Alaska News Nightly: March 14, 2012

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Second Skier Dies From Avalanche Injuries

Tara Bicknell, KHNS – Haines

A second skier has died from his injuries from an avalanche that hit a group of six heli-skiers outside of Haines yesterday.

Nickolay Dodov, of Truckee, California, was taken off life support Wednesday afternoon at Harbor View Hospital in Seattle.  He was 26-years old.

Dodov was one of two people caught in an avalanche skiers called “massive,” that occurred on a mountain ridge about 20 air miles northwest of Haines Tuesday morning.  He was a client on a guided trip that used a helicopter to access the back country ski runs.  Their guide, 35-year-old Rob Liberman, died Tuesday.  Both men were recovered by other skiers and snowboarders. They were both wearing avalanche beacons.

Although the Lower 48 has experienced a relatively fatal avalanche season this year, these are the first avalanche-caused deaths in Alaska this winter.

AG Has An Open Mind To Tribal Courts

Dave Donaldson, APRN – Juneau

Michael Geraghty,  the Anchorage Attorney appointed as the state’s next Attorney General,  says “Tribal Courts are here to stay,” – saying it’s the law of the land and pointing to authority most recently recognized by the state Supreme Court in a Child Welfare case.  However, he says the courts are primarily focused in very limited areas of child custody and domestic relations.

But he says he will keep an open mind about expanding their scope. Although he has issues with giving tribes authority to handle criminal cases, he told the Senate Judiciary Committee that any decisions must consider whether the proceedings protect individuals’ rights and recognize due process.

“I’m going to keep an open mind about it.  Where we don’t have a presence and people are trying to do the right thing in their communities, I think we have to respect that.  We also have to respect their rights as citizens of the state and the due process rights that they’re afforded.  If tribes are interested in finding a way to somehow strike a balance where both goals can be met,  I want to keep an open mind about it.”

The Judiciary committee was questioning Geraghty in preparation for a vote to confirm his appointment.  That vote will come in a joint session before the end of this year’s legislative session.

House Ready To Vote On Budget

Dave Donaldson, APRN – Juneau

The state House of Representatives is ready for debate and a vote Thursday on the state operating budget for next year.

The Finance Committee approved a final version of the spending plan this morning Wednesday.

Anchorage Democrat Mike Doogan expressed the only opposition to the plan, saying the state is spending too much money when it’s facing the possibility of decrease in the state’s income if there’s a reversal of oil prices or production.

“In my view we have a responsibility to not do what is always done whenever there is any money,  which is: everything gets bid up;  and then when the money goes away,  everything comes down with a thump.  If anybody here – or anybody listening – thinks that we’re going to be able to sustain this level of spending … good luck to you.”

The committee has worked preparing the budget since the beginning of the session, mostly through subcommittees focusing on separate elements, branches and departments of government.  The final changes were made yesterday (Tuesday) with a package of amendments meeting individual member wishes.   Those last minute changes – among other things — increased money for the university and returned money that had originally been cut to early education.

Big Lake Republican Mark Neuman said he doesn’t know anyone who thinks budget increases are good – but he asked how to stop them when faced with increased costs of heating or the higher costs of paving a road.

“You just can’t stop that.  We do our best to do with what we’ve got.  I think there’s a lot of efficiencies where we spent a couple of bucks to try and save a couple of bucks in the future.  We’re preparing for those days when we don’t have the money. And that’s what I see a lot of in this budget, too.  Is it higher than what I want to see?   Well, I think it’s higher than everybody wants to see.  But sometimes you have to do today to prepare for tomorrow.”

The budget will be available for further amendments by the entire House and will be voted on tomorrow (Thursday).  From there,  it will go to the Senate for consideration.

EPA Fines Eielson For Hazardous Waste Mismanagement

Tim Ellis, KUAC – Fairbanks

The Environmental Protection agency is fining Eielson Air Force Base $45,000 for mismanaging hazardous waste.

Cleveland Volcano Explodes For Third Time

Stephanie Joyce, KUCB – Unalaska

Cleveland Volcano has exploded for the third time in just over a week.  The latest eruption of the Aleutian volcano Tuesday afternoon was relatively small, according to a release from the Alaska Volcano Observatory.

Scientists at the Observatory weren’t able detect an ash cloud associated with this event or either of the other two.  There’s no real-time monitoring equipment on Cleveland.

None of the recent eruptions have interrupted air travel in the region.

Cleveland’s last major eruption in 2001 sent ash clouds as high as 39,000 feet.  The volcano is on uninhabited Island, about 160 miles west of Unalaska.

Alaska Unemployment Rate Drops In January

Casey Kelly, KTOO – Juneau

Alaska’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate fell two-tenths of a percent in January, to 7.2 percent, according to figures released by the state Labor Department today (Tuesday).

State Economist Neal Fried says Alaska’s economy will always be seasonally-dependent. January’s non-adjusted unemployment rate was 8.1 percent – up from 7.6 percent in December – and most areas are seeing the usual drop in winter hiring. But Fried says the seasonal adjustment, which takes into account historical averages, shows the state is doing quite well.

“We all know that in Alaska the job market is considerably softer during the winter months, and continues to usually shed jobs through at least February of each year,” Fried says. “So you use those historical trends to help adjust for seasonality.”

The highest unemployment rate in the state in January was 28.4 percent in Skagway, which is heavily dependent on tourism jobs. The North Slope Borough had the lowest rate at 5.1 percent. Juneau’s rate was just a notch higher at 5.4 percent.

Fried says some areas saw unemployment rates decrease in January. For example, more people were working in Kodiak and parts of the Aleutian Islands, with the start of winter fisheries.

“A new season for pollock, cod, crab, and mackerel is much smaller. But there were a few places where the unemployment rate didn’t only drop, it dropped quite a bit,” Fried says. “I mean, you look at Aleutians East Borough, it went from 25.6 percent to 11.8 percent all in one month, that’s pretty dramatic.”

Alaska’s statewide unemployment rate remained lower than the national average for the 38th consecutive month. The national rate was also down two-tenths of a percent in January, to 8.3 percent.

Fried says the steady decline in national unemployment may help job seekers in Alaska.

“What it could mean is that fewer people are coming here to compete for those jobs, and it could also mean that a few more people leave,” Fried says. “People are constantly moving in and out of Alaska, we get tremendous flows each year. So, what happens in the rest of the country, independent of our economy, does affect opportunities in Alaska.

The Labor Department usually releases the unemployment figures on the third Friday of every month. Fried says the January numbers take longer to allow for additional year-start calculations. The February numbers will come out as scheduled on March 23rd.

Anchorage Set To Vote On Anti-Discrimination Proposition

Daysha Eaton, KSKA – Anchorage

The next Anchorage Municipal Election is set for April 3, and the most talked about measure on the ballot is Proposition 5. It aims to amend the city’s municipal code to add legal protections against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and transgender identity.

Today Drew Phoenix lives in a ranch style house in the Cheney Lake neighborhood on the East side of Anchorage.

“So here we are in the kitchen of our house. My girlfriend is a chef so we spend a lot of time in the kitchen, wonderful smells, amazing delicious food,” Phoenix said.

But finding a place to live wasn’t always so easy. The slim redhead,  sporting black-rimmed glasses, khaki pants and button up shirt moved to Anchorage a few years ago to work at a non-profit. When he arrived he applied to rent several apartments.

“Each of the three times, I qualified in every way possible and then they found out about my being transgender and then the conversation stopped,” Phoenix said.

He says all three times it went the same way. He’d fill out the application, the manager would check his references, the landlords would do a credit check. There was no problem with his credit, and he thought he would get the place, until they said:

“They said ‘what’s this woman’s name doing in your credit history? The name Anne Gordon is on your credit history. And I said, ‘well, that’s me, I’m transgender. Now I’m Drew Phoenix.’ And at that point the whole … um … their whole attitude changed and they said, ‘well this isn’t gonna workout,’” Phoenix said.

People in favor of Proposition 5, say situations like Drew’s would be prevented if it passed.  The Anchorage Equal Rights Initiative would change the municipal code to include protections for gay and transgender people. Protections already exist for race, color, sex, religion, national origin, marital status, age, physical disability and mental disability.  It would exempt official religious organizations, but require adherence by employers and landlords renting 4 or more units. A similar ordinance passed the Anchorage Assembly in 2009, but was vetoed by Mayor Dan Sullivan. Such a law would give Phoenix a basis on which to file a complaint with the Anchorage Equal Rights Commission, and a lawsuit against the apartment complexes that rejected him.

And that’s exactly what those opposed to Prop 5 are worried about. Because they believe religious people – not just official organizations – should be allowed to decide who they do business with – from renting apartments to hiring employees.

“When law violates conscience, you have a major issue,” Shiloh Baptist Church Pastor Alonzo Patterson said.

Patterson is a black man who grew up in the segregated South and lived through the civil rights movement. But he says discriminating against gay and transgendered people is different.

“Gays say their civil rights are violated just like black civil rights are violated. They chose to become gay. I didn’t choose to become black, I was born that way,” Patterson said.

He says in many conservative Christians’ minds: “Sin is sin, based upon God’s law. I don’t see the gay as something nasty out there, I really don’t. I see the gay the same as I see a prostitute who violates God’s law, same as I see any other personal behavior that violates God’s law,” Patterson said.

But not every religious organization in town is opposed to Prop 5. St. Mary’s Episcopal Church recently invited Phoenix to come tell his story to their congregation.

Besides being an activist for the transgender community, Phoenix is also an ordained United Methodist Minister and says faith plays a central role in his work and life. Pastor Michael Burke leads St. Mary’s church. He’s also a member of the pro prop 5 group Christians for Equality. The group includes more than 40 Christian pastors in Anchorage.

He says whether you think being gay or transsexual is against God’s laws in the public sphere, all people should be treated equally. He asked his parishioners to think about Jesus’ example.

“Think about what your responsibility and what your response to a call to equality might be in the next few weeks. It is time that the community have an opportunity to hear the blessing of an alternative Christian voice, people of deep faith who take their cues from the scriptures as followers of Jesus, to do as Jesus would have us do to speak out on equality and fairness for people,” Burke said.

Both sides are mounting big campaigns to bring people to the polls on April 3rd. Ordinances similar to the one Prop 5 would create exist in more than 150 U.S. cities and counties.

Activists Organize To Protect Local Watersheds

Ed Schoenfeld, CoastAlaska – Juneau

Activists across Alaska are organizing to protect local watersheds. They met last week in Juneau to compare notes and make plans for future efforts.

Brent Sass Takes Iditarod Rookie Of The Year Honors

Anne Hillman, APRN Contributor

Fourteen teams have made it in to Nome. The latest musher’s to cross the finish line include Deedee Jonrowe, Ken Anderson and Sonny Linder. They arrived more than half a day after 25-year-old Dallas Seavey became the youngest musher to win the Iditarod.

This year’s Iditarod Rookie of the Year is Brent Sass. The 32-year-old finished in 13th place after 9 days, 21 hours, and 28 minutes on the trail. He finished 5th in this year’s Yukon Quest. At the finish line, his dogs looked fuzzy, fit, and at a healthy weight.

The team was a bit distracted on the way in by another small dog on the sidelines. They pulled him to the edge of the shoot and had to be re-directed. Sass said his team made a strong, fast pull at the end.

Sass says his first Iditarod will not be his last.  There are still nearly 40 teams out on the trail, including Dallas Seavey’s grandfather, Dan, who’s in Unalakleet.

Prince William Sound Residents Get Help In Financial Recovery From Storm

Tony Gorman, KCHU – Valdez

Home and business owners in Prince William Sound are getting an opportunity to financially recover from this year’s winter storm.  The U.S. Small Business Administration opened Disaster Loan Outreach Centers in Valdez and Cordova, Wednesday, to offer low-interest federal disaster loans to those affected.

Stryker Soldiers Begin To Return To Ft. Wainwright

Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks

The first major group of Ft. Wainwright Stryker Brigade soldiers returned to Fairbanks yesterday following a year-long deployment to Afghanistan.