Senate break-up, Renda's run and Eielson saved

Editor’s note: Throughout this issue we review the top stories of 2012. Coverage continues on pages 13-17, and 26-27.

Alaska’s legislative redistricting and tumultuous campaigns in the state senate in the primary and general statewide elections that led to the end of the Senate majority was the state’s top story for 2012.

Every 10 years the state must revamp its election districts to accommodate changes in population. Legislative districts must be roughly equal in population and as Alaska’s urban centers grow the state’s redistricting board must add districts in more populated areas and enlarge and redraw boundaries in rural areas.

Redistricting also becomes a political issue because redistricting boards appointed by Republican governors, as is the case with the current board, are always charged with redrawing boundaries to put Democratic candidates at a disadvantage.

The effect of the 2012 redistricting resulted in a major shift of power in the state Senate, ending a 10-10 split of Democrats and Republicans that previously existed in the 20-member body, and electing 13 Republicans for the Legislature that will convene in January.

With the previous 10-10 split, a 16-member coalition organization had developed that included Democrats in key positions in the Senate leadership while the Senate president, Gary Stevens of Kodiak, and Majority Leader Kevin Meyer of Anchorage, are Republicans.

With a strong Republican majority now in the Senate and Sen. Charlie Huggins, R-MatSu, as incoming president, not only do Republicans have clear control but the political power is also now focused on the state’s “railbelt” regions of Interior and Southcentral Alaska.

For the first time in years, Democrats and particularly rural legislators are cut out of the key power positions in the Senate.

In the state House the Republican leadership remains essentially unchanged with Mike Chenault, of Nikiski, once again chosen as the Speaker and Craig Johnson, a Republican House member from Anchorage, again in the influential Rules chairmanship.

Bill Stoltze, R-Chugiak, will once again be co-chairman of the House Finance Committee.

However, in an upset, Republican Rep. Bill Thomas of Haines, an influential Alaska Native legislator, was narrowly defeated by his Democratic opponent and political newcomer Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins. Thomas was previously co-chair of House Finance with Stoltze.

The key swing in the 2012 Senate election came in Fairbanks where two new Republican senators, Click Bishop and Pete Kelly, were elected and replace two Democratic senators, Joe Thomas and Joe Paskvan.

The Fairbanks senate districts had been redrawn by the redistricting board and the effect was to move areas of west Fairbanks that are traditional strong Democratic areas into a rural district that stretches to the Lower Yukon River.

That took Democratic voters out of the senate districts in which Paskvan and Thomas were running, replacing them with voters in other parts of Fairbanks and communities east of Fairbanks that are strongly Republican.

The effect of this, Democrats have charged, was the defeat of Thomas and Paskvan, ensuring a 13-member majority for Republicans in the Senate.

Another closely-watched race, in Anchorage, was the contest between Democrat Hollis French, an incumbent, and his Republican challenger, Bob Bell. French prevailed in the downtown district by a narrow margin, although the district boundaries had also been changed to favor Republicans.

— Tim Bradner

Nome fuel run draws attention around the world

Nome residents spotted an unusual sight in January — lights from two ships approaching their iced-in harbor.

Those ships were the Coast Guard Cutter Healy and the Russian tanker T/V Renda on an unprecedented winter fuel delivery run.

The effort drew international attention as the first winter fuel delivery for a northern Alaska community and it also highlighted the need for icebreakers in the Coast Guard’s fleet, particularly as work in the Arctic continues.

The Healy is the smallest of three icebreakers in the Coast Guard fleet and was the only one available for the job. Another, the Polar Star, is being refurbished, while the Polar Sea is waiting for a determination on whether or not the engine can be repaired.

Vitus Marine had contracted with Nome-based Sitnasuak Corp. to make arrangements for the Renda, an ice-classed tanker based in Vladivostok, to deliver 1.4 million gallons of fuel.

The delivery included diesel and gasoline, and was needed after an early-season storm prevented the last fall delivery by Delta Western from reaching the Norton Sound community. Without that delivery, the town was expecting to run out of fuel in March or April, before sea ice was gone.

But even with the Russian ship and the icebreaker aid, it was not an easy delivery.

“The Arctic Ocean is like a big ice machine spilling down through the Bering Straits, and the ice tends to pile up on the north side of islands,” Vitus Marine CEO Mark Smith told the Journal at the time.

As the Healy broke ice, it would re-form, making it difficult for the Renda to continue in its path. The ships traveled through more than 300 miles of sea ice to reach the community, and again to leave.

The challenges didn’t end upon arrival. The fuel had to be pumped from the ship to storage tanks on-shore through two 700-yard hoses laid out across the ice.

The fuel came from South Korea and Dutch Harbor, and the Renda took almost a month to make the delivery.

Although the Coast Guard assistance so far north was a first, such aid was not unprecedented. In January 2011, the Coast Guard assisted with icebreaking on the east coast to keep fuel deliveries going to Maryland.

This time, the Coast Guard considered the mission an opportunity to work on its northern skills. Rear Admiral Thomas Ostebo, the Coast Guard’s District 17 Commander, said, “Throughout this mission our Coast Guard crews, partners and industry partners at sea and ashore have been dedicated to insuring a safe transit for the Renda to Nome and completing a safe fuel delivery. I am proud of the way our partners and the marine industry worked as a collaborative team along with the Coast Guard to get the needed fuel to the residents of Nome.”

— Molly Dischner

Eielson Air Force Base saved, for now

After nearly a year of uncertainty, the tug-of-war between the U.S. Air Force and the Alaska Congressional delegation will take a timeout regarding a proposed move of the F-16 Aggressor Squadron now located at Eielson Air Force Base in Fairbanks.

The latest pull from Alaska’s Congressional delegation came on Dec. 4 when the Senate passed its version of the National Defense Authorization Act.

In February, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz proposed a move during the 2013 fiscal year of the F-16 squadron from Eielson to Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, or JBER, in Anchorage.

The move would relocate 623 uniformed personnel and their families, and further planned reductions would cut Eielson staff by 1,500, or about half of the base’s current personnel.

The Dec. 4 legislation included an amendment by Sen. Lisa Murkowski, which essentially places a one-year stop on the transfer.

In a statement after the Senate vote Murkowski said she asked the Air Force to “answer why the military — as it shifts its focus to the Asia-Pacific — is considering downgrading a facility so close to our main operating area. My amendment will let them do their homework, and let us continue to make our case as Alaskans.”

Language added to the bill by Sen. Mark Begich, who serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee, mirrored what Rep. Don Young added to the House version in an effort to minimize the chance it would change as the bill moved forward.

Their amendments will require Congressional approval for any action by the military that cuts the civilian population at any base below 300, which relocating the F-16 move would do.

It prevents what Begich called a “back-door BRAC,” or a slow, incremental drawdown of base personnel to the point that the base is no longer efficient or feasible. BRAC stands for base realignment and closure, an action requiring specific Congressional approval.

When the F-16 move was announced Air Force planners estimated it would save $32 million per year, and $162 million over five years.

A study released by the Air Force in May pushed the forecasted savings to around $227 million, part of which could come from eliminating 81 positions as a part of the move.

The move was originally part of the Air Force’s attempt to save $8.7 billion to comply with the president’s 2013 fiscal year budget.

Jim Dodson, president of the Fairbanks Economic Development Corp., said he was told the shuffling would make Eielson a five-day-a-week base open eight hours a day instead of a seven-day-a-week, 24-hour operation.

The saga continued in June when Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta directed the Air Force to hold off on any action until Congress finished passing its 2013 fiscal year authorization and appropriation bills.

That hold led to the December Congressional action.

At the time, Begich said he wasn’t convinced Anchorage has the housing infrastructure to absorb the move.

Young said in a statement he was pleased with Panetta’s announcement and the importance of Eielson can’t be understated:

“Moving forward, I intend on continuing to work with the Air Force, the rest of the Delegation, the Governor, and local officials to come up with a long-term energy plan for Fairbanks and the surrounding region. Eielson Air Force Base is too important to our national defense for us to continue to neglect the high cost of energy — especially when it seems to be the driving force behind these proposed force moves.”

— Elwood Brehmer

12/19/2012 - 11:29am