Alaska News Nightly: May 11, 2011

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Judiciary Committee Examines Budget’s Contingency Language
Dave Donaldson, APRN – Juneau
The House Finance Committee Wednesday began hearing from the public about the capital budget the Senate passed last night. At the same time, the Judiciary Committee focused on that budget’s contingency language used to protect energy projects from line-item vetoes by Governor Sean Parnell.

Senators put in the protective language in response to threats from the governor that he would veto projects favored by those who blocked passage of a bill reducing taxes on oil companies.  It bundled $450 million in energy-related projects with the statement that if the governor vetoed any single project, the entire bundle would be eliminated.

That contingency language is the major point of friction among all parties in the fight over the budget. Attorney General John Burns said it would effectively eliminate the governor’s veto powers – and there is no question in his mind that would make it unconstitutional.

Director of Legislative Legal Services Doug Gardner told the committee that, while he agrees with much of what the Attorney General had said, there is another side to the issue.  He said the argument shows an imbalance between the legislature’s power to appropriate and the governor’s power to veto.  However, he said the governor still has the ability to accept the bundle – or he can veto the bundle.

There was no action needed as a result of the hearing – it was to educate legislators on the issue.  Lawmakers who haven’t made their minds up over the capital projects budget will have new information on which to base their decisions.

Crooked Creek Still Experiencing Flood Complications
Shane Iverson, KYUK – Bethel
The village of Crooked Creek is going on its fourth day without power.

Flood waters have dropped 4-5 feet from their high mark last night, but much of the town is still inundated.  Experts are warning that the threat there is not over yet, but during the lull, some residents are trying to make sense of the devastation.

8(a) Limiting Attempt Fails in Senate
Libby Casey, APRN – Washington DC
An attempt by Senator John McCain to limit the federal program that gives special contracting opportunities to Alaska Native Corporations failed Wednesday. Senator Mark Begich successfully fought McCain’s efforts, and in a surprising twist, one of the program’s biggest detractors didn’t show up for the vote.

The Small Business Administration’s 8(a) Program gives special breaks to Native-owned corporations which are seeking government contracts.  They can bid without competitors, partner with larger corporations, and they never age out of the program, no matter how much money they make.

McCain’s amendment would have capped contracts at four million dollars for services… and $6.5 million for property deals.  It would allow for exceptions: those amounts could go higher if the contracting officer can justify the sole source contract in writing, and the justification was made public and sent to Congress.

But Senator Mark Begich, who sits on the Committee where McCain floated his amendment, countered it.  Begich was pleased with the outcome.

The biggest Congressional critic of the Small Business Administration program sits on the committee that took the vote – but she didn’t show up.  Senator Claire McCaskill could have submitted a proxy vote, as some of her colleagues did, but she did not.  If she had, it could’ve meant a win for McCain’s plan.

McCaskill’s office says she was tied up today with other issues.

‘Hiring’ Heroes Act’ Focuses on Reducing Veteran Unemployment Rate
Libby Casey, APRN – Washington DC
The unemployment rate for young military veterans has climbed as high as 27 percent in recent months – far higher than the national average of about 9 percent.

That’s spurred both of Alaska’s U-S Senators to sign onto a bill that would help vets get jobs when they leave the service.

The legislation, named the “Hiring Heroes Act,” would require broad job skills training for all service members returning home.  Washington State Democratic Senator Patty Murray is the main sponsor.  She warned at a press conference outside the Capitol today that without action, America’s veterans risk being left behind.

Alaska’s Democratic Senator Mark Begich is sponsoring a range of legislation aimed at easing the transitions of veterans leaving the war zone and returning to civilian life.  But he says making sure vets can get jobs is a crucial piece of the puzzle, so they can provide for themselves and their families – and find self-worth.

Begich and other Senators were joined at the legislation’s launch by Eric Smith, a two-tour Iraq War combat veteran from Baltimore, Maryland, who can’t find a job.  Smith served in the U.S. Navy as a hospital corpsman, but has been told by hospitals he doesn’t have the right civilian certifications.  He pointed to one job at a hospital that was far less rigorous and difficult than his Navy service, but he still didn’t get it.

The Vets bill would start studies to identify the equivalent between military and civilian certifications and skills.  It would also provide training, counseling, and other services for vets as they look for jobs.

Sitka Retailer Begins Selling Google E-Books
Ed Ronco, KCAW – Sitka
A Sitka retailer has become the 250th book store in the nation to sell Google e-books, similar to the texts people can download on Kindles or other popular devices. That’s a milestone that might be more important to Google than to the general public. But, it’s also a sign of a changing industry.

Foster Care Center of Attention in May
Ellen Lockyer, KSKA – Anchorage
May is Foster Care Awareness Month, and Anchorage’s Big Brothers, Big Sisters is teaming up with Covenant House to start a volunteer mentoring program to help foster children who are cycling out of foster care.

Alaska has about 2,000 children in foster care. Almost half of them may face homelessness at some point in their lives after they leave their foster families.

Nicholas MacMillan is program director for Big Brothers, Big Sisters of Alaska in Anchorage.

The mentoring program can start when foster children are as young as sixteen, while they are still living with a family, MacMillan says.

Foster children usually cycle out of foster care at age 18 or 21.   MacMillan says statistics show that after they leave care, many foster youth do not fare well.

MacMillan says foster youth often go into other government programs, like welfare or even prison. The mentor program is aimed at changing hat dynamic.

The new pilot program is operating in Anchorage, the Matanuska Susitna area and Fairbanks and is being funded with state grants to the two organizations.

Summer Tourism Numbers Show Improvement
Len Anderson, KSKA – Anchorage
The falling trend in visitor numbers to Alaska and Anchorage seems to have bottomed out, according to a trio of speakers at Monday’s Anchorage Chamber of Commerce luncheon.

Attempts to Combat Invasive Species in Chena Slough, River Start This Summer
Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks
Initial attempts will be made this summer to combat an invasive plant growing in the Chena Slough and River.  Fairbanks Soil and Water Conservation District Invasive Plant specialist Darcy Echevery says a range of means will be tested to remove the Elodea weed that’s clogging sections of the waterways.

The Soil and Water Conservation District is drawing on a lot of experience from European nations and Russia, where Elodea has long been a problem.  Fairbanks is the farthest north the invasive plant has been found in North America. The nearest known range on the continent is in British Columbia. The weed is thought to have been introduced in Fairbanks by fishing gear or an aquarium dumped into local waters. Elodea creates a monoculture and inhibits fish passage.

CORRECTION: Fish and Game Looking to Learn More About the Wood Frog
And finally tonight, a correction. Tuesday, we said there was only one amphibian in Alaska – the Wood Frog.  But there are actually four kinds of amphibian in our state:  Frogs, Newts, Salamanders and Toads.  There are two kinds of frog; the aforementioned Wood Frog and the Columbia Spotted Frog.  There are two types of salamander too; the Long Toed and the Northwestern salamander. The Roughskin Newt and the Western Toad round out the list.