Alaska News Nightly: February 1, 2011

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Lawmakers Consider Change to Casting of Electoral College Votes
Casey Kelly, KTOO – Juneau
State lawmakers are considering legislation to pledge Alaska’s Electoral College votes every four years to the presidential candidate who wins the national popular election.

Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, Maryland, New Jersey, Washington and the District of Columbia have already agreed to cast their electoral votes for the nationwide winner by joining the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. Senate Bill 39 would sign Alaska onto the agreement.

Bill sponsor Anchorage Democrat Hollis French says if enough states join, it would ensure a vote of the people decides who is elected president.

The six states to join so far represent 74 Electoral College votes. To take effect the agreement needs the support of states representing 270 votes. Several other state legislatures are considering it. French says interstate agreements are a fairly common practice.

Supporters say the agreement would force presidential candidates to focus on more than just a handful of battleground states. Former Minnesota State Representative Laura Brod was invited to testify on SB 39 at a hearing today in the Senate State Affairs committee. The Republican introduced similar legislation in that state last year. And while it didn’t pass, Brod says Minnesota voters share many of the same concerns about presidential elections as Alaskans.

Several Alaskans identifying themselves as conservative or Republican voters also testified in favor of the legislation Tuesday.

The bill was held in State Affairs for another hearing.

Anchorage Senator Bettye Davis introduced the same bill last session, but it failed to pass. French’s bill has one co-sponsor, Anchorage Republican Lesil McGuire.

Testimony Continues at Waterman Trial
Ellen Lockyer, KSKA – Anchorage
Testimony continues in the state’s criminal case against Rachelle Waterman.  The Craig woman, now 22, is being retried for the 2004 murder of her mother, Lauri Waterman.   After a weekend break, jurors are listening to live and recorded testimony as the prosecution calls witnesses to the stand.

Troopers Issue Summons for Healy Man in Possession of Wolf Hybrids
Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks
Encounters with aggressive wolves on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson near Anchorage have prompted the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to issue orders to eliminate the animals on the base. Division of Wildlife Conservation Regional Supervisor Mark Burch says military and Fish and Game personnel have set snares on the base’s grounds, and were also shooting wolves on sight.

Burch says only one wolf has been killed so far, out of approximately a dozen wolves on the base.

Alaska State Troopers have issued a summons to a Healy man for possessing wolf hybrids.  DNA tests confirmed two dogs belonging to Terry Delbene as part wolf. Wolf hybrids are illegal due to public safety concerns, and fears a runaway animal might introduce disease or unwanted traits to the wild wolf population. Trooper spokeswoman Megan Peters says they received a tip about the Healy wolf dogs.

Some claim it’s too difficult to distinguish wolves and dogs, but hybrids are among animals illegal to own in Alaska and many other states. Department of Fish and Game spokeswoman Cathy Harms says a decade ago, the Alaska Board of Game took action to specifically identify and outlaw wolf dogs.

The law grandfathered in existing wolf hybrids registered by 2002.  There are numerous groups and websites devoted to wolf dog ownership and care, and thousands of the animals are held as pets.  Some look like malamutes and huskies, while others appear to be actual wolves. Most owners claim the animals are gentle, and loyal, but possess high energy and require heavy duty confinement. Harms says despite their genetic similarities, dogs and wolves are different, and hybrids present a threat.

The State Troopers Peters says the Healy wolf dogs are securely housed, and the animals remain safe with their owners. Possessing wolf hybrids is a class A misdemeanor, but Peters stresses the Healy case will have to play out in court. She says Troopers only occasionally charge wolf dog owners, but that it can result in animals being confiscated and killed.  The alleged wolf hybrid owner, Terry Delbene could not be reached for comment.

Begich Says Health Care Law Needs to be Followed Until Challenges Hit Supreme Court
Libby Casey, APRN – Washington DC
Alaska’s lone Congressional member who supports the 2010 federal Health Care Act says it’s the law, and has to be followed.  Democratic Senator Mark Begich says until challenges to it make their way to the Supreme Court, states like Alaska have to follow it.

Monday, a judge in Florida ruled that the law is “unconstitutional” because of its requirement that all Americans must have health insurance.  Alaska is one of 26 states signed on to the suit, and yesterday Governor Sean Parnell said he hopes the federal government will voluntarily suspend implementing the bill until the case reaches the Supreme Court.  The White House came out fighting however, and said it expects the law to be upheld and enactment to proceed.  So far two judges have upheld the law, and two have found at least part of it unconstitutional.

Senator Begich says it’s not up to the states at this moment to ignore it.

The Senate is expected to vote Wednesday on repealing the law.  All 47 Republicans are expected to vote for it, including Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski.

The House already passed a bill last month that would repeal the health care law, which Congressman Don Young voted for.  They called it “Repealing the Job-Killing Health Care Law Act.”

Sealaska Lands Bill Will be Reintroduced in Congress
Libby Casey, APRN – Washington DC
Every new session of Congress is a clean slate.  Bills that didn’t pass in the previous two-year cycle disappear.  It’s up to members of Congress to dust off their old bills and reintroduce them.  One of those that will soon get new life is the controversial Sealaska lands bill, which would give the Alaska Native Corporation the option to select different lands in the Tongass National Forest.  As APRN’s Libby Casey reports from Washington, exactly what form the bill will take will soon be seen.

Interior School Receiving Wood-Fired Heat
Tim Ellis, KUAC – Fairbanks
Another Interior school is getting a wood fired heating system.  As KUAC’s Tim Ellis reports the clean burning system is expected to save the district thousands of dollars in energy annually.

Bill Limiting Immigrants Rights to Drivers’ License Approved by Committee
Dave Donaldson, APRN – Juneau
A bill limiting immigrant’s rights to a drivers’ license was approved by the House State Affairs Committee Tuesday.  But it is not as harsh as it was when introduced.   The bill by Anchorage Republican Bob Lynn originally ordered the Department of Motor Vehicles not to issue the state’s standard license beyond the date the person’s U.S. Visa would expire.

However, Lynn did allow amendments to his bill.   He removed a restriction for people whose Visa’s had expiration dates that were unclear or indeterminate.

The Alaska Civil Liberties Union last week raised questions about the state’s constitutional right saying the bill could be taken as a challenge to the federal immigration laws and process.  But Legislative Attorney Jerry Luckhaupt said federal court decisions have set clear standards that the bill meets.

The Bill passed with no objection and next goes to the Finance Committee.  It has not yet been scheduled for a hearing.

Scientists Investigating Struggling Sea Lion Population
Joaqlin Estus, KNBA – Anchorage
In Seward, scientists are working to find out more about why the Steller Sea Lion population is struggling. Their population numbers in the western Aleutians have dropped by about 75 percent since the 1970s and the animals there are considered endangered. Biologists are hoping a breeding project at the Alaska Sea Life Center will offer some clues into the decline.

Derby Gets Rolling in Mat-Su
Jerzy Shedlock, APRN – Anchorage
Roller Derby in the valley is off to a healthy start. More than 300 attendees gathered last month at Curtis Menard Sports Center in Wasilla for the community’s first Rage City Roller Girls bout.

In the event “For Whom the Belle Rolls” two Anchorage teams, the Sockeye Sallys and the Devil’s Club, squared off. The valley’s own Denali Destroyer Dolls were introduced to the public during halftime. The team continues to train in hopes of incorporating the valley into the growing sport.