Alaska News Nightly: February 14, 2011

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Department of Law Determines Alaska Not Required to Follow Health Care Legislation
Dave Donaldson, APRN – Juneau
The Department of Law has advised Governor Sean Parnell that Alaska is not required to follow the national Health Care legislation that went into effect last year.

The governor plans to follow that advice.

Last month, a Florida federal district court found the act unconstitutional, and Attorney General-designee John Burns told House and Senate Judiciary Committees Monday that he has advised the governor that – unless overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court – the Florida decision is binding in Alaska.

Burns argues the decision leaves compliance up to the states.

But Senate Judiciary Chairman Hollis French disagreed with Burns’ advice, saying that without an injunction from the Florida Court, or a confirming opinion by the U.S. Supreme Court, the decision leaves the law in place.

The governor’s staff says in an e-mail response, “The governor will not implement a law that has been ruled unconstitutional. He is committed to working to find ways to increase accessibility and improve affordability of health care for Alaskans.”

The Florida case has not yet been appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, however the Justice Department – and the state’s challenging the law – have indicated that a national decision is needed.

Alaska Senate Passes Voter Intent Bill
Casey Kelly, KTOO – Juneau
Monday morning, the Alaska Senate unanimously passed legislation ensuring a voter intent priority for the counting of write-in ballots.

The bill clears up state election law, which failed U.S. Senate candidate Joe Miller sued over after last fall’s race in Alaska. Miller argued that ballots cast for his rival, Senator Lisa Murkowski, should be thrown out if voters didn’t perfectly write in her name. State and federal judges disagreed, but said the current statute is poorly worded and recommended clarifying it.

Bill sponsor Fairbanks Democrat Joe Thomas says the language of the bill is almost identical to federal legislation for the counting of write-in votes.

Anchorage Democrat Bill Wielechowski says the bill should prevent further disputes, and keep the state from having to defend the statute in court. The attorney general’s office estimated it spent about $100,000 defending the law from Miller’s challenges.

Miller threatened to take his case to the U.S. Supreme Court, but ultimately stopped at the federal district court level.

The bill now goes to the House of Representatives for its consideration.

Obama’s $3.7 Trillion Proposed Budget Cuts 200 Programs
Libby Casey, APRN – Washington DC
Alaska takes some lumps in the budget proposed by President Obama Monday, but it could’ve been worse.  The President’s $3.7 trillion budget cuts or eliminates more than 200 programs, yet invests in education and other areas.  It calls for a freeze in annual domestic spending over five years.

As APRN’s Libby Casey reports, some of the Alaskan items on the chopping block have been there before.

Crews Work to Remove Fuel from Grounded Fishing Vessel
Jacob Resneck, KMXT – Kodiak
A beached fishing vessel has discharged hundreds of gallons of diesel fuel into Malina Bay off Afognak Island northwest of Kodiak. Efforts are underway to remove the remaining fuel from the 86-foot Midnite Sun that went aground early Friday. The five-man crew was rescued by a Coast Guard helicopter.

The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation reports the Midnite Sun was carrying 6,000 gallons of diesel fuel and 200 gallons of lube and hydraulic oil.

John Brown is with the state DEC. He says as much as 1,500 gallons of diesel has spilled into the bay.

Coast Guard spokesman Petty Officer David Mosley says the rest of the fuel will be drained as soon as possible before the vessel is salvaged.

The cause of the grounding is still under investigation. The vessel grounded in an area designated as habitat for endangered marine mammals including the Northern Sea Otter and Steller Sea Lion.

Extreme Cold, Overflow Problems Wreaks Havoc on Quest Trail
Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks
It’s unclear who is leading the Yukon Quest sled dog race. Quest officials say extreme cold has hampered the GPS trackers each musher is carrying, making them unreliable. Hugh Neff left the central checkpoint in the lead this morning at 4:11. Dan Kaduce followed at 12:30 and Ken Anderson at 1pm.

The trail from Central to the Mile 101 Dog Drop is only 28 miles long, but includes overflow plagued lowlands followed by seriously steep climbing. Severe overflow and extreme cold are slowing down the mushers speed, as they just try to survive.

Hugh Neff encountered overflow trouble before Central.  He says he was up to his knees at one point, and facing deadly conditions. The incident forced Neff to drop a key lead dog at Central.  The animal apparently got sick after being submerged in overflow at 50 below temperatures.  Four-time and defending Quest Champ Hans Gatt scratched at Central this morning after going into the ice water. Sebastian Schnuelle says Gatt was submerged chest deep and his dogs were swimming.

Schnuelle made a fire and helped Gatt fashion some boots from dog blankets, food sacks and lines.  When the two finally made it to Central, Gatt had 3 frostbitten fingers and decided to drop out.

Gatt had a difficult race.  He nearly froze to death after being caught by a blizzard on American Summit outside Eagle. Sebastian Schnuelle says racing is also off his mind.  After rescuing Gatt outside Central, he says he lost his chance to make up the time on Hugh Neff.

Meanwhile, another Quest veteran isn’t giving up. Dan Kaduce has run a conservative race and his team has been gaining speed.  Kaduce is well positioned to keep moving up, but he wasn’t overconfident after arriving in Central in 3rd place.

Kaduce, Schnuelle, Sass, Ken Anderson and rookie Dallas Seavy make up the chase group, while Allen Moore and Kelly Griffin have been running a little farther back. The Quest field has shrunken from 25 to 16.  The latest to scratch are Gatt, Josh Cadzow and Didier Moggia.

Rural Alaska Gets Mixed News in Political Realm
Ed Schoenfeld, CoastAlaska – Juneau
The political realm offers good and bad news for rural Alaska. That’s the word from two key Alaska Federation of Natives leaders. They say the good news is about some Congressional assignments, and the bad news is about reapportionment.

Federal Subsistence Board May Gain Larger Rural Voice
Annie Feidt, APRN – Anchorage
The Interior Department wants to add two members who will represent rural interests to the Federal Subsistence Board. The board oversees subsistence fishing and hunting on federal public lands in Alaska. The chair has always been an Alaska Native, and the five other seats represent the federal land management agencies in Alaska and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Polly Wheeler is deputy assistant regional director for the office of subsistence management. She says rural subsistence users who weighed in on a review of the federal program in 2010 wanted a louder voice on the board.

Wheeler says rural subsistence users are already represented on ten regional advisory councils. She says their influence in the process won’t change if two new members are added to the board.

Wheeler is expecting to field a lot of comments on the proposal. The public comment period is open until April 12. The board will then make a recommendation on the issue, but it’s up to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to make the final decision.

Former Sitka Teacher, Family Back in Town Waiting to See What Happens in Cairo
Robert Woolsey, KCAW – Sitka
The political victory that appears to have been won in Egypt has come at the cost of major disruptions to the country’s routine patterns of life. A former Sitka math teacher and his family are among those whose lives were upended during the eighteen days of mass protests in Cairo. They’re temporarily back in Alaska among friends, waiting to see what happens to the city they now call home.