Alaska News Nightly: November 10, 2010

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Write-In Ballot Count Begins
Dave Donaldson, APRN – Juneau
Wednesday, the Division of Elections today began counting the write-in votes cast in last week’s General election.  30 election officials – in 15 teams of two – began sorting and counting the ballots in a former print shop on the waterfront in Juneau.

Judge Denies Request to Stop Write-In Ballot Count
Casey Kelly, KTOO – Juneau
U.S. District Court Judge Ralph Beistline has denied a request by Joe Miller to immediately stop the count of write-in ballots. In a written decision Wednesday, Beistline said he found no reason to stop the count, and Miller’s complaint would be heard in due course.

Tuesday, Miller’s Attorney Thomas Van Flein filed the lawsuit in federal court, accusing Division of Elections Director Gail Fenumiai of, quote, “ignoring the provisions of state law with which she apparently disagrees” and failing “to provide guidance on ‘voter intent’” for write-in ballots. The Miller campaign wants the division to follow state law literally, and only count write-in votes where the candidate’s name is spelled exactly as it appears on their declaration of candidacy.

Beistline gave both sides until the middle of next week to file briefs in the lawsuit.

Lieutenant Governor Craig Campbell oversees Alaska elections. He says the state’s position has been consistent all along that minor misspellings of a candidate’s name will be counted.

Campbell is confident the court will side with the state. He says numerous cases have set precedent that elections officials have some leeway when determining voter intent.

He added that state law only requires write-in ballots to have the oval filled in and the candidate’s full name or last name written as it appears on their declaration of candidacy.

Campbell praised the election workers who have come to Juneau from around the state to participate in the write-in count. He calls it “historically important.” Miller has criticized having the count in Juneau, but Campbell says write-in votes have always been counted in the state capital.

Public Testimony at BOEM Hearing Largely Pro-Development
Ellen Lockyer, KSKA – Anchorage
Plenty of people showed up at a Bureau of Ocean Energy Management public hearing in Anchorage Tuesday night.  The crowd was orderly, respectful and adamantly pro development in its comments regarding exploratory oil drilling in the Chuckchi Sea.

Muñoz Believes Johansen’s Decision to Leave House Majority Will Hurt Region
Ed Schoenfeld, CoastAlaska – Juneau
Juneau Representative Cathy Muñoz says fellow Southeast Republican Kyle Johansen’s decision to leave the House majority will hurt the region.

House leaders asked Johansen to continue as majority leader next session. It’s one of the chamber’s top posts.

Declining Medicare Reimbursement for Doctors Likely to Highlight Lame Duck Session
Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks
The upcoming lame duck session of Congress could yield key tweaks to federal health care law. Northwest Regional Director of Congressional Public Affairs for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Rene Sinclair told local Fairbanks chamber members yesterday that Congress will likely deal with the continuing decline in Medicare reimbursement for doctors.

The difference between cost of service and Medicare re-imbursement limits doctor’s willingness to see Medicare patients nationwide, including in Alaska. Sinclair also warned local business owners of a provision in the health care reform act passed last spring that’s aimed at bringing in more tax revenue.

Sinclair said the government is trying to tax an estimated $17 billion in unreported business to business transactions, but described the provision as a monumental paperwork burden for businesses and the Internal Revenue Service. Sinclair says there’s some energy to get the provision repealed during the lame duck session.

Sinclair also highlighted a number of other things Congress could consider during the session, including immigration law, campaign finance disclosure, and defense spending.  She said climate change legislation will likely be delayed until the new Congress convenes next year, and that the newly elected Republican majority U.S. House will pose a big challenge to the President’s agenda.

Sinclair said the Environmental Protection Agency proposal would regulate greenhouse gas emissions of large office buildings and homes, churches and family farms under the Clean Air Act, requiring them to get permits that presently cost $120,000.

YK-Delta Guardsmen Make First Jump as Airborne Battalion
Shane Iverson, KYUK – Bethel
The National Guardsman in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta made history last week by successfully completing their first jump training  in the region since they were transformed into an Airborne Battalion. The parachute training was the first of kind for many reasons, but it won’t be the last.

UA Boasting Many Improvements This Year
Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks
The University Alaska showed improvement in enrollment, student retention, research funding and other areas this year, and the economy may be part of the reason.  Some of the statistics outlined in annual performance assessments at UA’s three main campuses reflect economic factors.  University of Alaska Fairbanks Provost and Executive Vice Chair for Academic Affairs Susan Henrichs says recessions tend to generate students.

Henrichs says increased federal grant and loan availability further helped bolster university enrollment in a state where there’s minimal needs based financial aid.  She says the tough economy is also likely playing into decreasing the number of UA students transferring to outside institutions.

The economy has also affected research funding, as federal stimulus dollars trickle down to the university, especially at research focused UAF.   Henrichs says research funding at UAF went from $110 million in 2009 to $118 million this year.

Henrichs says that money benefits the local economies, because research dollars ultimately get spent on people, goods and services.

Invasive Sea Squirt Found in Sitka Harbor
Ed Ronco, KCAW – Sitka
State officials say an invasive species of sea squirt has been found in Sitka’s Whiting Harbor.   The small invertebrate is called a “tunicate.”  It was discovered for the first time in Alaska when volunteers and scientists conducted a “bioblitz” in Sitka last June. Test results came back in August confirming the tunicates as a species not native to Sitka Sound.