Alaska News Nightly: March 1, 2011

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House Passes Temporary Measure to Keep Federal Government Running
Libby Casey, APRN – Washington DC
Tuesday, the U.S. House passed a temporary stop-gap measure to keep the federal government running for a few more weeks.  It cuts $4 billion in spending, and would avert a government shutdown on March 4 – if the Senate gets on board.

Bethel Men Charged With Gun Crimes
Angela Denning-Barnes, KYUK – Bethel
Two Bethel men are being charged with fire arms crimes as part of a federal initiative to focus more attention on federal crimes in rural Alaska.

Proposed Oil Tax Credits Facing Major Opposition
Rosemarie Alexander, KTOO – Juneau
Governor Sean Parnell’s bill to give oil companies bigger tax credits is on the move, but the controversial legislation has a long way to go and major opposition.

After five lengthy hearings, the House Resources Committee Monday night moved the bill onto House Finance.  No word yet as to when that committee will schedule it.

Resource Committee members heard from the oil industry and state revenue officials, who agree it’s expensive to do business in Alaska.  Industry representatives gave the Resources Committee no commitments that their companies would invest more in Alaska in exchange for lower production taxes.

Committee co-chairman Paul Seaton wasn’t convinced that greater exploration would result from tax breaks.

He produced an Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission graph that shows declining production long before the legislature changed the production tax in 2007.

Seaton tried but failed to amend the bill to leave the current production tax structure intact.  In the end, he voted to move the bill out of committee.

Parnell’s bill would reduce the base rate tax on new fields from 25 percent to 15 percent.  Estimates indicate the state would lose about $2 billion a year in oil tax revenue through 2017, when revenue officials hope new exploration would kick in.

Revenue Commissioner-designee Bryan Butcher says the reduction would encourage oil companies to find ways to produce more from the Prudhoe and Kuparuk fields and also explore new fields.

Both ConocoPhillips and BP have said their capital investment on the North Slope will be flat this year.

Lawyer Says Florida Ruling Has No Effect on Federal Health Care in State
Casey Kelly, KTOO – Juneau
A lawyer for the state legislature says a Florida district court judge’s ruling on federal health care reform has no effect in Alaska.

In an analysis requested by State Senator Hollis French, Legislative Council Dennis Bailey called it “implausible” that the court’s ruling would be considered binding in the state, when all appeals in the health care litigation have yet to be exhausted.

That goes against what Governor Sean Parnell said last month when he declared the Florida opinion “the law of the land, as it pertains to Alaska.” Judge Roger Vinson ruled the “Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act” unconstitutional in a lawsuit that Alaska was party to.

French – an Anchorage Democrat and a lawyer – says Bailey’s analysis shows the governor is wrong.

Several other legal scholars have reached the same conclusion as Bailey.

Parnell – who’s also a lawyer – says he relied on the advice of Attorney General John Burns to reach his decision. The governor’s spokeswoman Sharon Leighow says unless the Florida ruling is stayed or overturned, the governor is firm in his position.

Susitna Dam the Subject of Public Hearing
Sue Deyoe, KTNA – Talkeetna
The controversial Susitna Dam proposal was the subject of a contentious public hearing in Talkeetna Monday night. The Alaska Energy Authority is holding a series of meetings across Alaska on their preliminary findings on possible hydro projects along the rail belt. The AEA team faced a packed house in Talkeetna.  While pro Susitna Dam buttons were handed out at the Fairbanks meeting, those buttons were nowhere to be seen at the meeting in Talkeenta.

State’s Biggest Wind Farm Coming to Fairbanks
Tim Ellis, KUAC – Fairbanks
Golden Valley Electric Association’s CEO says the utility’s board of directors approved a plan Monday to build the state’s biggest wind farm because it will save money for GVEA ratepayers. A local wind-power entrepreneur says the board made the wrong decision.

Municipalities Pushing for Coastal Management Program Reauthorization
Casey Kelly, KTOO – Juneau
A growing number of Alaska municipalities are pushing the legislature to reauthorize the state’s Coastal Management Program, and restore some of its components gutted by former Governor Frank Murkowski.

The Juneau Assembly Monday night became the latest community to pass a resolution supporting an extension and expansion of the program, which will end July 1 unless the legislature acts this session.

Established in 1977, the Alaska Coastal Management Program was designed to help communities and developers work through projects together – a one-stop source for state and federal permits, as well as zoning and scientific work. It also gave local residents a say on development through a Coastal Policy Council. That board became a point of contention in the mid-1990s, when some developers charged it had “veto power” over projects. In 2003 and 2005, Murkowski pushed through changes to the program that included disbanding the council.

The resolution passed by the Juneau Assembly and other communities was drafted by the Alaska Municipal League. Among other things, it urges state lawmakers to reconstitute the policy board or one like it. AML Executive Director Kathie Wasserman says municipalities don’t want veto power, but would like input into development in their backyards.

Juneau Assemblyman Bob Doll says having local concerns heard on large development projects is simply good policy.

If the Alaska Coastal Management Program is not reauthorized, the federal government will take it over. Governor Sean Parnell wants to extend the program for six years in its current form – with the Murkowski changes intact. The House Resources Committee is scheduled to take up the governor’s bill, next Monday.

Sacred Sites Changed in Sealaska Bill
Ed Schoenfeld, CoastAlaska – Juneau
The latest version of the Sealaska land-selection bill changes how sacred sites will be chosen. It also limits their size and how they can be used. But the change concerns some tribal leaders.