Alaska News Nightly: April 13, 2011

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Delegation, Environmentalists Debate Arctic Drilling Permitting Process
Libby Casey, APRN – Washington DC
Shell Oil Company has been waiting five years to get permission to drill exploratory wells in the Arctic, off Alaska’s coast.  A clean air permit is holding up development right now – and Shell says it’s had enough of waiting.  The Alaska delegation agrees that the federal government is holding up the process.  But environmentalists and some Alaskans say the system of checks is in place to protect regular citizens.

Voter Intent Bill Passes Through House
Casey Kelly, KTOO – Juneau
Voter intent would be the determining factor for counting write-in ballots in Alaska under a bill on its way to the governor’s desk. Senate Bill 31 passed the House Wednesday on a 38-1 vote.

It puts into law recommendations of state and federal courts, as well as the office of Lieutenant Governor Mead Treadwell, stemming from last fall’s U.S. Senate race.

After that election, Republican candidate Joe Miller sued the state over its handling of write-in ballots for his rival, Senator Lisa Murkowski. Miller’s lawsuits failed, but the courts agreed with him that the state’s election law is too vague.

On the House floor Thursday morning, Fairbanks Republican Steve Thompson said one of the goals of the bill is to limit future litigation over write-in votes.

Under the bill, voter intent for write-in ballots is determined by the director of the state Division of Elections. Making the same argument Miller made in his lawsuits, Wasilla Republican Wes Keller was the only lawmaker to vote against the bill. He said it puts too much power in the director’s hands.

The lawmakers who crafted SB 31 in committee felt it best to leave the responsibility of determining voter intent with one person. They argued the counting of write-in votes is always held in an open process in order to ensure integrity.

The bill unanimously passed the Senate back in February.

Denali Kid Care Expansion Falls in Senate
Dave Donaldson, APRN – Juneau
A bill expanding the 14-year-old Denali Kid Care program failed on a tie vote in the Senate Wednesday.  Denali Kid Care provides medical services to the children of lower-income families and to low-income pregnant women.    The measure by Anchorage Democrat Bettye Davis replaced a bill the governor vetoed last year because he said it paid for abortions.

Six Senators who voted for the measure last year, voted against it today.

In presenting the bill, Davis said by opening participation in the program to those with twice the federal poverty level, it would provide health care for nearly 1,300 more children and about 250 pregnant women.  She said the abortion issue needs to be dealt with separately.

Davis said expanding the program might provide funds for as many as 22 more abortions.

Eagle River’s Fred Dyson said, while the health care program has merit, he cannot avoid looking at the trade off between healthy kids and abortions.

But Republican Lesil McGuire came to the opposite conclusion, supporting the program.

The final vote showed all but one of the Senate’s Democrats in favor of the bill – and all but one of the Republicans opposed to it.

Senator Davis asked for a reconsideration of the measure – meaning it could come up for another vote before the end of the session.

Redistricting Board Meeting in Anchorage
Matt Miller, KTOO – Juneau
A draft map is expected by Thursday. Redistricting Board members meeting in Anchorage are working on preliminary plans that would redraw legislative boundaries around the state.

Board members Wednesday are looking at various regional concepts. They include potential plans for Anchorage, Kenai Peninsula, Interior, Rural Alaska, and two alternate concepts each for Mat-Su and Southeast.

Redistricting Board Executive Director Ron Miller says the board directed staff to incorporate all of the regional plans into a statewide plan.

Miller says they will also be releasing all of the suggested plans they have received from other groups. The board will not endorse any of those plans, but Alaskans can still comment on them.

The Redistricting Board has had only a month to come up with a draft plan since the U.S. Census Bureau released figures for Alaska.

The Board will then have another 60 days to come up with a final plan.

Public hearings on the draft are scheduled for Anchorage and Fairbanks on Monday and Tuesday.

Juneau residents get their chance to comment next Wednesday April 20 in the state capital building.

Then starting April 21, board members will split up into teams of two to hold hearings in rural communities around the state until May 6.

Southeast, Southcentral Schools May Lose Millions
Deanna Garrison, KRBD – Ketchikan
Southeast and Southcentral school districts stand to lose millions in federal funding under proposed changes to the Secure Rural Schools program. The Obama Administration is recommending reauthorization of the federal program in 2012, but is proposing to scale back funding for school districts.

Mayor Sullivan Proposes Funding for Variety of Initiatives
Lori Townsend, APRN – Anchorage
Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan wants to use $11 million in savings from the 2010 municipal budget to fund a variety of initiatives. $7 million would go to lower property taxes this year. Sullivan says his plan would allow a lower annual increase for tax payers from 1.6 to 1.3 percent. He says he thinks the assembly will approve the plan because during the recent campaigns for six positions on the assembly, tax relief was favored.

$880,000 will pay for training 28 new police officers for the city, $84,000 will go toward the domestic violence prosecutor position and there are funds for 29 new firefighter positions and EMS staff for the Sand Lake neighborhood.

Sullivan says some of the money will go toward paying off a 3.7 million loan that went to the city to buy some park land in 2006.

Two environmental clean ups will also be paid for with surplus funds. One for lead contaminated soil in Kincaid Park and another for PCB clean up on Reeve Boulevard.

The Assembly will have to approve the mayor’s plan. That meeting is April 26.

Elders Teach Students About Gathering Traditional Food
Joaqlin Estus, KNBA – Anchorage
Tuesday, the sun was shining on a handful of elders and about 40 high school students grouped around five seal carcasses laid out on blue tarps at the Alaska Native Heritage Center in Anchorage.

Kobuk 440 Starts Thursday
Susan Bucknell, KOTZ – Kotzebue
The Kobuk 440 middle distance sled dog race gets underway Thursday afternoon on the ice in front of Kotzebue. The race makes its way through seven village checkpoints. 18 mushers are entered with a purse of $50,000.