Alaska News Nightly: February 10, 2012

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Resources Committee Opens Hearings On Oil Tax Bill

Dave Donaldson, APRN – Juneau

The Senate Resources Committee late Friday afternoon opened a series of hearings on a bill changing the state’s oil tax regime. Revenue Commissioner Brian Butcher has been before the Committee explaining the oil production downturn that he says began about the time the legislature passed the current tax on company profits as worldwide oil prices began to increase.  The Senate Finance Committee begins informational hearings Monday morning comparing Alaska to other oil-rich parts of the world.

Senate Votes To Increase School Funding

Dave Donaldson, APRN – Juneau

The Senate today passed the bill increasing funding for local schools by $30-million in next years’ budget.   During both Education Committee and Finance Committee hearings,  school boards and administrators have said that they need much more than that to avoid laying off teachers and cutting programs.      In floor debate, Education Co-chair Joe Thomas – a Democrat from Fairbanks – called it a modest increase of about two percent on an annual basis.    He said the cost of not funding education is too expensive.   He pointed to the correlation between education and corrections,  saying that the money spent on the new Goose Creek Prison would be equal to a $1-thousand per student increase.  And operating it wil equal a $200 per student increase – every year.

State Working To Implement Affordable Care Act Requirements

Annie Feidt, APRN – Anchorage

Alaska is one of several states suing to overturn the Affordable Care Act- President Obama’s health care overhaul. But behind the scenes, state agencies are quietly working on implementing various requirements in the law. One of those requirements is an exchange, which will work kind of like Expedia, but for health insurance plans. While the state studies its options, a bill moving through the legislature would also establish an exchange.

Alaska is not anywhere close establishing a health insurance exchange. But the Parnell administration has taken the first step in that direction. Last month, the state hired a Boston consulting firm, Public Consulting Group to look at options for setting up an exchange. Josh Applebee is the state’s deputy director for Health Care Policy.

“The biggest problem I think is we don’t have enough information to decide are we going to do a state exchange, are we going to do a partnership with the federal government, are we going to let the federal government run the exchange themselves? If we do the state exchange, what does it look like? What kind of form is it going to take? How much is it going to cost? All of these questions need to be answered,” Applebee said.

The exchange will allow consumers to easily find and compare health insurance plans on line. Public Consulting Group is helping 13 other states decide how to implement an exchange. Applebee says the state will benefit from that experience, but the company will also have to take Alaska’s unique characteristics into account.

“Certainly we deliver health care farther than any other state and in different ways than any other state. So they can bring their experience with them, but they also need to apply that to whatever happens here in the state,” Applebee said.

Alaska is the only state that did not accept a $1 million planning grant from the federal government. And the state is paying Boston Consulting Group $200,000 for their work. A few states have exchanges in place and more than a dozen have made significant progress. Applebee says Alaska is benefiting from taking a slow approach.

“We’re learning from other state’s mistakes and we’re taking advantage of other state’s successes. And I think that’s an advantage we have in our timeline,” Applebee said.

If the state hasn’t made reasonable progress towards setting up an exchange by early next year, it may set the stage for the federal government to do it instead. That’s why Senator Hollis French- a Democrat from Anchorage, is hoping to convince other lawmakers to pass his bill establishing one.

“Once you realize you’re going to get an exchange imposed upon you from Washington, it only makes sense to try to create one that works for Alaskans,” French said.

Governor Parnell does not support French’s bill. And Senator French does not support the administration’s work.

“I think the Governor is making a mistake by circumventing the legislature and going without our input,” French said.

It’s unclear how much support French has among his colleagues in the legislature. He expects to bring his bill to the Senate floor for a vote soon. Senator Cathy Giessel – a Republican from Anchorage, will not vote for it. She agrees with the administration’s approach studying exchange options. Asked to speculate on how the bill will fare, she says the focus right now in Juneau is on just one thing: oil taxes.

“Wow, it’s really sucking the air out of the room, so I don’t know what chance this has of actually getting all the way through the process,” Giessel said.

But Senator French is optimistic. He says other aspects of the Affordable Care Act are controversial, but the health care exchange is not.

“This is really about just trying to find an affordable insurance policy for the citizens of the state, and most people can agree that’s a good thing. they may disagree about how you get there, but it’s a pretty rare person who doesn’t want to see more people covered by insurance,” French said.

The administration expects the consultant’s study and recommendations to be ready by the end of March or early April. But Applebee says the state will wait until the Supreme Court rules on the Affordable Care Act in June to decide how to move forward.

Koenig’s Father Plans Vigil, Says Stands Not Safe

Daysha Eaton, KSKA – Anchorage

It’s been more than a week since Samantha Koenig went missing in Anchorage. For several days now, her father, James has been camped out inside a motor home next to the coffee stand where his 18-year-old daughter worked. He says the stands are not safe.

“You know, you can put all the silent alarms on it all you want but If it had an air raid horn it, I guarantee you the  guy woulda run off. Because from what I’ve heard in the video there were men walking out of the Alaska club when this was taking place. You know these coffee stands do not need house windows in em that can fit a human body through. All you need is enough to fit a 20 ounce cup a coffee through it,” Koenig said.

Koenig’s father added that there should have been a buddy system in place at the coffee stand and that his daughter should not have been required to close up shop alone. Photos of the petite brunette have appeared on billboards and bulletin boards across the state and on the Internet since Koenig went missing on Feb. 1. Police say security footage shows her being led away from the coffee stand by an armed man in a hoodie. The man allegedly entered the Common Grounds Espresso hut in the parking lot of the Alaska Club on East Tudor, then walked away with her toward the Old Seward Highway, and she hasn’t been seen since. Cash was also reported missing. The case has been classified as an abduction based on Koenig’s demeanor and the man’s actions. A candlelight vigil is set for 6:30pm Saturday night in Town Square in downtown Anchorage. Koenig is 5 foot 5 and 140 pounds with Brown Hair and Brown Eyes. Anyone with information leading to her whereabouts is asked to contact the Anchorage Police Department.

Bill Moves Quickly To Slow Down Electronic Reports For Candidates

Dave Donaldson, APRN – Juneau

A bi-partisan  bill that’s on a fast-track to the governor’s desk got through the House today and will be heard in the Senate Monday morning.   The measure delays current law requiring candidates to file their campaign finance reports online.   Those reports go to the Public Offices Commission which has had problems getting the computer system to work for everyone who has tried it.

Mushers Begin To Leave Dawson City

Emily Schwing, KUAC – Fairbanks

The top 3 Yukon Quest leaders are running  tight, but the group behind is not giving up as teams head over the next 500 miles of trail toward the finish in Whitehorse.

As KUACs Emily Schwing reports from Dawson, Quest rookie Jake Berkowitz is sandwiched right in the middle of accomplished veterans at the front of this year’s race.

Fire Consumes St. Paul’s Trident Warehouse

Alexandra Gutierrez & Stephanie Joyce, KUCB –Unalaska

Firefighters in St. Paul stayed up through the night trying to put out a large blaze in the middle of town.

Anchorage television station KTUU first reported that a warehouse owned by Trident Seafoods erupted in flames at about 10:30pm Thursday. While the fire has continued to smoke through the afternoon, a group of 25 responders, including Coast Guard personnel, have been able to keep it from spreading to nearby buildings.

Because of the fire’s central location, area residents were evacuated to city hall. According to Fire Chief KC Alberg, no injury reports or missing persons notices have been filed with the St. Paul Department of Public Safety. He adds that the building is expected to be a total loss, and that clean-up could be tricky, given the materials inside.

“There was a large volume of chemicals stored there,” says Alberg. “We have been told that there were oils and possibly some fuel and some other hazardous materials.” Alberg adds that the cause of the fire is still under investigation.

The Trident warehouse was built during the 1940s, and lies in the middle of 400-person St. Paul. According to Trident President Paul Padgett, the company stopped using it as a plant about 15 years ago and has long since removed any valuable equipment. Now, Trident mostly uses it to store salt and fiber, and they lease some of the warehouse space to the Native corporation TDX.

Padgett adds that the loss of the building should not have an effect on their operations, since they had other processing materials stored in their main plant.  It’s also not nearly as disruptive as the sea ice that’s recently enveloped St. Paul and prevented fishing vessels from coming into the harbor.

“It’s not going to cause any problem whatsoever, says I think the only problem we’ve got right now is still a little bit of ice out front.”

Trident is the largest seafood company in America, and its St. Paul facility processes much of the snow crab harvested in the United States.

UAF Replacing Community and Technical College Dean

Tim Ellis, KUAC – Fairbanks

University of Alaska Fairbanks administrators have placed the dean of the school’s Community and Technical College on paid leave and will search to replace her. Susan Whitener is being removed after a little more than six months on the job.

AK: Love

Jennifer Canfield, KMXT – Kodiak

Valentine’s Day honors the most wonderful feeling in the world. It’s overwhelming, enchanting, frightening and empowering. It can be salty or sweet and sometimes it’s both. There really isn’t anything better.

Love is what we’re after in this life and any one of us are lucky to find just one person to share it with. In celebration of this most venerable emotion, we travel to Kodiak where KMXT’s Jennifer Canfield met a group of five friends whose hearts are filled with music.

300 Villages: Ambler

Now it’s time for the segment we call 300 villages. This week, we’re heading to the arctic community of Ambler, near Kotzebue. That was Don Thurman, a teacher in Ambler.