Alaska News Nightly: January 31, 2011

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Parnell Calls for Delay of Health Care Law Implementation
Libby Casey, APRN – Washington DC
Alaska’s governor is calling on the federal government to temporarily suspend implementation of the health care overhaul after a judge in Florida struck down the law as un-Constitutional on Monday. Governor Sean Parnell says he’s concerned about rising health care costs, but he says solutions to the problem must be Constitutional.  Alaska is among the 26 states taking part in the lawsuit. A major point of contention is a provision requiring citizens to buy health insurance or face penalties. Parnell wants the government to suspend the law until the U.S. Supreme Court decides the matter.

The Obama Administration has pledged to appeal, and the case is expected to go to the Supreme Court.

A senior White House official told reporters in a conference call Monday that he’s confident the ruling won’t stand.  The Obama Administration is calling it a case of “judicial over-reach.”  White House officials say there’s no reason for implementation of the law to stop, and that the federal government will move forward instituting the law – as should the states. The White House notes that the Florida judge did not issue an injunction to stop the law from taking affect.

The controversial element of the law challenged in court, the “individual mandate” that people must buy health insurance, is not scheduled to kick in until 2014.

A dozen federal judges have dismissed other challenges to the health care law and two judges have upheld it.  A Virginia judge, however, found the “individual mandate” unconstitutional, but he upheld the rest of the law, and didn’t go as far as the Florida judge.

Report Shows Sea Ice May Recover if Greenhouse Gas Emissions Reduced
Annie Feidt, APRN – Anchorage
Reducing greenhouse gas emissions could go a long way toward saving the world’s polar bears. That’s the conclusion of a recent study that looked at whether the sea ice the bears depend on would recover if humans took steps to cut emissions. The report challenges the widely held idea that the ice would never be able to bounce back once it hit a certain tipping point.

House Approves Senior Benefits Program
Dave Donaldson, APRN – Juneau
Monday, the House approved a program that helps low-income senior citizens with a small monthly benefit to encourage them to stay in the state. The Senior Benefits Program provides up to $250 per month to about 10,000 people and starts with lower payments to those who receive less than 175-percent of the federally-set poverty level.   Their average age is 75 – and the oldest recipient is 105-years old.

Originally passed in 2007 – and set to expire in June without the extension – the program costs about $20-million per year and is fully funded in the budget the governor prepared for next year.

In explaining the program to the Finance Committee this morning, sponsor Mike Hawker said the program is not seen as an “entitlement” – meaning it can be eliminated if necessary.

Finance Co-Chair Bill Stoltze points out that the Parnell administration recognizes the potential growth of the program as the general population ages and has added a supplemental appropriation to cover its growth this year.

The bill – the first in this year’s session – passed the committee and on the floor with no dissention.  The Senate has already scheduled a hearing on its own version of the measure on Wednesday.

Clean Energy Goals May Boost Market for Alaska Gas
Libby Casey, APRN – Washington DC
President Obama’s goal of boosting clean energy in the U.S. over the next 20 years should be welcome news in Alaska, according to former Governor Tony Knowles.  Knowles is now president of the National Energy Policy Institute, a non-partisan, non-profit organization that researches energy policy and is based in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

President Obama said in last week’s State of the Union address that he wants to see the nation using 80 percent clean energy by the year 2035.  That includes natural gas – and controversial forms of energy like clean coal and nuclear.  It basically counts all types of energy except traditional coal.

Knowles says including gas in the equation could help Alaska’s natural gas find a market despite competition from shale and other gas hubs closer to market.  The National Energy Policy Institute came up with some models of how the country could hit the President’s goals.

Knowles was in Washington DC Monday at a luncheon about energy issues that featured the Chairman of the Senate Energy Committee, Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico.  Bingaman has supported renewable energy focused more on wind and solar power.  But, Monday, he said he’ll back the President’s clean energy goals including gas and nuclear energy, as long as it still has incentives specifically for renewable projects.

Transportation Officials to Present Plans for Road to Nome
Tim Ellis, KUAC – Fairbanks
State transportation officials will present plans for a proposed road to Nome at a public meeting in Fairbanks Monday night.

New DOT Commissioner Looking to Save Money
Ed Schoenfeld, CoastAlaska – Juneau
The new boss of Alaska’s Transportation Department is looking for ways to save money. Commissioner Mark Luiken oversees state highways, airports and ferries, along with a large budget for staff, equipment and construction. The almost 30-year Air Force veteran will make decisions that could affect almost everyone in the state.

Deedee Jonrowe Wins Tustumena 200
Ben Stanton, KDLL – Kenai
Willow musher Deedee Jonrowe won the Tustumena 200 sled dog race on the Kenai Peninsula over the weekend.

Four Skiers Safe After Avalanche
Aaron Selbig, KBBI – Homer
A group of backcountry skiers from Anchorage found themselves swept up in an avalanche on the Kenai Peninsula Saturday. Thanks to a little bit of luck and their own preparation, all four survived.

Study Commissioned to Measure Yearly Economic Output of Salmon Fisheries
Robert Woolsey, KCAW – Sitka
In Southeast Alaska it is easy to think about the value of salmon in dollars per pound. Fish prices are as common in conversation as the weather.

But most people don’t think about how the value of a salmon translates into jobs and expenditure outside the industry itself. The sport fishing and conservation advocacy group Trout Unlimited is trying to change that. The organization recently commissioned a study that attempts to measure the yearly overall economic output of the commercial, sport, and subsistence salmon fisheries for Southeast.