Alaska News Nightly: February 1, 2012

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Governor Opposes Formula Increase for Schools

Dave Donaldson, APRN – Juneau
Governor Parnell today showed no support for the Senate’s plans to increase the formula that determines how much state money goes to local school districts.  The Senate Education Committee this week approved a bill raising the Basic Student Allocation by $125 in this year’s budget,  $130 next  year and another $135 the year after that.

Parnell says he has told lawmakers that he does not want to increase any formulas that drive state spending.   He says under the current method,  the legislature does little more than write a check.   And he wants the education system to be more accountable and flexible.

“I am willing to consider and fund some fixed cost increases. For example, heat.   If it’s demonstrated – and it is demonstrated–  that heating costs for the next year are up, then we ought to fund that on a fixed basis.  And I’m willing to commit to that with legislators.”

Parnell said he recognizes that such spending could go against his cap on spending in this year’s budget, however he prefers the fixed cost spending approach.  He says the state could become overrun by formulas like he sees with the way federal money is spent.

Fairbanks Democrat Joe Thomas,  the co-chair of the Education Committee that wrote the bill making the spending increase,  says those one-time appropriations the governor likes are seen as cuts to the programs because schools can’t use them for planning their activities in future years.  He says there are unpredictable elements of spending that would have to be considered.

“We talk about pupil transportation, we talk about energy costs,  those are fluctuating numbers.   Generally they go up because everything, the running of the school, the running of the buses, is effected by fuel costs, the weather – things like that that are hard to predict.  We’re  probably  never going to fund education to the amount that is needed even as you review the factors yourself.”

The Senate bill is currently in the Finance Committee.

ANWR Bill Passes Natural Resources Committee

Lori Townsend, APRN – Anchorage

ANWR legislation is back before U.S. House members. The House Natural Resources committee is offering legislation that, among other things, would open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to development.  The language is part of a larger Republican jobs bill.  Congressman Don Young says he’s pleased that it passed out of committee.

The bill claims it will open only 3 percent of the ANWR area to development.  What that refers to is the so-called “footprint” of the actual oil infrastructure, compared to the size of the entire Refuge.

Democratic Senator Mark Begich says if the bill does pass the House and gets to the Senate, he’ll be ready to push for its passage with a companion bill.

Senator Begich says he thinks there is a new tone in Washington that may mark increased cooperation when it comes to domestic energy development. In part because President Obama is pushing for more domestic energy supplies but also because in the past few years, more states are dealing with energy development than they were in the past.

Senator Murkowski’s spokesman Robert Dillon says although Murkowski is in favor of ANWR development and she will continue to push for it, she says the House legislation will again face a tough, uphill battle in the Senate.

Also in the House energy legislation is a provision that would force a lease sale in the North Aleutian basin – the Bristol Bay region.  Congressman Young says although he thinks oil drilling and fisheries can co-exist, he is urging Natural Resources chair Doc Hastings to put this issue off for a while because of the push for drilling in the Chukchi and Beaufort.  Shell Oil is investing there now, and was also the main company interested in Bristol Bay, and Young points out there’s only so much equipment and cash to go around.

Congressman Young says he’d like the Bristol Bay area lease sale to be delayed for five years.

The Alaska Wilderness League’s executive director Cindy Shogun released a statement saying the ANWR effort is ‘yet another example of House Republican leadership playing the same old tired political game with our nation’s wildest refuge.’

New Rule Means Little Immediate Change For The Tongass

Ed Schoenfeld, CoastAlaska – Juneau & Steve Heimel, APRN – Anchorage

The Obama administration last week announced a new planning rule for national forests, and today said the Chugach National Forest will be among the first where the new rule will be used.

The Chugach’s current plan was enacted in 2002, and is due for renewal soon anyway.

According to Regional Forester Beth Pendleton, the Tongass National Forest, in Southeast, will be less affected by the new rule because many of its principles are already being applied there – such as watershed protections, and standards for restoring areas that have been logged.  She welcomes the new rule.

“The new real strength of this planning rule is that focus on collaborations and utilization of best science in that revision process,” Pendleton said.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack released the environmental impact statement needed to finalize the rule last week, saying it will mean stronger protections for forests, water and wildlife, while supporting rural economies.

“We know these communities rely on the forest for jobs, clean air and clean water. We believe that this framework will take their concerns into consideration. We also believe that if an amendment or a change is required, it will take less time and less money to accomplish that change than under previous efforts,” Vilsack said.

The Chugach Forest covers about five and a half million acres, including the Copper River Delta, much of the Kenai Peninsula, and wilderness areas in Prince William Sound.  Pendleton says she expects the new rule to be helpful in revising the land use plan for the Chugach:

“We will be doing that under a new, more modern planning rule that I believe is going to better reflect science, public values and knowledge on how to create and implement more effective land management plans,” Pendleton said.

The rule requires planners to address climate change’s impacts on the forests.  The environmental Impact Statement for the new rule is out for public comment.

Emissions Testing Ending March 1 In Anchorage
Daysha Eaton, KSKA – Anchorage
No more emissions tests in Anchorage. That was the decision of the Anchorage Assembly at its meeting Tuesday evening.

The once federally mandated emissions, or IM, program required drivers to pay for a $60 to $70 dollar vehicle emissions test every two years. The Environmental Protection Agency approved ending the program in January, saying it was no longer needed to protect air quality. The Assembly agreed to phase the program out in six months. But mayor Dan Sullivan proposed ending IM testing early.  And he got his wish, when the Assembly voted to end testing at their meeting late Tuesday evening.  But not before testimony from concerned business owners, including Richard Klein.

“We were told that we had six months after the EPA made their answer to Anchorage to end the program. We were told that and I’d like to start off that you promised us, the IM industry, that we would have the six months. You should honor your vote. You should honor what your told us. We’re business people, we have to make decisions ahead of time,” Klein said.

While business owners complained, Mayor Sullivan called the program, “government bureaucracy at its absolute worst,” and claimed if it went six more months it would require 45,000 cars be tested at a total cost of $3 million for drivers. Assemblyman Paul Honeman, who is running against Sullivan for mayor, said Sullivan was merely pandering to voters during an election year. Some questioned the addition of a Municipal tax that was added onto vehicle registrations just as the emissions test was being eliminated. Assembly member Harriet Drummond confirmed the tax had been added.

“70 dollars minimum on an 8-year-old car or older and sliding scale up to $150 for a new car, every two years. This is on top of the IM test (this goes to the city, right). That’s right. The state collects it and then gives it to the city,” Drummond said.

The municipal tax was added to vehicle registrations in January. The assembly voted 6-5 to eliminate emissions testing early. The program ends March 1.

Two Rural Alaskans Named To Federal Subsistence Board

Ben Matheson, KNOM – Nome

Two rural Alaskans have been named to the Federal Subsistence Board.  There is currently just one rural member on the board that manages fish and wildlife for subsistence uses on federal public lands and waters.

State Affairs Committee Hears Testimony On Language Bill

Ben Matheson, KNOM – Nome

The Alaska Senate State Affairs committee heard testimony Tuesday on Senator Donny Olson’s bill to create the Alaska Native Language Preservation and Advisory Council.   The council would assess statewide language policy and programs and seek to advance the most cost effective programs.  The council would meet at least twice a year and submit reports to the governor and legislature every two years.

Alaska Film Group, NANA Team Up To Attract Productions

Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks

A trade group and a Native Corporation are teamed up to promote a program that attracts movie and television productions to Alaska. The Alaska Film Group and Nana Regional Corporation owned Piksik LLC are pushing the state to extend its film incentive program. Film Group board member and Piksik project manager Deborah Schildt says the program is credited with increasing the number of movies and television shows shot in Alaska.

Schildt talked to the Fairbanks Chamber of Commerce about the importance of the incentive program yesterday. The program offers tax credits to production companies based on how much they spend in the state, hire locally and shoot in rural Alaska.

The Alaska film incentive program passed during the Palin administration and is scheduled to sunset in 2013. A bill to extend it is being considered by the legislature.  The Associated Press reported last month that Representative Anna Fairclough is concerned that some productions cast Alaska in a bad light, and wants an audit to better determine how the program is benefiting Alaskans.

The Film group attributes recent years’ film productions with employing thousands of state residents and supporting hundreds of Alaska businesses in recent years.  Schildt says supporters are pushing for a 10 year extension to provide long term stability for the industry in Alaska.

United Airlines To Fly Into Fairbanks This Summer

Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks

Fairbanks will have a 3rd major air carrier this summer. United Airlines is returning to the Fairbanks market after a several year absence.  United will run daily flights between Denver and Fairbanks June 7th through August 27th.  United joins fellow summer flyer Frontier and year round carrier Alaska Airlines in the Fairbanks market. Fairbanks Convention and Visitor’s Bureau CEO Deb Hickock says the additional airline should equate to more seasonal traffic.

Tourism is still recovering from the recession.  Hickock says Alaska is expecting improvement in 2012, but numbers are still forecast to be short of a 2008 peak.

Hickock says competition usually equates to better deals for consumers.  She cites the state’s top carrier, Alaska Airlines recent announcement of its Club 49 member benefit program as evidence of an increasingly competitive Alaska market.  Denver based Frontier joined the Fairbanks summer market in 2010.

Haines School Workers Get Some Social Security Money Returned

Tara Bicknell, KHNS – Haines

Some school workers in Haines are getting retirement investments returned to them early, in checks as large as $22,000, after the district alerted them that Social Security took too much out of their paychecks.