Associated Press

Latest oil tax bill would phase out most credits by 2020

JUNEAU (AP) — Most current oil and gas tax credits in Alaska would be phased out by 2020 under a draft rewrite of legislation pending in the House Rules Committee. The draft has yet to be formally introduced or heard by the committee, which took possession of the bill after a prior version appeared destined to fail on the House floor. Resolution on credits is seen as key to making progress on the budget and revenue measures as the Legislature continues working in extended session. Documents for the draft rewrite were posted on the legislature's website. A summary of the rewrite also states that a tax break for North Slope oil produced from newer fields would be limited to 10 years once regular production starts, rather than being a timeless benefit.

Alternate meeting sites being weighed as session continues

JUNEAU (AP) — Lawmakers planned to tour potential alternate meeting sites Monday as the extended session continued and the deadline for being out of the state Capitol approached. The Capitol effectively will need to be cleared out by next Monday under the current schedule for the building's renovation. Lawmakers have been meeting in extended session after the House was unable to reach agreement on an oil and gas tax credit bill. Senate Majority Leader John Coghill had said the noise was expected to ratchet up over the weekend, making the building unwelcoming. Senate President Kevin Meyer said Monday that he had a headache from the jackhammers. He says legislators have been told they can stay in the Capitol until Sunday, assuming they can work around the noise. He says they're looking at other spaces in Juneau where they could continue working if needed.

Divided committee advances amended bill limiting state employee raises

JUNEAU (AP) — A divided state House committee has advanced legislation that would tie state employee merit increases to increases in oil prices. The rewrite of the HB 379 that moved from the House Finance Committee Saturday calls for no merit increases until the average price per barrel for North Slope oil for the preceding fiscal year is at least $60. At that point, employees would get a portion of the 3.25-percent raises. The portion would increase when oil hits $70 and $80. The pay restrictions would be lifted when oil averages $90 for a full year. The bill advanced on a 6-5 vote. Supporters of the bill, sponsored by the House Rules Committee, say it makes sense as the state struggles with an estimated $4 billion deficit. Critics worry it could affect the state's ability to retain workers.

Congress split over F-35 funds for Eielson Air Force Base

FAIRBANKS (AP) — The U.S. House and Senate are divided over how much construction funding the Eielson Air Force Base should receive to prepare for two new squadrons of F-35 fighter jets. A Senate subcommittee approved $295 million Wednesday for construction during the 2017 fiscal year. A House committee voted to reduce funding by $82.3 million, The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reported (http://bit.ly/22yLtsD). The Department of Defense has asked Congress to fund seven construction projects at Eielson for fiscal 2017, which starts Oct. 1, 2016. The request comes after the Air Force announced it would station 54 F-35s at the base near Fairbanks starting in 2020. The House funding bill included money for one aircraft weather shelter to house only one squadron of F-35s. The House committee cut the funding for a second shelter because there is concern Alaska has too many military construction projects planned in the next fiscal year, said Matt Shuckerow, a spokesman for Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska. "Congressman Young raised his concerns directly to the House Appropriations Committee Chairman Rep. Hal Rodgers, R-Ky., and requested that all seven Eielson-based (military construction) projects be funded; however, the committee expressed concern over the sheer volume of projects in Alaska during (the 2017 fiscal year)," Shuckerow said by email to the newspaper. Young "disagrees and knows that Alaska is ready and able to complete all construction projects to support the bed down of the F-35s at Eielson," Shuckerow said in an email to The Associated Press on Friday. He added Young plans to work with House leaders and Alaska's U.S. senators to get the money put back in the bill before it's sent to President Obama. The Senate version of the bill included $561 million in military construction projects in Alaska. "While Alaska is set to receive a larger share of the 2017 military construction budget than any other state, these investments are incredibly important for the security of our entire nation," said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska in a statement. In addition to the upgrades at Eielson, the funding bill in both the House and Senate includes $155 million for a Long Range Discrimination Radar at Clear Air Force Station. It also includes $47 million to construct a hangar for the Gray Eagle Unmanned Aerial Vehicles at Fort Wainwright and $9.6 million for electrical improvements to the missile defense fields at Fort Greely.  

Alaska Senate approves criminal justice overhaul bill

JUNEAU (AP) — With just days left in the legislative session, the state House is set to consider a bill that would make sweeping changes to Alaska's criminal justice system. The state Senate on Saturday approved a measure that moves away from tough-on-crime programs that have been a staple of Alaska's criminal sentencing structure since it gained statehood. "I think you can call this a little bit of a paradigm shift, if that's what you want to call it," bill sponsor Sen. John Coghill, R-North Pole, said before the vote. "That means a lot of things are going to change." The bill proposes investment in pre-trial monitoring programs, changes in probation and parole requirements, and drug and mental health treatment programs to reduce the state's prison population and recidivism rate or the number of repeat offenders. The Department of Corrections projects changes in the bill would reduce the state's prison population by more than 1,700 inmates by 2019. Critics of the bill include some victims' rights groups and a group of police c departments, including the North Pole Police Department, which sent a letter asking lawmakers to abandon the proposal. Chugiak Republican Sen. Bill Stoltze, who was one of two dissenting votes, said advocates for victims' rights were not included in the bill. He suggested a number of amendments, including making possession of GHB, a commonly used date-rape drug, a felony. "I feel like I'm the guy who's raining on the parade but I'm one voice and if I didn't raise it I wouldn't be representing my constituents," he said. The House Judiciary Committee is scheduled to consider the bill on Sunday. There is one week left in the Legislative session.  

Voters recall North Slope Borough Mayor Charlotte Brower

North Slope Borough residents voted decisively April 5 to replace Mayor Charlotte Brower. In a special election, 62 percent of voters cast ballots to recall Brower, who was linked to borough spending that benefited family members, including a trip for her grandchild to attend a basketball camp sponsored by NBA great Michael Jordan. A group called People for Responsible Government led the campaign to oust Brower, Anchorage television station KTUU reported. The recall prevailed in Barrow and all but one of the seven small villages in the borough. Only Point Hope, in a 33-31 vote, favored retaining her. “The people understand the lawlessness of the mayor,” said Dora Arey, part of the campaign to unseat Brower, in a phone interview. “We are very, very glad to know that our petition and our efforts to get this done educated the people on our elected officials and got accountability.” Brower, serving her second term, had no immediate comment on the election. Borough spending that benefited Brower’s family came to light last year. Spending records indicated that the borough purchased hundreds of thousands of dollars of items from the mayor’s children, including cakes for public functions baked by Brower’s daughter at prices higher than what could have been purchased in Barrow or flown in from Anchorage. Recall petitioners noted two sealskin vests made by one of the mayor’s daughters that were bought by the borough for $7,000 as gifts for the governor and lieutenant governor. The gifts were returned. Brower in February paid a large fine for campaign finance violations. The Alaska Public Offices Commission in September approved the $34,970 penalty for what it called “egregious” violations of campaign finance laws. A group registered as Friends of Mayor Charlotte Brower raised $12,405 to keep her in office. The group received significant donations from three state lobbyists, Sam Kito, Jr., John Bitney and Paul Fuhs, and from a variety of borough leaders. State Rep. Ben Nageak, D-Barrow, wrote an opinion piece for Brower and advocated for her retention in a radio advertisement. Nageak in December said Brower’s spending practices were not out of line with what’s expected for a local government with a $267.5 million annual operating budget and fewer than 10,000 residents. Borough Assembly President Mike Aamodt will take over as interim mayor.  

Bills propose adding legislators to AGDC board of directors

JUNEAU (AP) — Two Republican lawmakers want to add legislative oversight to the board of an organization that plays a key role in Alaska’s natural gas pipeline project development. Both Sen. Mia Costello, R-Anchorage, and House Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, have proposed adding two non-voting lawmakers to the board of the Alaska Gasline Development Corp. The state-owned gasline corporation holds the state’s 25 percent interest in the Alaska LNG Project. The Senate was expected to consider Costello’s bill on March 23. As lawmakers, stakeholders and the governor’s office look for ways to move the project ahead amid low oil prices, Costello said the Legislature struggled to discern Gov. Bill Walker’s vision for the gasline. Calling the gas line the “bright spot on the horizon,” Costello said during a March 21 Senate majority press conference that the aim of her legislation is to improve communication and move the project forward. The Alaska LNG Project is the latest attempt to develop natural gas found on the North Slope. If it proceeds, the project, which includes an 800-mile pipeline, would be one of the largest projects of its kind. But low oil prices have been a concern for the state and its oil company partners in the project, with Walker announcing last month that the state and its partners would look at different options for moving forward. “It’s a viable project at this point but we’ve got to get to a point where we know whether it’s really economical or not,” said North Pole Republican Sen. John Coghill. Costello wrote in her sponsor statement that having legislators on the board would helpful for discussing project financing and understanding the types of budget decisions needed to meet the state’s cash obligation for a gasline project. Chenault’s bill goes farther than Costello’s, in laying out requirements for the public board members. It requires that the governor appoint board members who have experience and expertise in natural gas pipeline construction or other experience that is relevant to gas line projects. “Most of the board members, whom I respect, do not have the qualifications of previous board members,” Chenault said in his statement. Adding legislators to the gas line corporation board would give lawmakers better insight into issues facing the board, he said in the statement.

Supreme Court overturns appeals court in Sturgeon case

The U.S. Supreme Court on March 22 overturned a National Park Service ban on the use of hovercraft by a moose hunter within a national preserve in Alaska, but in a narrowly focused ruling, sent the case back to a lower court for additional consideration. The justices unanimously ruled that the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals erred in interpreting federal law. However, they did not rule on whether the Park Service can regulate hovercraft use, or whether the agency has regulatory authority over a river within that preserve for which the state claims ownership. Justices ruled that such state sovereignty issues should be first argued in lower courts. Alaska Gov. Bill Walker at a news conference called the decision “a step in the right direction” toward asserting control over state-owned rivers and other lands in dispute with federal agencies. “It’s a long way from over but I’d rather be where we are today than where we were yesterday,” Walker said. The ruling came in the case of John Sturgeon of Anchorage, a moose hunter who in 2007 was ordered off the Nation River within the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve in northeast Alaska. Sturgeon had used hovercraft since 1990, but while stopped on a gravel bar to make a repair, was told by three rangers that it was illegal to operate the noisy craft that can navigate shallow water or even mud. Sturgeon sued in 2011. Alaska also sued, hoping for a ruling that could limit the federal government’s authority over state-owned, navigable waters in national parks. The Park Service had denied the state a permit to use a helicopter to conduct salmon research on state land, a gravel bar, on the Alagnak River within Katmai National Preserve. The case focused on interpretations of Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, which created or expanded 19 conservation units, including Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve. One provision of the law specifies that no state or private parties within the conservation units shall be subject to regulations applicable only to federal land in the conservation unit. In the 8-0 decision, Supreme Court justices rejected the 9th Circuit Court’s ruling that the Park Service could apply national regulations on hovercraft to state and private land within the conservation unit but not the Alaska-specific exceptions that apply to federal land within the unit. Roberts called that a “topsy-turvy” approach. The law carves out numerous Alaska-specific exceptions to the Park Service’s general authority over federally managed preserves, such as snowmobile and airplane travel between villages, he noted. The Supreme Court did not decide whether the Park Service has authority to regulate Sturgeon’s hovercraft on the river or whether the river was federal public land for regulatory purposes. “We leave those arguments to the lower courts for consideration,” Roberts wrote. Trustees for Alaska, an environmental law firm that filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case on behalf of 13 conservation groups, said there are centuries of law supporting federal authority over navigable waters and other public lands. “We are optimistic that the Ninth Circuit will clarify the Park Service’s authority over navigable waters so that Alaska’s national parks are protected as Congress intended,” said attorney Katie Strong.

McConnell: Obama climate plan hinges on next president

WASHINGTON (AP) — A Supreme Court ruling that delays a key element of President Barack Obama’s strategy to fight climate change will likely push a final decision on the issue to the next president, the Senate’s Republican leader said March 21 as he urged the nation’s 50 governors to continue a “wait-and-see” approach on Obama’s plan. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky advised the governors to defy Obama’s effort to limit carbon pollution from coal-fired power plants by refusing to submit compliance plans to the Environmental Protection Agency. In a follow-up letter to the governors Monday, McConnell said the Supreme Court’s Feb. 9 ruling reinforces his view that states should refuse to act on the power plant proposal until all court challenges are decided. McConnell’s call for defiance echoed a strategy he has adopted for the Senate GOP to refuse a hearing or votes on Obama’s nominee to the Supreme Court. The high court’s action in a case brought by West Virginia and other states means a current delay “will likely extend well beyond this administration, providing a welcome reprieve to states while simultaneously underlining the serious legal and policy concerns I wrote you about last year,” McConnell told the governors. “This is precisely why I suggested a ‘wait-and-see’ approach” last year, McConnell said. Obama unveiled a sweeping plan last year to limit greenhouse gas emissions blamed for global warming. The so-called Clean Power Plan, the centerpiece of Obama’s efforts to fight climate change, would mark the first time the U.S. has ever limited carbon dioxide emissions from existing power plants. The plan mandates a 32 percent cut in greenhouse gas emissions nationwide by 2030, compared to 2005 levels. McConnell predicted the plan would be overturned by the courts, but told the governors that even if it ultimately is upheld, “the clock would start over and your states would have ample time to formulate and submit a plan.” McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., are among more than 200 GOP lawmakers who are backing a court challenge to the power plant proposal. The lawmakers argue in a brief filed last month with the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington that the EPA overstepped its legal authority and defied the will of Congress by regulating carbon dioxide emissions. More than two dozen mostly Republican-led states, led by West Virginia and Texas, have sued to stop the Clean Power Plan. The White House and EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy have said they are confident the administration will prevail in court. Arguments in the case are set to begin in June. Regardless of which side prevails, further appeal to the Supreme Court is almost certain, pushing any final decision into next year.

Hawaii Air Force unit getting own power grid that uses trash

JOINT BASE PEARL HARBOR-HICKAM, Hawaii (AP) — The Air Force unit that defends Hawaii skies will get experimental energy technology that uses trash to generate power and relies on its own small electrical grid — a system intended to keep the unit operating if a bomb, cyberattack or natural disaster knocks out the local utility. The Air Force Research Laboratory is spending $6.8 million on a facility that will produce electricity for the Hawaii Air National Guard unit that flies F-22s, the nation’s most advanced fighter jet. Under the plan, the facility and accompanying microgrid would be able to break off and operate independently from Hawaiian Electric. The project will mark one of the first such uses of a microgrid on an Air Force base and the largest test yet of the trash-to-power system. The system is being tested on a small scale in Illinois. U.S. Cyber Command chief Adm. Michael Rogers has warned it’s a matter of when, not if, attackers will target U.S. power systems. A cyberattack on Ukrainian power companies last year highlighted the vulnerability of power grids. Retired Brig. Gen. Stan Osserman, a former Hawaii Air National Guard commander who leads a state agency working on renewable energy technology, said the airmen must be able to do their job regardless of the circumstances. “If their buildings go off power, or if (Hawaiian Electric) has a cyberattack, or if we have a big hurricane that wipes out all their power lines, these guys still have the mission to do,” Osserman said. “It doesn’t stop.” The ability to generate power independently is key because utilities normally must shut down the entire grid to safely repair a damaged part. The Hawaii waste-to-energy facility would take plastics, green waste and other trash from the sprawling joint Air Force and Navy base that includes Pearl Harbor and Hickam Field. It could process as much as 10 tons of trash each day, providing a convenient way to dispose of trees, shrubs and other organic waste that currently must be kept on base to avoid spreading an infestation of coconut rhinoceros beetles, an invasive bug that bores into palm trees. The facility would also reduce the use of fossil fuel in a state that generates most of its electricity from oil imported on container ships, something that gives Hawaii some of the highest energy costs in the nation. A similar system could be used on battlefields, said Lt. Col. Scott V. Fitzner, chief of the research laboratory’s acquisitions systems support branch. It could allow the Air Force to consider all consumer products sent into a battlefield as fuel and reduce the need for diesel supply convoys that are susceptible to roadside bombs. Loren Thompson, a defense analyst at the Lexington Institute, noted the military’s response to the cyber threat against electrical utilities is very uneven. “The single most important thing that needs to be done is the military must have senior guidance as to what its cyber defense plans are for assuring electrical power. As of today, the utilities are not going to be reliable protectors of their grids because most of them don’t think this is a big problem,” Thompson said. The military also doesn’t have the authority to tell private utilities what they should do to protect themselves. Fitzner said the Hawaii project will allow the Air Force research lab to evaluate different technologies and determine what makes sense in other areas of the world. “We just can’t tolerate not having energy in certain circumstances,” Fitzner said. Smaller electrical grids, or microgrids, are used commercially and in some towns, but military application is more unusual, Fitzner said. Osserman said the 154th Wing that flies Hawaii’s F-22s has a diesel generator and five to seven days of diesel fuel. The waste-to-energy facility and grid project aims to extend the wing’s ability to operate independently by weeks or even indefinitely, said Osserman, currently the director of the Hawaii Center for Advanced Transportation Technologies.

FDA: No significant impact from test of modified mosquitoes

MIAMI (AP) — A field trial releasing genetically modified mosquitoes in the Florida Keys would not harm humans or the environment, according to documents released March 11 by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The agency’s Center for Veterinary Medicine released a preliminary finding of no significant impact for the trial of a method that aims to reduce populations of the mosquito that spreads dengue, chikungunya and the Zika virus among humans. The trial is proposed by the British biotech firm Oxitec. The Florida Keys Mosquito Control District wants to test Oxitec’s mosquitoes in a small neighborhood north of Key West. The FDA still needs to review public comments before deciding whether to approve the trial. But the tentative approval could make it easier explore similar trials in the Southeast or Puerto Rico, said Oxitec CEO Haydn Parry. “Time is not on our side here, if you look at how Zika has been spreading in Brazil and other countries,” Parry said in a conference call with reporters. “The sooner we can start the trial, the sooner we show what we can do.” Oxitec modifies Aedes aegypti mosquitoes with synthetic DNA to produce offspring that won’t survive outside a lab. Oxitec has conducted similar tests in Panama, Brazil and the Cayman Islands. With or without the test, the district is looking for additional options to kill Aedes aegypti, which it considers a significant and expensive threat. In a statement, executive director Michael Doyle said the district needs to be proactive, and the trial will need to determine how efficient Oxitec’s mosquitoes are at suppressing the local Aedes population. “A small trial like this is designed to see if highly reducing the population is possible with this technology here in the Keys. If so, we will then look at larger trial areas,” Doyle said. A residents’ group called the Florida Keys Environmental Coalition wants the district to instead try infecting mosquitoes with a bacteria that curbs their ability to transmit disease, arguing that Oxitec’s proposal is mostly marketing hype and won’t be subject to adequate federal oversight. In an email Monday to The Associated Press, the coalition’s executive director, Barry Wray, questioned the ongoing costs Oxitec’s method might incur. “Oxitec has exploited the fear surrounding Zika very effectively,” Wray wrote. “When you start looking at the quantity of mosquitoes they need to continuously provide, in order to keep problems under control, the numbers are astounding. So is the money required!” Doyle said the district is investigating several different technologies for eradicating Aedes mosquitoes, but those other methods take years to develop and Oxitec is furthest along. Oxitec developed the mosquito in 2002 and has been testing it outdoors since 2009, Parry said. The Keys district approached Oxitec about trying its technology in 2010. The company will cover the costs of the Keys trial, if it is approved, and a lab in Marathon where its mosquitoes will be raised already has passed U.S. government inspections. The company’s application allows for a trial lasting up to 22 months, but trials elsewhere have reduced mosquito populations in about six months, Parry said. Oxitec aims to eventually sell its mosquitoes and services in the way that other companies sell insecticides. The Keys district spends over $1 million a year to suppress up to half its Aedes aegypti population. Oxitec’s method would not increase the district’s costs but it would boost their suppression rates up to 90 percent, Parry said. Anti-GMO activists have criticized Oxitec’s trials, saying more proof is needed that stray female modified mosquitoes that leave the labs aren’t spreading genetic material through bites or that there are no other environmental risks, such as opening areas to infestation by another disease-carrying mosquito species. Modified females are manually separated in Oxitec labs from the modified males, which do not bite and are released to mate with wild female mosquitoes. In its preliminary finding, the FDA said it was “highly unlikely” that humans or animals bitten by female modified mosquitoes would be exposed to synthetic genetic material, and any bites wouldn’t be any different from bites made by a wild mosquito. It’s also unlikely that suppressing the local Aedes population during the trial would open the area to an infestation of another disease-carrying species during that period, the FDA said. The FDA also found no significant risks that the modified mosquitoes would disperse well beyond the trial area, develop resistance to insecticides or persist in the environment. “Based on the data and information submitted in the draft (environmental assessment), other submissions from the sponsor, and scientific literature, FDA found that the probability of adverse impacts on human or other animal health is negligible or low,” the finding said. A draft environmental assessment on Oxitec’s proposal will be available for public comment for 30 days. The FDA will review those comments and may require further documentation from Oxitec before deciding whether to approve that trial. There is no deadline for that decision, so no modified mosquitoes will be released anytime soon. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Environmental Protection Agency also have reviewed the proposal along with the FDA.

Senate passes bill to curb, contain Medicaid costs

JUNEAU (AP) — Legislation aimed at curbing and containing costs within the state Medicaid program has passed the Alaska Senate. Friday's 19-0 vote sends the bill to the House. Medicaid is a major state cost and one of the areas lawmakers have targeted for reform as the state grapples with a multibillion-dollar budget deficit. The bill's sponsor, Sen. Pete Kelly, says the measure goes after the system, not the recipient. SB 74 includes provisions to ferret out fraud and abuse. Among other things, it also calls for establishing a case management system to reduce unnecessary use of emergency and specialty care services and calls for reducing travel costs by requiring recipients receive care in their communities, if possible. The state health department estimates the bill will save the agency $31.4 million next year.

Western governors: Changes needed to Endangered Species Act

DENVER (AP) — The nation needs to change the way it protects endangered species because the current practice is bogged down in lawsuits and weakened by mistrust, the head of the Western Governors Association said March 9. Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead said March 9 the problem is nationwide and that he hopes to build bipartisan support for changes in the federal Endangered Species Act, the primary tool for protecting species on the brink of extinction. He stopped short of suggesting specific changes but said years-long legal battles frustrate landowners, local governments and industry and eat up resources that could be used to protect other other species. Mead, a Republican serving a one-year term as chairman of the Western Governors Association, said the problem is partly in the law itself and partly in the way it’s put into practice. Deciding whether to protect a species is nearly always a long, contentious struggle because federal intervention can result in rules that limit oil and gas drilling, mining, agriculture and other land uses. “I don’t think it’s collapsing, but I do think there’s definite chinks,” Mead said after speaking to wildlife managers, conservationists and business interests meeting in Denver to review how well the Endangered Species Act works. Mead directed the Western Governors Association to conduct the review. Mead’s initiative comes as southwestern states are battling the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over reintroducing endangered Mexican gray wolves in Arizona and New Mexico, and the federal government is attempting to lift protection from grizzly bears around Yellowstone National Park. Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, agreed that decisions about protecting individual species drag on too long with no definitive conclusion. “There’s got to be a point ... where we can declare victory,” he said. Hickenlooper, who also spoke at the gathering, declined to say whether the law needs major or minor changes. Eric Holst of the Environmental Defense Fund agreed the process of protecting species should be faster and less complicated, but he said changes could be made without rewriting the law. “We believe that the law has sufficient flexibility in it to solve some of the legitimate problems that folks in this forum (in Denver) have pointed out,” he said. Mead and Hickenlooper cited a sweeping conservation effort just getting underway to save the greater sage grouse as a model for how endangered species can be protected with support and guidance from a wide range of interest groups. The federal government decided in September not to list the ground-dwelling sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act, instead opting for new rules and land use policies for federal lands. The birds, known for their elaborate mating ritual, range across a 257,000-square-mile region spanning 11 states. Environmental groups, mining companies, ranchers and some state governments have filed multiple lawsuits challenging the conservation plan, arguing it either goes too far or not far enough. Mead said such protected legal battles threaten to leave residents and state and local officials disillusioned. Mead also argued that court challenges make it too difficult to remove a species from protection, even if it has recovered. Since the Endangered Species Act was passed in 1973, only 1.4 percent of the 2,200 protected species have been removed from the list because they have recovered, he said. He pointed to wolves, which were briefly removed from federal protection in Wyoming but then put then returned to protected status after environmental groups filed lawsuits challenging state management plans. “You have to have a way to reach the goal line,” Mead said.

Trump not yet on track to win candidate nomination

WASHINGTON (AP) — Despite Donald Trump’s string of Super Tuesday victories, the billionaire businessman must do even better in upcoming primaries to claim the Republican presidential nomination before the party’s national convention this summer, an AP delegate count shows. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz is emerging as the candidate who might stop him — with a little help from Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. The good news for Trump: He is in a better position than any of his rivals. Through the first 15 states of the 2016 campaign season, the best chance for Cruz, Rubio or any of the other candidates could be a contested national convention in July that would almost certainly wreak further havoc on the deeply divided Republican Party. “I think anybody that precludes any possibility at this point doesn’t understand what’s going on,” said John Jordan, a California-based Republican donor now supporting Rubio. “Anything can happen.” While Trump has racked up 10 wins so far, he’s won only 46 percent of the delegates awarded since voting began. It takes an outright majority of delegates to win the nomination. To win enough delegates to claim that prize, Trump would have to win 51 percent of the remaining delegates awarded in the state-by-state contests scheduled through early June. That could be difficult if three or more candidates stay in the race. Republican leaders in Washington and in statehouses across the country are scrambling to stop Trump. Trump’s main Republican opponents are vowing to stay in the race until the end. And that could prevent him from getting the delegates needed to win the nomination outright — even if they can’t overtake him on their own. “We’re beyond the winning states stage. This is now purely a competition for delegates,” Cruz spokeswoman Catherine Frazier said. Rubio, in a Tuesday interview on Fox News, promised to campaign in all 50 states, “even if I have to get in my pickup truck and drive all over this country. I will do whatever it takes to prevent a con artist like Donald Trump from ever becoming the Republican nominee.” While not giving up on beating Trump before the convention, both the Cruz and Rubio camps concede that their best opportunity could come at a contested convention in July. That happens only if no candidate takes a majority of delegates before then. Under such a scenario, delegates on the floor of the Cleveland convention would decide on their own whom to support in a series of floor votes. Not since 1976 has there been a contested convention. Some Republicans warn of dire consequences should the party go that route this year, especially if Trump has a commanding delegate lead. “If the establishment thinks there’s a backlash now, wait until the guy with the most delegates gets to the convention and they decide to take it from him,” said GOP operative Hogan Gidley. “Then you’re going to see an all-out political jihad.” The Republican campaign now enters a critical two-week stretch ahead of the March 15 primaries. These are the first primaries that can award all of a state’s delegates to the winner, and the two big prizes are Florida and Ohio. Florida has 99 delegates, Ohio 66. Winning those states could boost Trump to a commanding lead in the delegate count, but Florida is Rubio’s home state and Ohio is home for John Kasich, the state’s governor. Only nine states award delegates winner-take-all. Five more make it possible for one candidate to win all of the delegates, or at least a large majority. These states could take an outsized role in determining who wins the nomination. Among the other winner-take-all primaries: Arizona on March 22, Nebraska on May 10 and New Jersey on June 7. The delegate math from Super Tuesday shows how difficult it can be to rack up a big lead when states award delegates in proportion to the vote. Trump won seven of 11 states, but his gains were limited by Cruz’s big win in delegate-rich Texas — his home state. For the night, Trump won at least 237 delegates and Cruz won at least 209. Rubio was a distant third with at least 94. There were still 33 delegates left to be allocated on Wednesday. Cruz won at least 99 of the 155 delegates at stake in Texas. Trump got at least 38, with 14 left to be awarded. Rubio picked up four. Overall, Trump leads the field with 319 delegates and Cruz has 226. Rubio has 110, Kasich has 25 and Ben Carson has eight. It takes 1,237 delegates to win the Republican nomination for president.

Alaska judge tosses lawmaker challenge to Medicaid expansion

A state court judge in Alaska on Tuesday upheld Gov. Bill Walker’s decision to expand Medicaid without legislative approval, finding that the federal Social Security Act requires Medicaid expansion. Superior Court Judge Frank Pfiffner dismissed a challenge to Walker’s authority by the Legislative Council, which is comprised of state House and Senate lawmakers. That decision can be appealed. A spokeswoman for the Senate majority said the Republican-led majority is looking over the decision and will evaluate its options. The decision came as Republicans in Alaska were participating in the state’s presidential preference poll. A key argument in the case centered on whether the expansion population is a mandatory group for coverage under Medicaid or an optional group that cannot be covered unless approved by the Legislature. The Legislative Council, in its lawsuit, argued that Walker overstepped his authority in expanding Medicaid on his own. The federal health care law expanded eligibility for Medicaid, and the U.S. Supreme Court in 2012 upheld most of the law. But it also found that states cannot lose existing Medicaid funding if they don’t expand Medicaid coverage. Pfiffner found that the U.S. Supreme Court decision striking down a penalty for not complying with expansion did not affect the requirement that states provide Medicaid to the expansion group. “This requirement may lack the coerciveness that Congress intended, but it is still a requirement,” Pfiffner wrote. The Legislature can change state law to reject the expansion if it wants, he wrote. Until then, state law requires the governor to provide Medicaid services to the expansion group, Pfiffner wrote. The population targeted by expansion is people between the ages of 19 and 64 who are not caring for dependent children, not disabled and not pregnant, and who earn up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level. Expansion in the state took effect last September. More than 10,000 people have been covered by the expansion, according to the state health department. Walker, in a statement, said he is pleased with the decision. He said the administration would continue to work with the Legislature on efforts to redesign and reform the Medicaid program. Becky Bohrer can be reached at https://twitter.com/beckybohrerap.

Alaska judge tosses lawmaker challenge to Medicaid expansion

(AP) — A state court judge in Alaska on Tuesday upheld Gov. Bill Walker's decision to expand Medicaid without legislative approval, finding that the federal Social Security Act requires Medicaid expansion. Superior Court Judge Frank Pfiffner dismissed a challenge to Walker's authority by the Legislative Council, which is comprised of state House and Senate lawmakers. That decision can be appealed. A spokeswoman for the Senate majority said the Republican-led majority is looking over the decision and will evaluate its options. The decision came as Republicans in Alaska were participating in the state's presidential preference poll. A key argument in the case centered on whether the expansion population is a mandatory group for coverage under Medicaid or an optional group that cannot be covered unless approved by the Legislature. The Legislative Council, in its lawsuit, argued that Walker overstepped his authority in expanding Medicaid on his own. The federal health care law expanded eligibility for Medicaid, and the U.S. Supreme Court in 2012 upheld most of the law. But it also found that states cannot lose existing Medicaid funding if they don't expand Medicaid coverage. Pfiffner found that the U.S. Supreme Court decision striking down a penalty for not complying with expansion did not affect the requirement that states provide Medicaid to the expansion group. "This requirement may lack the coerciveness that Congress intended, but it is still a requirement," Pfiffner wrote. The Legislature can change state law to reject the expansion if it wants, he wrote. Until then, state law requires the governor to provide Medicaid services to the expansion group, Pfiffner wrote. The population targeted by expansion is people between the ages of 19 and 64 who are not caring for dependent children, not disabled and not pregnant, and who earn up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level.

Appeals court upholds designation of polar bear habitat

(AP) — The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service followed the law when it designated more than 187,000 square miles — an area larger than California — as critical habitat for threatened polar bears in Alaska marine waters and its northern coast, an appeals court ruled Monday. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeal reversed a 2013 lower court decision that the designation was too extensive and not specific. A spokesman for the Center for Biological Diversity, which petitioned to designate polar bears as a threatened species, called it a victory for the marine mammal. "The polar bear gets the full protection of critical habitat to which it's entitled, it deserves and it truly needs," Brendan Cummings said. The federal government in 2008 declared polar bears threatened under the Endangered Species Act, citing melting sea ice. Polar bears need ice for hunting, breeding and migrating. The move made the polar bear the first species to be designated as threatened under the act because of global warming. A designation of critical habitat is required as part of a recovery plan. The Fish and Wildlife Service set aside acreage along Alaska's northern coast but 95 percent is in the ocean waters of the Beaufort and Chukchi seas. The Alaska Oil and Gas Association, the State of Alaska, a coalition of Alaska Native groups and other oil and gas interests sued, calling the designation an overreach. Former Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell said the critical habitat designation included areas that account for almost half of Alaska's oil production, and petroleum exploration and production would be delayed or restricted. U.S. District Court Judge Ralph Beistline ruled that the Fish and Wildlife Service's designation of sea ice as critical habitat was valid. However, he ruled the agency had not shown that areas on land and barrier islands had features making them appropriate for polar bear dens and he rejected the entire plan. Appeals court judges said the lower court decision appeared to consider denning habitat but not the need by bears to have undisturbed access to and from sea ice. The appeals court judges agreed that the agency did not have to prove that existing polar bears actually used certain designated areas, only that those areas were critical to the conservation of the species. They said the agency drew rational conclusions from the best scientific evidence available. Cummings said specificity in designating habitat is impossible given the dynamic nature of the Arctic, where polar bears move by walking or merely resting on shifting sea ice. Polar bears, he said, are not like salmon that return to the same streams every year to spawn. "You can't say the bear will take this specific path to its denning area, and therefore, let's only protect that narrow corridor," he said. "You need to protect on the scale of the ecosystem, which is what Fish and Wildlife did." Alaska Attorney General's Office spokeswoman Cori Mills called the decision disappointing. State attorneys are reviewing options for further judicial review, she said by email. "Alaska originally brought this case because of the overly broad designation of more than 187,000 square miles as critical habitat without a real connection between the area designated and the survival or recovery of polar bears," Mills said. Alaska Oil and Gas Association President Kara Moriarty said the critical habitat designation will dramatically increase costs associated with Alaska North Slope projects probably jeopardize future projects. "Each project will have to undergo an additional level of federal scrutiny that is impossible to predict," she said. A spokeswoman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had not seen the decision.

Virgin Galactic rolls out new space tourism plane

MOJAVE, Calif. (AP) — Virgin Galactic rolled out a new version of its SpaceShipTwo space tourism rocket Feb. 19 as it prepares to return to flight testing for the first time since a 2014 accident destroyed the original craft, killing a pilot and setting back the nascent industry. A Land Rover with Virgin Galactic founder Sir Richard Branson standing through the sunroof pulled the ship in front of an audience inside a hangar at Southern California’s Mojave Air & Space Port, where it was assembled. Branson’s 1-year-old granddaughter, Eva-Deia, helped by her mother, christened the craft by breaking a little bottle of milk over its nose. The baby is the daughter of Branson’s son, Sam, and his wife, Bellie. “All of us in this room need to pinch ourselves ... isn’t she quite beautiful,” Branson told the audience. The ship is the size of a small corporate jet. It was named Virgin Spaceship Unity at the suggestion of theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, whom Branson promised a free ride into space. SpaceShipTwo is designed to be flown by a crew of two and carry up to six passengers on a high-speed suborbital flight to the fringes of space. At an altitude above 62 miles, passengers will experience a few minutes of weightlessness and see the Earth below. After years of development, Virgin Galactic appeared to be nearing the goal of turning ordinary civilians into astronauts when the first SpaceShipTwo broke apart on Oct. 31, 2014, during its fourth rocket-powered flight. Wreckage fell to the Mojave Desert floor. “When we had the accident, for about 24 hours we were wondering whether it was worth continuing, whether we should call it a day,” Branson told The Associated Press. He said engineers, astronauts and members of the public helped convince him that space travel is too important to give up on. The crash investigation found that co-pilot Michael Alsbury prematurely unlocked the so-called feathering system that is intended to slow and stabilize the craft as it re-enters the atmosphere. Alsbury was killed, but pilot Peter Siebold, although seriously injured, parachuted to safety. The “feathers” — a term derived from the design of a badminton shuttlecock — are tail structures that extend rearward from each wingtip. They are designed to swivel upward at an angle to create drag, preventing a buildup of speed and heat, and then rotate back down to normal flying position as the craft descends into the thickening atmosphere. A National Transportation Safety Board investigation found that Scaled Composites, a company that was developing SpaceShipTwo with Virgin Galactic and was responsible for its test program, should have had systems to compensate for human error. The NTSB chairman, Christopher Hart, said it wasn’t a matter of shortcuts but of not considering a crew member would make the mistake that occurred. Virgin Galactic subsequently assumed full responsibility to complete the test program. Company officials said that the new spaceship will have a device to prevent a similar pilot error. The company stressed in a statement Thursday its commitment to testing from the level of individual parts on up to the complete craft. “Our team’s job is to plan out not just the obvious tests but also the strange and inventive ones, to conduct those tests, and to use the data from those tests to re-examine everything about our vehicle to ensure we can take the next step forward,” it said. The company, which has invested more than $500 million in the program, did not project a timeline for actually carrying space tourists, noting that “our new vehicle will remain on the ground for a while after her unveiling, as we run her through full-vehicle tests of her electrical systems and all of her moving parts.” SpaceShipTwo is the successor to SpaceShipOne, the winged rocket plane that won the $10 million Ansari X Prize in 2004 by demonstrating a reusable spacecraft capable of carrying three people could make two flights within two weeks to at an altitude of least 62 miles. The prize announced in 1996 was intended to spur the development of private manned spaceflight in the same way the Orteig Prize offered in 1919 fostered trans-Atlantic aviation. Charles Lindbergh won that prize with his nonstop flight from New York to Paris in 1927. Like SpaceShipOne, SpaceShipTwo is carried aloft beneath the wing of a mother ship — a special jet aircraft that releases it at an altitude of about 45,000 feet. After gliding for a few moments, SpaceShipTwo’s pilots ignite the rocket engine to send the craft hurtling toward space. After reaching the top of its suborbital trajectory, the spacecraft begins falling back toward Earth and glides to a landing on a runway.

Committee advances national checks for pot business applicants

JUNEAU (AP) — A state Senate committee has advanced legislation that would allow regulators of Alaska's up-and-coming legal marijuana industry to obtain national criminal history checks on those applying for marijuana business licenses. This came the same day that prospective business owners could begin applying for licenses. The fix was sought by the Marijuana Control Board. A law passed last year prohibited the issuance of licenses to individuals who have had felony convictions within five years of their application or are on probation or parole for that felony. The Department of Law said specific authority was needed in state law to require fingerprinting and the use of FBI records for national checks. The bill that advanced Wednesday also would let established villages decide whether they want to approve marijuana establishments within their borders.  

State Rep. Max Gruenberg dies in Juneau

State Representative Max Gruenberg, one of the longest serving members of the state Legislature, died at his home in Juneau on Sunday, Alaska Democrats said. He was 72. Gruenberg arrived in Alaska in 1970 and served in the Alaska House of Representatives from 1985 to 1993, and again from 2003 until now, the Alaska Independent Democratic Coalition said in a statement. He twice served as House majority leader and had been serving as the whip for the Alaska Independent Democratic Coalition. He was also a well-known family lawyer. Alaska Independent Democratic Coalition Leader Rep. Chris Tuck says Gruenberg was an institution in the Legislature, and "will be remembered as one of the great lawmakers in our state's history." Speaker of the House Mike Chenault, a Republican, said Gruenberg knew more about the Legislature than most people. "He knew the ins-and-outs of our rules and procedures, the history of how policy decisions were made, you name it. He was a walking encyclopedia," he said. "We all joked and called him 'Max the Amender,' but it was kind of begrudgingly, too. He'd make bills better. His fingerprints are probably on more Alaska law than any other legislator or governor." In the case of a vacancy, the governor appoints a member of the same political party as the predecessor. That appointment will be subject to confirmation by the House's Democratic-led caucus. The last legislative vacancy occurred in 2014, when Democratic Rep. Beth Kerttula of Juneau resigned.

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