Alaska News Nightly: January 27, 2011

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Lawmakers Consider Extending Legislative Session
Casey Kelly, KTOO – Juneau
Some Alaska lawmakers want to go back to a 120 day legislative session.
Voters in 2006 narrowly passed an initiative limiting the session by statute to 90 days, effective in 2008. Today, a bill to go to a 120 day session every other year had a hearing in the Senate State Affairs Committee.

Immigrants’ Drivers Licenses Challenged
Dave Donaldson, APRN – Juneau
Anchorage Republican Bob Lynn opened hearings Thursday to limit immigrants’ rights to an Alaska drivers license. His attempts to usher through a similar, but more complex, bill last year failed twice on the House floor.

Lynn, chairman of the House State Affairs committee, said under current law a person who is not a citizen of the United States, but legally present with a U.S. Visa, can get a five year drivers’ license, even if the Visa would expire the following day.

A staff member for Lynn said the Department of Homeland Security determines the length of stay for a non-citizen, saying the state should not offer legal documentation that outlasts the federal status.

Opponents say the federal government is very protective of its job of keeping up with immigrants. Alaska’s director of the American Civil Liberties Union, Jeff Mittman, also said the bill is likely unconstitutional under federal and state precedent.

Homer Republican Paul Seaton objected to a provision in the bill that would further set apart immigrants whose legal expiration date is described as “indefinite.” He said that generally refers to refugees who have been admitted to the U.S. for political asylum. They could get a license for no longer than a year, although they would have to pay the same as an Alaskan getting a five year license.

Lynn originally said he wanted to move the bill on to the Finance committee after the single hearing, but agreed to hold it until next week to get the opinion of the Attorney General.

Experiment Harnesses Solar Wind
Jacob Resneck, KMXT – Kodiak
A NASA experiment sent from the Kodiak Launch Complex and given up for lost has suddenly started functioning, exciting many in the space community.

Group Requests Documents Regarding Rep. Young Investigation
Steve Heimel, APRN – Anchorage
A non-profit organization that goes after government corruption has requested the Justice Department’s records of its investigation of Alaska Representative Don Young. Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington Executive Director Melanie Sloan says there were multiple investigations and the public deserves to see why there were never any charges, so they have filed Freedom of Information Act requests for the records:

Don Young announced last summer that the Justice Department had dropped its case against him. The Department does not deny that. Young refuses to comment beyond saying the case has been dropped. Sloan says if that’s true, the Department no longer has any reason to deny their request.

Among the matters believed to have been investigated were Young’s relationship with lobbyist Jack Abramoff, now in prison for bribery, fund-raising events staged by VECO, Incorporated, and provisions inserted into highway bills while Young was Chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. One of Young’s aides has pled guilty and another went on trial this week.

Chena Hot Springs Seeks to Expand
Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks
A proposed land sale could spur major new development at Chena Hot Springs. As KUAC’s Dan Bross reports from Fairbanks, entrepreneur and geothermal energy pioneer Bernie Karl is pushing the deal.

Event Connects Homeless with Services, Supplies
Joaqlin Estus, KNBA – Anchorage
About 50 organizations and 200 volunteers hosted a one-day event called “Project Homeless Connect” yesterday at the Egan Convention Center in Anchorage. The project offers access to organizations that provide youth, family, or veteran services, food stamps, drivers’ licenses, social security, and public assistance, as well as gift bags with hats, scarves, and food. Trevor Storrs, co-chair of the Anchorage Coalition on Homelessness, says demand is high for certain items.

Organizers estimate they provided services to almost eight hundred homeless. Estimates show Anchorage has about 3,000 homeless people. In the past two years similar events have been held in cities across the country.

Native Group Confident in Progress
Libby Casey, APRN – Anchorage
The President of the country’s largest group representing Alaska Natives and American Indians says they have fresh momentum, and are at the dawn of a new era.

Jefferson Keel, president of the National Congress of American Indians, gave the annual “State of the Indian Nations” address Thursday, which traditionally comes on the heels of the U.S. President’s State of the Union speech.

Keel says last year was marked by huge leaps forward in policies that will help Native Americans, from passage of the Tribal Law and Order Act to the permanent reauthorization of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act, to the long-awaited settlement of the Cobell case over the federal government’s mishandling of billions of dollars in Indian trust funds.

Keel says tribes hold “unrealized potential” in areas like energy, since they’re stewards for 10 percent of the country’s energy resources, but only a handful of tribes have been able to use them.

He says they’re hampered by federal bureaucracy and lack of access to programs and funding.

Alaska Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski gave the Congressional response this morning to Keel’s “State of Indian Nations” address, and warned tribal leaders that it will be a battle to get adequate funding for Alaska Native and American Indian programs in these tight budget times.

Some new conservative House members ran on platforms of funding only what’s mandated by the Constitution. But Murkowski says the federal responsibility for the well being of Native people is in the Constitution.

Today the new head of the Indian Affairs committee was named: Hawaii Democratic Senator Daniel Akaka.

Solo Climber Abandons McKinley Attempt
Diana Haecker, KTNA – Talkeetna
For the better part of January, mountaineering aficionados kept an eye on the progress of Minnesota climber Lonnie Dupre who tried to summit Mount McKinley solo. But Mother Nature in form of 100 mph winds forced Dupre’s to abandon the attempt.