Alaska News Nightly: April 19, 2011

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Governor’s Letter to Legislature Draws Rise from Leadership
Dave Donaldson, APRN – Juneau
Tuesday, Governor Sean Parnell today put more distance between himself and the Senate Majority – making it less likely there will be a quick resolution to the impasse that led to the current special session.

In a letter to the House and Senate Majority and Minority Leaders – that was soon widely distributed throughout the capitol – the governor put the blame for the special session directly on what he called “the Senate’s departure from standard legislative budget practices.”   He also referred to the Senate’s concerns that he will veto capital projects in their districts based on their support of the oil tax cuts that failed to pass this year.  However, he took no steps to relieve those concerns.

Senate Finance Co-Chairman Bert Stedman said before seeing the letter he thought talks were going forward toward a resolution, but now he has to wonder if they are further apart.

“I think firing off letters like that is like throwing a bomb down a chimney.   It’s not exactly like getting things settled down and moving forward.  No matter how big an explosion it is, you still have to move forward to do the public business,” Stedman said.

Referring to the veto threats linked to legislation cutting the tax on oil,  Anchorage Democrat Les Gara said today’s letter was not useful.

“We could move ahead by leaps and bounds if the governor would make clear that the veto threat doesn’t exist,  that he will not look particularly at those people who did not support his oil tax legislation.  I think that will help us get out of here faster,  but I don’t think today’s letter helped at all,” Gara said.

Stedman says the Office and Management and Budget as well as the House Finance Committee have all the documentation necessary for them to review the projects listed in the capital budget.

Denali Commission May Need to Return $15 Million
Rosemarie Alexander, KTOO – Juneau
The Denali Commission may have to return $15 million in federal funds. The Commission carried over the funds from various sources and obligated them to other projects.  Now Congress says it wants the money back.  That could have a major impact on projects in rural Alaska.

Denali Commission funding reached a high of $140 million from various sources in 2005 and has since been steadily declining.  Funding last year was less than $65 million.

Amid that reality, commissioners have held listening sessions in Anchorage, Bethel, Fairbanks and Juneau over the last month. The final session is in Nome on Wednesday at Pioneer Hall.

Senate Approves First Steps of Susitna River Hydro Dam
Dave Donaldson, APRN – Juneau
Tuesday, the Senate approved the first steps toward a hydroelectric dam on the Susitna River.   The bill, which was included in Governor Parnell’s call for a special session, allows the Alaska Energy Authority to start this summer with field studies, taking the first necessary permit and licensing steps to get the project beyond the “studies” that have already been done.

Fairbanks Democrat Joe Thomas said the bill also frees up money for the first work on the site that has been talked about for more than 25 years.   And he said people can stop wondering, “what would have happened.”

The Senate’s capital budget provides $65 million this year for work on the project – and lawmakers expect to spend about $30 million a year for the next five years.   After that, members expect to need as much as four Billion dollars to finish the project.

The Bill goes back to the House for a concurring vote before being sent to the Governor.

Troopers Recover Body From Mountain Near Bird Creek
Associated Press
Alaska State Troopers are recovering a body off a mountain near Bird Creek between Anchorage and Girdwood.

A spokesman for the Alaska Mountain Rescue Group tells the Anchorage Daily News that the man may have died in an avalanche on Bird Ridge.

Troopers were summoned when the man didn’t show up for work and friends found his car in an area where he liked to hike.

The car was found in the parking lot at Bird Creek. Troopers sent a helicopter to search the area and a spotter saw the body near a mountain.

No names have been released.

Commission Rules in Favor of Woman Claiming to Have Been Forced from Job
Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks
The Alaska State Commission for Human Rights has ruled in favor of a Fairbanks woman who claims she was forced from her job by her boss’s incessant criticism of her religion. The commission has ordered Goldstream General Store owner Paul Kopf to pay Lynn Dowler over $76,000 in lost wages.  Agency attorney Steve Koteff says Kopf used the store as venue to talk up his Christian faith, and make derogatory comments about Catholicism.

Koteff says Dowler’s case is somewhat unusual, because three fellow former employees backed up her story.

The Alaska State Commission for Human Rights was established in 1963 to enforce the state’s civil rights laws. Its decisions can be appealed in Superior court, and Kopf, who denies down talking Catholicism, intends to.

Kopf says the accusations stem from a broader dispute between him and the former employees. He says Dowler and the three others, including her daughter, became upset and quit because he changed their work hours.

Kopf says Dowler and the others are trying to financially ruin him. The Commission for Human Rights ruling in Dowler’s favor includes both back and future wages. Dowler worked at the Goldstream Store for 27 years prior to quitting in 2009, and the Commission’s Koteff says she hasn’t been able to find a comparable job.

Frontline Documentary Addresses Sex Abuse by Clergy in Rural Alaska
Annie Feidt, APRN – Anchorage
A documentary airing on the PBS show “Frontline” Tuesday night tells the horrific story of clergy sex abuse of children in the village of St. Michael in the 1960’s and 70’s.  Many of the abuse survivors speak publicly for the first time in the film. They hope opening up about their trauma will heal wounds that are still raw three decades after the abuse happened.

Redistricting Board Taking Public Comments
Ellen Lockyer, KSKA – Anchorage
The state’s Redistricting Board is taking public comment this week on its two options for an Alaska redistricting map.  The first in a series of hearings to be held around the state took place in Anchorage on Monday, and, many of the city’s residents say the board’s draft plan only fractures neighborhoods.

Northwest Anchorage resident, Shirley Rivas, says  the draft places half of her Muldoon neighborhood in the  Anchorage suburb of Eagle River, some 15 miles away.

The Board released its draft redistricting plan on April 13, and some said the hearing came before people had a chance to absorb the information. But Dave Ulmer, another Muldoon resident, says the proposed district revision has political overtones.

Both major political parties are watching the redistricting plan unfold with sharp interest.  Republican Party of Alaska Chair Randy Reudrich, said the draft map for Anchorage is “troubling at best.”

Reudrich hailed a plan put forward by the Alaskans For Fair Redistricting as superior to the one the board was offering

And Democratic Party of Alaska Executive Director Deborah Williams presented an alternate plan devised by the Rights Coalition.  Williams told the panel she was testifying for herself only, as a Mat Su property owner. Williams said Mat Su is required to have five intact House districts, based on requirements of 17,775 population as ideal district size.

Williams refers to the option that would create a Southeast Senate district from two House districts separated by hundreds of miles.

Perhaps one of the major changes to come will concern the Matanuska Susitna Borough, because population growth there will boost representation.

The Redistricting Board holds hearings this week in Fairbanks, Juneau and Cordova.

Budget Boosts Shipyard as AK-Class Ferry Builder
Ed Schoenfeld, CoastAlaska – Juneau
The capital budget up for debate during this week’s special session includes money to help Ketchikan’s shipyard get ready to build the first Alaska Class Ferry. Separate legislation, which may be rolled into the bill, could fund vessel construction.