to pay,” Haynie said.

Signing up for fines and voluntary closures is part of the reason why the pollock fleet has avoided heavy restrictions on bycatch until now.

Working together to avoid salmon has been pretty successful. The pollock fleet has never come close to catching their absolute limit of 60,000 Chinook — or having their harvest immediately shut down.

Lowering that cap is technically an option. But the North Pacific council’s advisory board voted against it this week.

As Haynie, the Alaska Fisheries Science Center scientist pointed out:

“One thing that’s really become clear in terms of assessing the impacts on the fleet is that the impacts aren’t just a little more fuel,” Haynie said. “They’re big changes in product value. When people move off of fish that are the optimal size and move somewhere else, there’s a real loss in that sense.”

Haynie says it won’t be possible to account for those losses before the North Pacific council takes a final vote this weekend.

When they do, they’ll be down one member. Simon Kinneen has been asked to recuse himself from voting on salmon bycatch.

Kinneen is a vice president for the Norton Sound Economic Development Corporation, or NSEDC. They’re a community development quota group for Nome and surrounding villages — with their own piece of pollock quota and ownership shares in other seafood businesses.

Lauren Smoker is an attorney with the NOAA Office of General Counsel.

“If a council member has financial interests that exceed 10 percent of the harvests or processing, that is a threshold that has been exceeded and a recusal determination follows,” Smoker said.

Kinneen appealed the ruling, but it still stands.

Categories: Alaska News

AK: Exploring Identity

Fri, 2015-04-10 17:34

More than 90 languages are spoken in Anchorage. And one resident is trying to learn – and teach – about every single one as part of a new podcast. KSKA’s Anne Hillman found out the project comes from his desire to discover the diversity of his own background.

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Corey Benefrayim sits on the couch in his one-room Fairview apartment, his wavy hair slicked back and tidy mustache styled with upturned points. A couple of years ago he tried an experiment. He walked around the Dimond Center with an audio recorder asking people to guess his ethnicity.

“’Native with Mexican.’ ‘I think you’re black or mixed.’ ‘Black and white, but I don’t know. I know, this is terrible. This one is awkward!

It’s a question Benefrayim has been asking himself for years – what is his background? His identity? He’s been mapping it out on his body.

Hillman: “Walk me through your tattoos.”
Benefrayim: “We could spend all day on this.”
Hillman: “Let’s start with your arms.”

Music notes loop up one forearm, an outline of France adorns the other.

“My cousin does tattoos in Michigan, and so a lot of the times it’s like ‘hey lets order pizza and do tattoos’ and before you know it you’re getting a tattoo that you don’t regret, so much, as ‘I wish I had put more thought into that,'” Benefrayim said.

The map of France is one of those. Benefrayim says he was trying to honor his mother’s family, but they’ve actually been in Canada for more than 200 years.

“So on the backside, I got the maple leaf,” he said. “The coordinates there are for the city they immigrated to from France.”

Benefrayim says he knows a lot about his mother’s side of the family but much less about his father’s. His dad wasn’t around when he was a kid growing up in Michigan. He says he knew the basics – his father is a mixture of Moroccan, Ethiopian, and African-American. And he’s Jewish. But Benefrayim says his mother never taught him about his father’s cultural or religious heritage. So as an adult, he picked up a book on Judaism.

“I just couldn’t put the book down,” Benefrayim said. “Everything spoke to me and it all made sense and the Old Testament, it clicked and this and that.”

He bought himself a yarmulke on Ebay, went to a synagogue, and eventually converted. His father’s past is now reflected in the tattoo on Benefrayim’s leg.

“I have the hamza, the Star of David, inside the star of David is the green star from the Moroccan flag,” Benefrayim said. “In Arabic it says ‘Morrocco is in my blood’ and here in Hebrew it says ‘My heart beats for Israel.'”

Benefrayim says his quest to find out about his own heritage made him curious about other people’s. So he started a podcast called “90+”. He’s trying to track down people who speak each of the more than 90 languages represented in the Anchorage School District.

Benefrayim walks into a cozy townhouse adorned with plush furniture and a friendly dog. He sits down with a high school student from Brazil and pulls out his mic.

“Okay, my full name is……”

He asks Vulgara about moving to the U.S. as a small child, learning English, speaking Portuguese at home. Eventually he gets to the heart of the matter.

“If someone asked you, how would you describe yourself, would you consider yourself a Brazilian, an American, an Alaskan?” Benefrayim said. “How would you describe yourself?”

“Ohh. A mutt, I guess, in that regard,” Vulgara said.

He says he’s influenced by his mother’s strong Brazilian culture, even though he doesn’t really speak Portugese. But he’s also shaped by growing up in Alaska and by living in Germany for a year. He says all of those things contribute to his identity.

And for Benefrayim, conversations about language are in many ways just a vehicle for talking about culture and identity – and for understanding those around you.

“You start looking at languages and cultures and stuff and you start to realize why people do a certain thing in a certain way,” Benefrayim said. “It’s beautiful.”

Back in his apartment, he shows me his mezuzah. It’s a small metal ornament that holds a Jewish prayer and is affixed to the doorframe of a home. His has symbols from both Judaism and Christianity. We talk about what it means to both of us. We’ve led very different lives, but both come from mixed religion families, both love radio. It’s a conversation we wouldn’t have had if he hadn’t started on the podcast.

“Do I really think at the end of the day my little podcast is going to create world peace?” Benefrayim said. “No. But it might make someone who normally otherwise would think badly about someone else, you know, once listening maybe to my podcast would think ‘Oh, okay, that’s a similar upbringing to what I had even though they grew up in some totally different part of the world.”

Right now, he’s only produced a few episodes. He says he’s stocking them up and they will begin airing on an Anchorage station soon.

Categories: Alaska News

49 Voices: Lupe Marroquin of Anchorage

Fri, 2015-04-10 17:34

This week, we’re hearing from Lupe Marroquin, who has lived in Anchorage for nearly 40 years. She moved to Alaska from Michigan and fell in love with it almost immediately.

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Categories: Alaska News

Alaska News Nightly: April 10, 2015

Fri, 2015-04-10 17:34

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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Education Tops List Of Contentious Cuts

The Associated Press

With time winding down in the scheduled 90-day session, questions remain about whether or not legislators can agree on Gov. Bill Walker’s proposal to expand and reform Medicaid.

Gov Focused On Working With Legislators On Medicaid

Zachariah Hughes, KSKA – Anchorage

Major conservative political groups are stepping into the Anchorage mayoral race. The May runoff  between Amy Demboski and Ethan Berkowitz is drawing increasing attention from state and national organizations hoping to influence local politics.

Public Comment Period Opens Up For Shell’s Chukchi Plan

Liz Ruskin, APRN – Washington DC

If you want to comment on Shell’s plan to drill in the Chukchi Sea this summer, now is your chance. The U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management announced Friday that it considers Shell’s latest exploration plan and supporting documents sufficient enough to begin an official review. The determination kicks off a public comment period that lasts through the end of April.

Shell Seeks Restraining Order Against Greenpeace

Lauren Rosenthal, KUCB – Unalaska

Meanwhile, Shell’s attorneys appeared in federal court this afternoon to argue for a restraining order against Greenpeace.

NPFMC Addresses Chinook Bycatch

Lauren Rosenthal, KUCB – Unalaska

This week, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council has been looking at ways to cut back on the number of Chinook salmon that get scooped up by commercial trawl boats in the Bering Sea. The goal is to send more salmon back to subsistence users around the state.

Tanaina Announces Move To St. Mary’s Episcopal Church

Josh Edge, APRN – Anchorage

It’s been just over two months since Tanaina Early Childhood Development Center was informed it would need to vacate its space at the University of Alaska Anchorage. Now, the center has reached an agreement to stay temporarily at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church.

AK: Exploring Identity

Anne Hillman, KSKA – Anchorage

More than 90 languages are spoken in Anchorage. And one resident is trying to learn – and teach – about every single one as part of a new podcast. KSKA’s Anne Hillman found out the project comes from his desire to discover the diversity of his own background.

49 Voices: Lupe Marroquin of Anchorage

This week, we’re hearing from Lupe Marroquin, who has lived in Anchorage for nearly 40 years. She moved to Alaska from Michigan and fell in love with it almost immediately

Categories: Alaska News

National & State Level Conservative Groups Ramping Up Presence in Anc Mayor’s Race

Fri, 2015-04-10 16:57

Amy Demboski surrounded by supporters at Election Central on Tuesday night, including one holding a sign with the middle cut-out, a reference to attacks last week against her campaign posters. (Photo: Zachariah Hughes, KSKA)

Major conservative political groups are stepping into the Anchorage mayor’s race. The May runoff between Amy Demboski and Ethan Berkowitz is drawing increasing attention from state and national organizations hoping to influence local politics.

Americans For Prosperity is a political group based in Virginia, backed by the Koch brothers, that advocates for conservative causes. They don’t endorse candidates, but will be seeking to inform Anchorage voters about their two choices for mayor.

“We’ve identified Ethan’s record as one that’s troubling, and we think will be devastating to the residents of Anchorage,” said Jeremy Price, spokesman for the Alaska chapter of AFP.

Price said that in the past Berkowitz has supported higher taxes and larger government. AFP is still developing a strategy for how to connect with voters, and that will determine whether or not they’re required to file financial disclosures with the Alaska Political Offices Commission.

“We don’t disclose who our donors are,” Price said, though he admits that funding comes from both inside and outside of the state. “But the longer our presence in Alaska is, the more we receive donations from Alaskans.”

Political Action Groups are barred from coordinating with campaigns directly. However, the Demboski campaign does appear to be drawing more heavily on the state’s conservative political resources as it picks up steam.

Before winning the second slot in the runoff election, Demboski received endorsements from high-profile conservative politicians Mead Treadwell and Joe Miller. Now, Miller’s former advisor, Matt Johnson, is working as Demboski’s campaign manager.

And, as of two weeks ago, she has brought on David Boyle to handle communications. Boyle was the chairman for the 2008 McCain/Palin campaign in Alaska.

“Conservatives in this city–from fiscal conservatives to social conservatives–will see that there’s a very distinct difference between Amy Demboski principals and policies, and her opponents’ more liberal policies,” Boyle said by phone.

For the last several years, Boyle has led the Alaska Policy Forum, a conservative think-tank that advises state legislators on issues like education and healthcare reform. The organization also publishes a controversial index of how much municipal employees are paid. The policy forum has received support in the past from a network of state-level groups promoting conservative public policy, and both local and national media outlets have cited the lack of transparency in the groups own finances, which are reported to be linked to major Republican donors like the Koch brothers.

Boyle says this weekend the Demboski staff will be drafting policy points and a campaign strategy for the weeks ahead.

“As you know, the Assembly has a liberal majority on it, and I think we need some balance there,” Boyle added. “So I think we need a conservative mayor, and Amy’s going to provide that.”

The Berkowitz campaign is also receiving support from Political Action Groups, though they are more parochial and traditional players in local politics. Anchorage labor and public employee unions have donated to the Berkowitz campaign, and the National Education Association’s Anchorage chapter is supporting him. The Alaska Democratic Party made robocalls and sent out emails to registered party members during the first phase of the election.

“We’ll be contacting voters in a variety of ways,” said Travis Smith, communications director for the party, “phoning and door-knocking, for example.”

The Berkowitz campaign disagrees with the claims about his record from Americans for Prosperity. Communications Manager Nora Morse said that during his time in the Legislature, Berkowitz was part of a bipartisan coalition that worked on budget solutions when oil was $9 a barrel.

“I think that’s very interesting that Americans for Prosperity is playing in this mayor’s race, and the fact that they’re coming in claiming to care what Anchorage voters want, when really Anchorage voters are talking about, number one, public safety, the city budget, and public education,” Morse said by phone. “They haven’t talked about any of those issues, and that raises some red flags.”

Candidates met Friday with the officials from the union representing the Anchorage Police Department, who have so far not made any endorsements in the mayor’s race.

Categories: Alaska News

Health Care Costs in Alaska

Fri, 2015-04-10 12:00

Do you dread getting a bill from the hospital or your doctor’s office? Healthcare costs are rising quickly in Alaska and we’re all paying the bills. We’ll look at why health care costs so much here and what we can do to reduce those costs.

HOST: Annie Feidt

GUESTS:

  • Greg Loudon, Health Benefits Consultant for Parker, Smith and Feek
  • Mouchine Guetabbi, Assistant Professor of Economics, UAA
  • Matthew Eisenhower, director of community health development
  • Callers statewide

PARTICIPATE:

  • 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, April 14, 2015 at 10:00 a.m. on APRN stations statewide.

SUBSCRIBE: Get Talk of Alaska updates automatically by e-mailRSS or podcast.

TALK OF ALASKA ARCHIVE

Categories: Alaska News

Delving Into Anchorage’s Municipal Election Results

Fri, 2015-04-10 09:00

Today, we’ll be talking about he aftermath of this week’s Anchorage municipal election – results that were surprising to some.

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HOST: Ellen Lockyer

GUESTS:

  • Eric Croft, chair, Anchorage School Board
  • Marc Hellenthal, Hellenthal and Associates
  • Ivan Moore, Ivan Moore research

KSKA (FM 91.1) BROADCAST: Friday, April 10 at 2:00 p.m. and Saturday, April 11 at 6:00 p.m.

Alaska Public Television BROADCAST: Friday, April 10 at 7:30 p.m. and Saturday, April 11 at 4:30 p.m.

Categories: Alaska News

Funding Cut To Kivalina School Could Pose Legal Problem For Legislature

Thu, 2015-04-09 18:25

On Wednesday, the Senate Finance committee slashed more than $40 million in state dollars from the capital budget. A rural school project the state is legally obligated to complete was among the reductions.

Seven million dollars had been set aside for the construction of a school in Kivalina, and a road to it. The state committed to building the school in 2011, as part of a long-fought education lawsuit known as the Kasayulie case. The plaintiffs argued there was a disparity in how the Legislature treated rural schools, and that the state was not meeting its constitutional obligation to educate students in villages.

Sen. Donny Olson represents Kivalina and serves on the finance committee. He opposes the cuts, and worries the state may expose itself to more litigation if it backs out of funding the school.

“If the state’s in a position where it’s got to continue to defend itself on a consent decree that’s already been accepted by both plaintiffs and defendants, we’ve got to reopen it,” says Olson. “Then we’re spending a lot more money, and we’re already in a financially strapped time.”

One of the complicating factors in the project is the school’s location. Kivalina is a poster child for climate change — it is on a barrier island on Kotzebue Sound, and it is experiencing steady erosion. Because the community may face relocation, the school mandated by the Kasayulie case will be built outside of the village and requires a new road.

Olson says the Senate Finance committee is now trying to restore some of the funding for the project, but there has been resistance to paying for the road. For him, the road is needed for the state to meet its obligations in the Kasayulie case.

“You can’t have a school without a road to build the school,” says Olson.

The cuts caught Kivalina by surprise. Millie Hawley is president of Kivalina’s tribal government, and she had not heard of the cuts until reached by phone for this story. The Kivalina school funding was one of the few new capital projects included in Gov. Bill Walker’s budget because of the state’s legal duty to pay for it.

“It would be very detrimental to the students and the school here in Kivalina,” says Hawley.

Sen. Anna MacKinnon, an Eagle River Republican who is in charge of the capital budget, was not available for an interview.

In February, a delegation of nine legislators visited Kivalina as part of a trip to confront United States Interior Secretary Sally Jewell over drilling prohibitions in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.Lawmakers toured the existing school and village elders pleaded with state and federal officials to aid the erosion-stricken village.

Categories: Alaska News

Media Awaits Release Of National Guard Emails

Thu, 2015-04-09 17:29

The State of Alaska still has not released all documents and emails related to the Alaska National Guard scandal. Alaska Public Media and the Alaska Dispatch News sued the state for the documents last October after the Parnell administration took four months to deny public record requests.

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At the time, Gov. Sean Parnell was running for re-election and media outlets argued it was important for the public to know how Parnell dealt with allegations of corruption and sexual misconduct in the Guard.

A federal report in September found serious problems in the organization, including fraud, favoritism and an overall lack of trust in Guard leadership.

Assistant Attorney General Cori Mills wouldn’t say exactly how many emails will be released, but she says they’ll be available later this month.

“We are a few weeks behind on when we thought we would be getting the documents to the plaintiffs in the National Guard case, but we are looking at releasing those documents to the plaintiffs and having them ready no later than April 24th,” Mills said. “Hopefully earlier, but definitely no later than the 24th,”

John McKay, the attorney representing the media outlets, says the emails are just as important now as they were before the election.

“There’s serious underlying questions about the National Guard, the treatment of Guard members, the standing of the Guard and it’s reputation and performance that really needed to be addressed,” McKay said. “That didn’t end with the election and neither did our interest in the documents.”

McKay says the state could and should have released the emails by now. He suspects the state is trying to time their release with the publication of a report by retired Juneau judge Patricia Collins.

Collins was chosen by the Walker administration in January to investigate the allegations of sexual assault and harassment in the Guard. Walker campaigned on the issue, saying Parnell was stonewalling to keep alleged wrongdoing out of the public eye until after the election. He said he’d make the transparency of public records a higher priority in his administration.

Categories: Alaska News

Lawmakers Discuss Medicaid Expansion, Meaning Of ‘Payment Reform’

Thu, 2015-04-09 17:28

The state House Finance Committee spent two hours this morning considering the Governor’s Medicaid expansion bill- HB 148. Lawmakers spent part of that time talking about “payment reform.” But what exactly does that mean?

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The Medicaid expansion bill allows the department to consider payment reform, along with other innovations, as it works to control costs in the state’s Medicaid program.

Representative Lance Pruitt, an Anchorage Republican, wanted to know more.

“I’ve heard and seen a lot about payment reform,” Pruitt said. “There’s even parts of the bill that say payment reform. But I don’t have a definition, from what I can tell, of what does payment reform exactly mean.”

Health Commissioner Valerie Davidson spent several minutes answering Pruitt. But her main point was that payment reform would involve reimbursing doctors based on patient outcomes instead of paying for every specific service. The idea is to give doctors incentives to provide the best care instead of a lot of care:

“Alaska is a fee-for-service state and quite frankly we are interested in changing that dynamic and quite frankly we have to,” Davidson said. “And we are interested in reforming Medicaid, not just for the expansion population, but for everybody. Because we don’t have a choice.”

At the federal level, Medicare recently announced it’s also moving away from fee-for-service.

Davidson said providers in Alaska know the current Medicaid system isn’t sustainable. And they also know payment reform is coming. Davidson said the state is in a good position to bargain with providers, but she said the department also needs to involve them in the reform process:

“We have to be able to work with the providers, and they certainly know what our challenges are in this state,” Davidson said. “Our budget problem has been all over the news. All over social media. And people recognize we have to do things differently.”

Pruitt is worried about the incentives of the status quo when it comes to health care payments in Alaska. He cited an Anchorage School District report that identified 300 specialists in the state who bill over a billion dollars a year for their services. He wondered if doctors earning that much money would be willing to negotiate.

He told the story of a woman who was diagnosed with a brain tumor and spent $750 dollars to see a specialist who essentially said, “I can’t do anything for you.”

“Maybe we’re in the wrong terminology here. Maybe it shouldn’t be Medicaid reform, maybe it should be medical reform,” Pruitt said. “Because in Alaska we’ve got serious problems where just the public can’t seem to pay. I mean it’s out of control. Three times what it would cost in the rest of the us for a primary care visit, that’s insane. we have bills all the time on gas gouging, maybe we should look at medical gouging in this case.”

The Health Department is hiring a contractor to look at the types of payment reform that have worked in other states to get a better idea of what could work in Alaska.

The House Finance committee plans to spend more time considering the Medicaid expansion bill Thursday morning.

Categories: Alaska News

Citizen Group Seeks Water Rights in Proposed Mining Area

Thu, 2015-04-09 17:26

Chuitna Coal Mine. (Graphic Courtesy DNR)

The public comment period closes Thursday on a water-rights petition from a citizen group fighting a proposed coal mine in the Chuitna watershed on the west side of Cook Inlet.

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In 2009, the Chuitna Citizens Coalition filed a series of water-rights petitions to theDepartment of Natural Resources. They asked DNR to reserve water rights in a tributary of the Chuitna River called Middle Creek.

Judy Heilman helped start the coalition which comprises fishermen, some residents from the community of Beluga, and others. The group filed the petitions in response to a proposed coal strip mine in the watershed. Specifically, they are asking the water in Middle Creek to be saved for salmon.

“That’s the first mining LMU, logical mining unit, that they want to start and it’s 14 miles of salmon spawning stream and they want to mine down 300 feet deep,” says Heilman.

She says 15-20% of the silver salmon for the Chuitna River are spawned in Middle Creek. She and other opponents of the mine are concerned not only about the resource itself, but about fishermen and subsistence users who depend on it.

“It’s very important for Alaskans to be able to fish and fill their freezers with salmon. There’s never been a salmon stream that’s been restored that’s been destroyed like that,” says Heilman.

Bob Shavelson is the director of Cook Inletkeeper, which has partnered with the coalition.

“Well, the west side of Cook Inlet is still a very remote and spectacularly beautiful place and the Chuitna watershed is unique in that it supports all five species of wild pacific salmon,” says Shavelson. “Like everywhere around Cook Inlet, the Chinook fisheries have been getting hammered recently and nobody has a great understanding on that. But, the Chuitna River has been listed by the Department of Fish and Game as a fishery of concern for Chinook. That’s just another reason that we should protect it because if our king salmon are hanging on by a thread right now, we need to provide everything that we can in a changing climate to make sure they have the resilience to fight back.”

In 2013, PacRim Coal LLC filed for water rights for Middle Creek to divert the water from the stream and mine underneath. According to DNR’s Chuitna mine page, it’s part of a surface coal mining and export development proposal. It would be a 25-year project producing nearly 12 million tons of coal annually.

If it were constructed, the coalition says it would be the state’s largest coal strip mining operation.

Since the coalition and PacRim Coal have both filed for water rights, only one will emerge with the state’s approval.

“I think it’s important to recognize that Governor Walker came in and it was a refreshing openness that he brought and he put together a transition team,” says Shavelson. “The fisheries transition team unanimously came up with a recommendation for what they call a Fish First policy, and that is when we’re making management decisions around our natural resources, we should put fish first and I can’t think of a better example than Chuitna to implement that policy.”

According to DNR, PacRim Coal has made changes to their original mine proposal and has not yet submitted an updated draft. However they are aware of the Coalition’s instream flow reservation petition.

In an email response to a request for comment, PacRim’s Chuitna Coal Project Manager, Dan Graham, wrote quote “PacRim is currently reviewing the notice and applications on file and has no further comment at this time.”

Shavelson says the state’s decision in this case could have ramifications for other areas.

“Well it really would be a new policy in the state’s history because never before has a wild salmon stream been mined completely through,” says Shavelson. “Looking back over decisions about salmon habitat, I can’t think of a more important decision in the past 25 or more years for the management of our resource because if we trade salmon for coal here, if we sacrifice a vibrant salmon ecosystem for a one-time use, then we’re going to set a precedent that’s going to put salmon streams across the state at risk.”

Judy Heilman says she thinks this could be one step down that path.

“It’s very important for the next generations coming up. We can’t leave them polluted streams, no fish in the streams, polluted air. We can’t do that to the kids coming up and the next generation. We have to leave them better than what we have now.”

Categories: Alaska News

Some Alaska Ferry Trips On The Chopping Block

Thu, 2015-04-09 17:25

More than 9,000 people are booked for Alaska Marine Highway sailings that will likely be cut due to budget reductions.

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Ferry Chief Mike Neussl says about 2,500 vehicles are also scheduled for those sailings.

But for now, the ferry system isn’t letting travelers know.

“I am reluctant to pull the trigger (and) cancel those runs that we’ve already sold tickets on and rebook all those passengers because of the possibility that some of that service may be restored if funding is restored,” Neussl said.

Neussl explained the situation to the state’s Marine Transportation Advisory Board during a Wednesday meeting in Juneau.

He said travelers will be contacted and, if possible, rescheduled as soon as it’s clear how deep the cuts will be. He acknowledged some will be angry.

Categories: Alaska News

Bill To Eliminate Time Change Stalls In House Committee

Thu, 2015-04-09 17:24

A bill to move Alaska off of daylight saving time likely won’t get a vote in the House this session.

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Rep. Bob Lynn, chair of the House State Affairs Committee, appointed a subcommittee to work on the bill after taking public testimony on Thursday during which business representatives opposed the change.

Sen. Anna MacKinnon proposed the bill to stop Alaskans from changing their clocks twice each year beginning in 2017 and to request a federal review of Alaska’s time zones. Most of the state is on Alaska standard time, although a few Southeast communities are on Pacific time and part of the Aleutian Islands are on Hawaii time.

The bill passed the Senate.

Categories: Alaska News

Juneau Schools Replace Controversial Texts With Book By First Nations Writer

Thu, 2015-04-09 17:23

“Shin-chi’s Canoe” by Nicola Campbell, “Not My Girl” and “When I Was Eight” both by Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton, and “My Name is SEEPEETZA” by Shirley Sterling will be available in fourth grade classrooms and elementary school libraries. (KTOO file photo)

The Juneau School District has chosen a book to replace the controversial texts it decided to remove from the fourth grade language arts curriculum.

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Last August, community members raised concerns about school texts depicting Alaska Native and Native American tragedies, including the boarding school experience in Alaska. The texts were called distorted, inaccurate and insensitive.

The district has chosen “Shin-chi’s Canoe” by Nicola Campbell.

Nicola Campbell is a First Nations writer from British Columbia. Her children’s book, “Shin-chi’s Canoe” depicts life in an Indian boarding school from a child’s perspective.

In the free-verse picture book, a character describes being punished for not understanding English – “They cut her long braids and threw/ them away/ and washed her head with kerosene.”

Paul Berg is a former teacher and a cultural specialist at Goldbelt Heritage Foundation. He says even though “Shin-chi’s Canoe” describes a boarding school in Canada, he thinks it’s accurate to what Alaska Natives experienced.

“The stories, the accounts that I’ve heard from elders have been pretty brutal treatment during the boarding school years in Alaska, so that would not be an exaggeration,” Berg says.

Berg evaluated the controversial texts, which are part of the McGraw-Hill Reading Wonders program. His report on the readers was the formal complaint that led to their removal. He said the texts misrepresented the historical reality and marginalized the experiences of the victims.

“Shin-chi’s Canoe” and other books the district is ordering for the classroom are interim solutions. When the superintendent decided to remove the McGraw-Hill readers, he said they’d be replaced by place-based material developed locally in partnership with Goldbelt Heritage.

Berg says this takes time and involves historical research, like interviewing elders. He says the local material will depict real events and share the cultural life of the Native community. He says it would be great to have material describing Tlingit cultural ceremonies that are still part of the Native community in Southeast.

“And just having an account of that even, for example, in the reading program would be a great cross-cultural sharing. But also, for the Native students, an affirmation in the school system of a part of their lifestyle,” Berg says.

Ted Wilson is the district’s director of teaching and learning. He says the district spent about $1,300 for 90 copies of “Shin-chi’s Canoe,” which will be distributed to fourth grade classrooms for use in small reading groups.

He says McGraw-Hill plans on replacing the four readers the Juneau School District removed with new readers at no cost.

Categories: Alaska News

Tlingit Language To Be Officially Recognized In Federal Maps Database

Thu, 2015-04-09 17:22

For the first time, a Tlingit name for a peak in Juneau will be included in the Geographic Names Information System or GNIS. This makes it possible for that name to be printed on federal maps and publications. Getting the indigenous name for a Juneau peak officially recognized actually began as an attempt to give the point a Western moniker.

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To Lance Twitchell, the point east of Thunder Mountain has always been called Tlaxsatanjín.

“From the Tlingit prospective, nothing has really changed,” he says.

He’s the assistant professor of Native languages at the University of Alaska Southeast. In Tlingit, Tlaxsatanjín means “idle hands” or “hands at rest.” If you looked at a topographic map, the peak had been nameless.

“I think you’d see Heintzleman Ridge is what would be there. And that’s it,” he says.

Twitchell wasn’t the only one who proposed a name for the peak to the Alaska Historical Commission. It almost became Mount Scribner, after the late Jon Scribner. He was a longtime Department of Transportation official in Southeast who died in 2005 in a hiking accident.

“He had sort of uncommon passion for the land here. For the people here,” says Mandy Mallott, Jon Scribner’s daughter. She’s non-Native.

“But I was adopted into the Kwaashk’i Kwaan clan out of Yakutat. And I was given a Native name, Ach Kwei,” she says.

Friends of the late Scribner submitted a proposal in 2013 to have the peak named in his honor. The commission approved it, unaware of its Tlingit name. That proposal was then sent to the U.S. Board of Geographic names, which also conducts a review.  

The U.S. Board of Geographic Names added it to their list of things they would consider. But it didn’t take action. Then a proposal was submitted by Lance Twitchell. He says it wasn’t necessarily a counterproposal.

“It had nothing to do with the individual. It just has do with sort of reaching a capacity of saying, we can’t just keep naming stuff for people when these things already have names,” Twitchell says.

After Mallott found out about the peak’s indigenous name, she and her father’s colleagues withdrew their proposal.

“When we heard about the other proposal, absolutely very quickly did we decide that that was the name of that mountain,” Mallott says.

Mallott says she’s interested in seeing Native names being restored to the entire region. She believes her father would want that, too.

“His spirit would have been right there with us and that is to restore indigenous place names of this whole region. It’s not just this one peak,” she says.

Lance Twitchell says he hopes people will learn the Native names for these landmarks.

“So when they see that and they drive by that mountain, they can drive by and say ‘Tlaxsatanjín.’ And just look at it and think that’s what it’s been called for well over 500 years,” he says.

Tlaxsatanjín will be on federal maps starting next month.

Categories: Alaska News

Arctic Man Turns 30

Thu, 2015-04-09 17:21

People are gathered at Summit Lake for the annual Arctic Man Ski and Sno-Go Classic. It’s the 30th running of the extreme sporting event that’s also Alaska’s biggest tailgate party.

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Arctic Man Founder and organizer Howie Thies of Fairbanks is ready for a big turnout for this year’s event in the Hoodoo Mountains off the Richardson Highway.

“Because it’s the 30th anniversary and we had snow compared to come of the other places in the state,” Thies said.

Arctic Man is an Alaskan rite of spring, a far cry from the humble beginning Theis recounts.

“We started out as a bar room bet and 19 show up 20-30 people, and I’ll have anywhere from 10,000-15,000 people watching this even from all over the U.S.,” he said.

Arctic Man’s main event involves skiers and snowboarders racing up and down mountains. On the way up, they’re towed at high speed by partners on snow machines. Theis predicts intense competition again this year.

“The Olympian who’s won it, Marco Sullivan who has won it four times in a row, is coming back to claim his honors,” Theis said. “Jimmy Scott, a local, young kid from Fairbanks grew up here and started racing this race when he was 16 years old, he’s coming back to claim the snowboard division, he beat a couple Olympians.”

“Yeah, I’ve got some new blood, coming from Australia, coming from Czechoslovakia, I’ve got them coming from everywhere.”

Other Arctic man events include drag and snow cross races, plus endless terrain for recreation. People have died in avalanches, falls and other mishaps during Arctic Man over the years, and Theis urges caution.

“Be safe, watch what you’re doing,” he said. “If you’re gonna drink alcohol, ladies and gentlemen, you can’t drive any motorized vehicle if you’ve been drinking.”

DUI and other arrests are a part of Arctic Man, and State Troopers maintain a large presence at the event, but Theis downplays the rowdy side of things.

“It’s a party atmosphere, to say the least,” he said. “But we’re catering more to bring your kids, bring your family, have a good time.”

Arctic Man main event, the ski and snowboard races are scheduled  for Friday but could run into the weekend depending on weather and snow conditions.

Categories: Alaska News

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