What's in a name? Nation reacts to Denali change

GOP representative: Obama renaming Denali "insulting" Rep. Bob Gibbs, R-Ohio, deemed the name change "insulting," vowing in a statement to reverse it if he can. "Congress passed the law in 1917 establishing the name of Mount McKinley, and another act of Congress is required to make any future name changes. President McKinley is a well respected American hero who deserves to be honored and I hope my colleagues will join with me in stopping this constitutional overreach. President Obama has decided to ignore an Act of Congress in unilaterally renaming Mount McKinley in order to promote his job-killing war on energy," Gibbs fumed. "This political stunt is insulting to all Ohioans."   The tortured Denali vs. McKinley backstory In 1977, the BGN was on the verge of announcing a decision on the issue when the Ohio congressional delegation introduced a Joint Resolution in Congress, calling for the mountain to “retain the name Mount McKinley in perpetuity.” That was a particularly slick move by the Ohio lawmakers, because in the 1960s the BGN adopted a practice of not wading into geographic name issues that were the focus of pending congressional legislation.   It's back to Denali, but some McKinley supporters may be in denial Supporters say McKinley’s subtle brilliance is in the details; a Republican president who faced tough decisions in his policy toward China and declared war with Spain over Cuban independence, who brought the U.S. into a new generation as an emerging world power. Now the former president lies in the middle of a controversy over a mountain in a far-away Western state he never visited. On Monday, President Obama officially re-designated Alaska’s Mt. McKinley as Denali, the original Native-American-inspired name for the tallest mountain in North America.   If not for a mountain, what is President McKinley’s legacy? While he was remembered favorably in the years right after his death—McKinley is one of the four presidents to be assassinated in office—his reputation later fell, aided in particular by those who considered him an imperialist. Up until the 1960s, Gould said, McKinley was seen as a weak president, manipulated by those around him, too easily pushed into foreign involvement. "There was one famous little quip that he had the backbone of a chocolate eclair," Gould said. But then a historian named L. Wayne Morgan wrote a book in the 1960s that asserted McKinley was a better leader than many realized, and he followed it up with a book in the early 1980s that argued McKinley was the first modern president, not Roosevelt. As the University of Virginia's Miller Center on the presidency writes on its Web site: "He is now viewed as a President who tried mightily to avoid war ... who acted decisively when all the diplomatic cards had been played, and who asserted great presidential authority over his cabinet and generals."   Watch The Daily Show explain why Mount McKinley had to be renamed Daily Show correspondent Jordan Klepper investigated the issue on the show back in July, attempting to sort out why "people who don't live anywhere near the mountain" have been able to prevent the U.S. Board of Geographic names from even considering the proposal to change Mount McKinley's name to Mount Denali.    

Obama opens Alaska trip aiming to drive climate to forefront

President Barack Obama brought the power of the presidential pulpit to Alaska on Monday, aiming to thrust climate change to the forefront of the global agenda with a historic visit that will put the state's liquefying glaciers and sinking villages on graphic display. During his three-day tour of Alaska, Obama planned to hike a glacier, converse with fishermen and tape a reality TV show with survivalist Bear Grylls — all part of a highly orchestrated White House campaign to illustrate how climate change has damaged the state's stunning landscape. The goal at each stop is to create powerful visuals that show real-world effects of climate change and drive home Obama's message that the crisis already has arrived. After arriving mid-afternoon in Anchorage, Obama planned to meet with Alaska Natives before addressing a U.S.-sponsored summit on climate change and the Arctic. Later in the trip, Obama will become the first sitting president to travel north of the Arctic Circle when he visits Kotzebue — population 3,153 — to address the plight of Alaska Natives, who face dire economic conditions amid some of the worst effects of global warming. "They don't get a lot of presidents in Kotzebue," Alaska Gov. Bill Walker quipped as he joined Obama for the seven-hour flight from Washington. Aboard Air Force One, the White House unveiled a new National Park Service map bearing the name Denali where Mount McKinley used to be. As a prelude to the trip, Obama announced his administration was renaming the tallest mountain in North America and restoring its traditional Athabascan name, a move that drew applause from Alaska's leaders but harsh condemnations from Ohio politicians angry that Ohio native and former President William McKinley's name will be erased from the famed peak. "You just don't go and do something like that," said Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a Republican presidential candidate. As he traverses Alaska this week, Obama has two audiences in mind: Alaskans, who are hungry for more energy development to boost the state's sagging oil revenues, and the broader public, whose focus Obama hopes to concentrate on the need for drastic action to combat global warming, including a climate treaty that Obama hopes will help solidify his environmental legacy. Whether Obama can successfully navigate those two competing interests — energy and the environment — is the prevailing question of his trip. The president has struggled to explain how his dire warnings and call to action to cut greenhouse gases square with other steps he's taken or allowed to expand energy production, including oil and gas. Environmental groups took particular offense at the administration's move to allow expanded drilling off Alaska's northwest coast — just a few weeks before coming to Alaska to preach on climate change. White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters traveling with the president that Obama's all-of-the-above approach to energy aims to facilitate the longer-term transition to cleaner, renewable fuels. "Alaska is a place where that approach is on display," Earnest said. Even Alaska Natives, who have echoed Obama's warnings about environmental changes, have urged him to allow more oil and gas to be sucked out of Alaska's soil and waters. Alaska faces a roughly $3.5 billion deficit this year as a result of falling oil prices, forcing state budget cuts that have wreaked havoc on rural services. "History has shown us that the responsible energy development which is the lifeblood of our economy can exist in tandem with, and significantly enhance, our traditional way of life," leaders of the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, which represents Inupiat Eskimo shareholders, wrote Monday in a letter to Obama. Following his speech Monday night, Obama was to board a U.S. Coast Guard cutter on Tuesday to tour Kenai Fjords National Park and to hike to Exit Glacier, a sprawling expanse of ice that is retreating amid warming temperatures. In southwest Alaska on Wednesday, Obama will meet with fishermen locked in conflict with miners over plans to build a massive gold and copper mine in Bristol Bay, home to the world's largest salmon fishery.  

Judge rejects call to block Walker from expanding Medicaid

A judge on Friday rejected a request by state lawmakers to temporarily block Gov. Bill Walker from expanding Medicaid in Alaska. Superior Court Judge Frank Pfiffner denied the request by the Alaska Legislative Council to bar Walker from implementing Medicaid expansion until the merits of the council's case challenging Walker's authority to expand Medicaid on his own are decided. That means that unless the Alaska Supreme Court intervenes and determines otherwise, Walker can move ahead with his plans to expand Medicaid next week, Pfiffner said. During arguments on the matter Thursday in Anchorage, Pfiffner said he expected whichever side lost to appeal immediately to the Alaska Supreme Court. Walker announced plans to accept federal funds to expand Medicaid coverage for thousands more lower-income Alaskans after state lawmakers tabled his expansion legislation for further review. Walker has proposed rolling out expansion in Alaska on Tuesday. The council, comprised of House and Senate legislators, voted 10-1 last week to sue Walker over his plans. The argument in the case centers on whether the expansion population is a mandatory group for coverage under Medicaid or an optional group. The federal health care law expanded eligibility for Medicaid, but the U.S. Supreme Court in 2012 said states could not be penalized for not participating in expanding the program. The lawsuit contends the expansion population is an optional group that cannot be covered unless such coverage is approved by the Legislature. Pfiffner said that, at least in his preliminary view, the expansion population meets the language for required coverage. Under expansion, Medicaid coverage would be extended to 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. Attorneys for the council argued the state could face irreparable fiscal injury if Walker's plan to expand Medicaid coverage in Alaska takes effect next week. They also said it could create an administrative nightmare if expanded Medicaid begins and is later determined unlawful. In a court filing opposing the temporary restraining order, attorneys for the state Department of Law, representing Walker, said nothing would change with the scheduled Tuesday rollout of expansion that would harm the Legislative Council. "All that will happen on that date is that some additional Alaskans will get federally funded health care coverage," they wrote. If the court later decides that expansion is unlawful, it can halt expansion then and the coverage will stop, they wrote. "The only 'harm' that will have occurred in the interim is that some indigent Alaskans will have received federally funded health care that they would not have otherwise received," they wrote  

Shell pauses Arctic offshore drilling for high wind, water

Strong winds and high waves that pounded the northern coast of Alaska have led Royal Dutch Shell PLC to temporarily stop exploratory oil drilling in the Arctic Ocean. "Due to high wind and sea states, we have paused all critical operations in the Chukchi Sea," said spokesman Curtis Smith in an email response to questions. The eastern Chukchi Sea this week experienced gale-force winds in the range of 39 to 54 p.m., said Ed Townsend, lead forecaster for the National Weather Service in Fairbanks. Winds at Point Lay on Alaska's northwest coast about 9 a.m. Friday blew steadily at 29 mph with gusts to 37 mph. Smith said he isn't sure when drilling might resume. "We hope to resume normal operations as soon as it's safe to do so," he said. The Polar Pioneer, a semi-submersible drilling unit that Shell leases from Transocean Ltd., began top-hole and drilling work July 30 and remains safely anchored at the drill site, Smith said. Bad weather has postponed previous drilling operations, Smith said, and Shell plans for it. Bad weather affected drilling in both the Chukchi and Beaufort seas in 2012. "It's why we use a combination of satellite images, sonar and on-site reconnaissance to inform our operations," he said. "With safety the first priority, we take a conservative approach to these weather events and make plans to curtail operations well in advance." Arctic offshore drilling is strongly opposed by environmental groups that say oil companies have not demonstrated the ability to respond effectively to a spill in harsh conditions where floating ice could hamper cleanup operations. "Imagine trying to respond to a spill in that kind of weather," said Pam Miller, a longtime Arctic researcher and environmental advocate in Fairbanks. Halting drilling for severe weather or moving ice was a common occurrence for Shell drilling in 1989 and 1990, she said. Global warming's effect on sea ice, which formerly acted like a blanket over waves, adds to the risk. "The waves may be even greater. We know they are along shore, where coastal erosion is a problem," she said. Every time a drill rigs disconnects from a well for weather or ice moving in, she said, it adds to the risk of a spill. The weather is also affecting operations on shore. Shell is temporarily relocating staff at its housing camp in Barrow, the northernmost city in the United States. "A road used to transport people to the camp is down to one lane due to high water and could become impassable," Smith said.  

Judge hears arguments for Medicaid expansion injunction

Superior Court Judge Frank Pfiffner is expected to issue a ruling Friday on whether to halt the start of new Medicaid enrollment Sept. 1 under an expansion of the program ordered by Gov. Bill Walker. In a hearing Thursday on the Legislative Council’s request for a temporary restraining order or injunction, attorneys for the Republican-led legislative committee and the state Department of Law rehashed some of the basic elements of the lawsuit, whether a U.S. Supreme Court decision can be interpreted that a Medicaid expansion is “required” by the Affordable Care Act or only an “option.” Erin Murphy, attorney for Bancroft Pllc, a Virginia-based law firm representing the legislators, told the judge that the plaintiffs’ petition meets one standard for a restraining order or injunction: “We make a clear case that we will prevail on the merits,” that the expansion is optional and requiring legislative approval, Murphy said, speaking on a videoconference. In a comment, Pfiffner questioned that assumption. “In several legal opinions the Legislature’s own attorneys told the Legislative Council that it is likely to lose this case.” However, if that isn’t sufficient, Murphy argued that the second standard, to preserve the status quo until the legal issues are settled, would also be met by halting Walker’s acceptance of new Medicaid applicants starting Sept. 1. “It doesn’t make sense to extend coverage to people (on Sept. 1) only to have it terminated,” if the legal case requires it, Murphy told the court. “All we’re asking is to have this put on hold, perhaps for just a matter of weeks. It doesn’t make sense to begin implementing this before the court decides that it is legal.” The case could be resolved quickly because it’s a straightforward legal question, an interpretation of a Supreme Court decision, that requires no evidence or extensive briefings, she said. The state argued, however, that the plaintiffs failed to make a case that harm will be done if new applicants under the Medicaid expansion are accepted. “There has been no showing that there will be harm done,” by the expansion, which is another reason restraining orders or injunctions are ordered, said Dario Borgheson, an attorney with the Department of Law who was representing the Walker administration. “On the contrary, there will be real benefits given to people. Some people will get health care. It might save lives, and the state won’t have to spend money to care, to prison inmates for example, that would be paid by the federal government if the expansion is allowed,” Borgheson said. On the merits of the law case, whether expansion is optional or not, Borgheson said existing state law extends to the commissioner of Health and Social Services the power to “define the contour” of the state Medicaid program, under which Commissioner Valerie Davidson has powers to extend certain services without explicit legislative approval. “This is pretty standard procedure, where agencies are given discretion to define how complex programs will be administered, and Medicaid is very complex,” Borgheson said.  

Judge blocks Obama administration regulation on waterways

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — A federal judge in North Dakota on Thursday blocked a new Obama administration rule that would give the federal government jurisdiction over some smaller waterways just hours before it was set to go into effect. U.S. District Judge Ralph Erickson in Fargo issued a temporary injunction against a the rule that would have given the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Army Corps of Engineers authority over some streams, tributaries and wetlands under the Clean Water Act. The rule was scheduled to take effect Friday. "The risk of irreparable harm to the states is both imminent and likely," Erickson said in granting the request of 13 states to temporarily stop the rule from taking effect. The judge said that among other things, the rule would require "jurisdictional studies" of every proposed natural gas, oil or water pipeline project in North Dakota, which is at the center of an energy exploration boom. The 13 states led by North Dakota asked Erickson to suspend guidelines that they say are unnecessary and infringe on state sovereignty. The federal government says the new rule clarifies ambiguity in the law and actually makes it easier for the states to manage some waterways. It wasn't immediately clear if the injunction applied to states other than the 13 that requested the injunction. North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, who filed the request, said he was pleased by the ruling. "This is a victory in the first skirmish, but it is only the first," Stenehjem said in a statement. "There is much more to do to prevent this widely unpopular rule from ever taking effect." Stenehjem said his reading of the ruling was that it applied to all 50 states, not just the 13 that sued. The EPA didn't immediately comment. The agriculture industry has been particularly concerned about the regulation, saying that it could apply to drainage ditches on farmland. The EPA and Army Corps said the only ditches that would be covered under the rule are those that look, act and function like tributaries and carry pollution downstream. A tributary would be regulated if it shows evidence of flowing water such as a bank or high water mark, the EPA says. The other states involved in the lawsuit are Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Idaho, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, Nevada, South Dakota and Wyoming. Erickson cited Wyoming in his ruling, saying the state would have to bear the cost of things such as issuing permits and has no way of avoiding the increased expenses under the regulation. State officials in North Dakota said the new rule will cost the state millions of dollars and take away from more important programs. State Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring said there's "confusion and anxiety" among farmers and other landowners over the initiative. At the very least, state officials argued, more time was needed to study the rule, which was finalized on May 27. Stenehjem — along with attorneys general and officials from 30 other states — wrote last month to the EPA and the Army Corps asking that the law be postponed at least nine months. Lawyers for the states said they heard nothing back from the government, so they filed a request for the preliminary injunction. The federal government said the request for an injunction was better suited to be heard by the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rather than a federal judge, but Erickson rejected that notion.  

After Bennett visit, groups are cautiously optimistic of progress

JUNEAU — At a joint press conference Wednesday afternoon, environmental, fishing and Native leaders said they were optimistic about the outcome of Juneau meetings between Alaskans and a British Columbia delegation led by provincial Mines and Energy Minister Bill Bennett. Bennett, in Juneau this week to discuss mining development along Alaska’s border with BC, is scheduled to leave Juneau today for Ketchikan before returning to Canada. “I was encouraged by Minister Bennett saying the status quo cannot continue, and I think everyone’s in agreement on that, but the devil’s going to be in the details of how we move forward,” said Chris Zimmer of Rivers Without Borders, one of the environmental groups that has raised awareness of the transboundary mines issue. While environmentalists gathered in protest of BC’s mine plans Wednesday — even briefly disrupting an afternoon event organized by the state — they said cautiously that this week’s trip was productive. “It was a good meeting, we got a lot of things on the table, but the proof of the pudding is what actions come out of this, and there was no firm plan of action coming out of this,” Zimmer said. Douglas Indian Association member John Morris said some of Bennett’s most promising comments addressed work with tribal governments on monitoring the metal content of water downriver of BC mines. “We see a little bit of cooperation coming out of it, so now maybe the next step will be to work with the First Nations,” he said. Heather Hardcastle of Salmon Beyond Borders, which organized the afternoon press conference, said the bottom line of this week’s events is that a long process has started. “I think we’re a long ways off from where we’d like to be, but you’ve got to start somewhere and we had a good discussion today,” she said. “I also think, too, and I’m an optimist ... that if people can see this region and experience it, it changes you. I think Bill Bennett was visibly moved in this place.”

Obama Alaska agenda focused on climate change

More questions than answers have bred ample speculation about President Barack Obama’s trip to Alaska less than a week before he is scheduled to arrive. The president’s three-day trip, Aug. 31 to Sept. 2, will be his first extended stay in the state. During a press briefing, Sen. Lisa Murkowski called it a “somewhat historic” event for a non-campaigning president to spend three days in Alaska, or any state. Obama spoke to armed service members at Elmendorf Air Force Base in Anchorage in 2009 during a brief refueling stop while en route to Asia. Murkowski doesn’t know much more than anyone else about the president’s plans, but has heard that worry about the president making a major announcement while he’s here is unnecessary. “I have been told there will be no surprises,” Murkowski said. The senior Republican senator also said she wants Obama to come to Alaska with an open mind and meet Alaskans, rather than take a scripted tour of the state. “I’m hopeful that he is not going to use Alaska merely as a backdrop for climate change — that he will see some of the innovative technologies that are allowing us to adapt in an Arctic environment that is changing,” Murkowski said. A brief video outlining his visit on the White House website hints that Murkowski might be disappointed. It begins with Obama saying: “Later this month I’m going to Alaska and I’m going because Alaskans are on the forefront of one of the greatest challenges we face in this century, climate change.” Plans are for him to visit Dillingham and Kotzebue after spending the first day of his trip in Anchorage. Kotzebue Mayor Maija Lukin said Aug. 24 in a formal statement that it is encouraging to have the president see the “real-life impacts of climate change we have faced.” Many seaside Western Alaska communities have struggled to fight increased coastal erosion in recent years caused by storms at a time when there is less sea ice and permafrost to protect the coastline. “We’ve been working as a community to mitigate these impacts for years and look forward to working together on future projects that ensure our residents have a home for generations to come,” Lukin said. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, who visited Kotzebue for two days in February, will accompany Obama on his trip, according to Murkowski. Secretary of State John Kerry is also expected to be in Alaska with the president. Like Obama, Kerry’s only visit to Alaska has been on a refueling stop while on an Asian junket. The State Department is hosting the Conference on Global Leadership in the Arctic: Cooperation, Innovation, Engagement and Resilience (GLACIER) at the Dena’ina Center Anchorage Aug. 30-31. It’s anticipated that Obama will address the GLACIER conference. GLACIER is not an international Arctic Council event. The U.S. took chairmanship of the Arctic Council for a two-year term earlier this year. The State Department is the country’s representative body for the Arctic Council. Domestic and foreign leaders at the conference will hear panel discussions about managing climate change in the Arctic, improving international Arctic emergency response, cold climate building and preventing unregulated fishing in international Arctic waters. Murkowski and Sen. Dan Sullivan will also speak before the gathering of foreign ministers at the GLACIER welcoming reception Aug. 30. Sullivan spokesman Mike Anderson wrote in an email the senator has been encouraging the administration to address issues important to Alaska beyond climate change, such as reversing proposed force reductions at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, the need for more icebreaker capacity and increased resource development opportunities in the state among other topics. Rep. Don Young will not attend GLACIER, according to his spokesman Matt Shuckerow. Young shared the senators’ sentiments about the president’s trip in an unbridled statement responding to the video outlining Obama’s objectives for his trip. “Many Alaskans have expressed anxiety and worry about further land use designations or ocean reserves that would permanently lock away resources critical to our state and local economies, including fish, oil and gas, minerals timber,” Young said. “The resources within Alaska can be and should be managed and developed responsibly. It is my hope that the president will use his visit as an opportunity to learn about the many challenges we face and not as a platform to pander to extreme interest groups using Alaska as a poster child for their reckless agenda.” Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

Steadily falling oil prices exacerbate state budget deficit

On Aug. 24, as the price of West Texas crude oil dipped to less than $39 per barrel for the first time in six years, state Revenue Commissioner Randall Hoffbeck told the Alaska House Finance Committee that the decline is exacerbating the state’s budget problems. The state’s budget is based on an average price of $66 per barrel for North Slope crude. Since July 1, the start of the state’s fiscal year, North Slope prices have averaged $53.26, according to the state’s publicly posted database. For every $5 decline in average oil prices, Alaska loses $120 million in revenue, explained Pat Pitney, director of the state Office of Management and Budget. At an average of $50 per barrel, the state will finish the fiscal year with $400 million less revenue than expected, Hoffbeck said. For lawmakers gathered in Anchorage, that’s a grim cherry atop a sour financial sundae that already has the state taking in billions of dollars less than it is spending. Only the state’s extraordinary reserves — the Statutory Budget Reserve and the Constitutional Budget Reserve — are currently keeping it afloat, and a shortfall will require the state to dip into those reserves to top off the fiscal year 2015 budget before considering the fiscal year 2016 budget. “The reality is to balance the budget at current production, we would need $109 per barrel,” Hoffbeck told the committee. “The most optimistic forecast you get is $60-80 per barrel.” Hoffbeck and Pitney were in Anchorage to share with lawmakers the message that they’ve been spreading in meetings and workshops across the state — Alaska needs to talk taxes and revenue to make ends meet. “It’s unusual to have a discussion in August on the budget, but our situation is such that it warrants early and often communications,” Pitney said. Also speaking was Gunnar Knapp, an economist and director of the University of Alaska Institute of Social and Economic Research. In the next few months, Knapp explained, ISER will be conducting a study to determine the effects a state income tax, smaller dividend, state sales tax or other tax would have on Alaskans. “We’re not studying how much money do you get from these different options,” he said. “We’re simply saying that if you make this kind of change, how does it affect jobs?” The state’s previous best guess comes from a 1987 study that found that cutting dividends would have a bigger effect on the state’s economy than a personal income tax would. “Is that still true?” Knapp asked. “That’s something we have to analyze.” The ISER study is expected to be available in October, about the same time that Hoffbeck will begin the process of updating the state’s revenue forecast and Gov. Bill Walker will begin to roll out proposals for revenue legislation. “It looks as if it’s going to be a busier fall,” said Rep. Mark Neuman, R-Big Lake, and chairman of the House Finance Committee. On Aug. 18, Standard and Poor’s Ratings Services lowered its outlook on the State of Alaska’s credit rating, citing the state’s fiscal picture. S&P’s credit rating is a big deal for the state — a lower rating would increase interest rates on any bonds the state issues, making them more expensive. The state has a AAA rating on general obligation bonds and an AA+ rating on appropriation-backed bonds, the highest and second-highest possible ratings. At the Aug. 24 meeting, Hoffbeck said Standard and Poor’s “made a pretty strong statement” with a “highly unusual” midterm announcement. He said the state talked to the agency about two weeks ago, before the agency made its announcement, and knew it was coming. “I think the end of the legislative session will trigger another response from the rating agencies,” Hoffbeck said. “They want to see significant movement or they made it pretty clear that our credit rating could be in jeopardy.”

GUEST COMMENTARY: Time to act on opportunities of changing Arctic

The United States has been an Arctic nation since it purchased Alaska from Russia in 1867, yet no sitting president has ever ventured to the Alaskan Arctic. That will change when President Obama arrives there later this month to address a conference on Arctic issues. While he has signaled his intent to focus on climate change, an important issue that affects us all, it should be one of many dimensions to our nation’s Arctic strategy. There are many who have called the Arctic home for generations, and expect to for generations to come. There is much to be addressed in the Arctic to sustain our people’s presence here, and to assert our nation’s stewardship of the region. The timing is urgent, particularly in light of increased human activity from many nations related to shipping, oil and gas development, commercial fishing, military, and even tourism. As Alaskans, we call for a two-prong strategy to effectively advance U.S. interests in the Arctic. First, we must invest in critical infrastructure necessary to support core government missions and increased human activity. At a minimum, new ports and safe harbors, equipment and facilities for oil spill response and additional Polar class icebreakers for the U.S. fleet are required for safe maritime traffic in the Arctic.  Currently, there are only two active Coast Guard icebreakers in the U.S. fleet, the Polar Star and the Healy, one of which is nearing retirement and the other primarily used for research. Despite record low sea ice levels, most of the northern waters are still covered in some degree of sea ice. The U.S. must provide the Coast Guard with the needed tools to address its mission including new icebreakers and other boats with Arctic capacity, as recently proposed by Sens. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Maria Cantwell, D-Wash. Arctic communities have excellent search and rescue response on a smaller scale, but aren’t prepared for larger emergency events. With the anticipated increase in human and vessel traffic, communication, search and rescue, law enforcement and disaster response capabilities are even more critical. The harsh Arctic environment requires that the response time to any disaster must be executed swiftly. The nearest permanent Coast Guard facility is in Kodiak, 945 nautical miles south of Barrow, the population center on the north slope of Alaska. It is time for the Coast Guard to expand its northern presence to include a permanent Arctic station.  Another essential investment is a deep-water port in the Arctic. At present, there are none. A deep-water port has obvious economic benefits, but it also improves safety by providing a safe haven for large ships navigating the Arctic waters. Ideally the U.S. would invest in a system of ports and safe harbors across the Arctic covering both the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas. A combination of public and private investment in projects such as these will likewise sustain further investments in other critical infrastructure needs, like telecommunications and renewable energy generation, which are currently limited in some parts of the Arctic. Next, to guide these strategic investments the U.S. must engage its citizens in the Arctic, Alaska Natives, who settled the area thousands of years ago. Many of the residents lead a subsistence lifestyle, hunting and gathering food from the land and sea, requiring unique knowledge. This traditional knowledge has provided the basis for a people and a culture to survive in one of the harshest environments on Earth. Nobody understands the Arctic better than the Alaska Native people who have called the Arctic home for so long. We must incorporate this knowledge as a valuable tool for planning and implementing how the Arctic is developed. We have a unique, but limited opportunity to act. In addition to the immediate attention the president will bring to this region, the U.S. just assumed the chairmanship of the Arctic Council, an 8-nation consortium that exists to promote coordination among the Arctic States on common Arctic issues like sustainable development and environmental protection. This two-year leadership role won’t belong to the U.S. again until 2031. The momentum may never be stronger. Our leaders should seize it to fashion a comprehensive Arctic strategy — one that addresses climate but also responsible development, safety, infrastructure, and economic opportunity for Alaska Natives. Joule, mayor of the Northwest Arctic Borough, is an Alaska Native and lives in Kotzebue. Duncan, CEO of GCI, is also co-chair of the Alaska Arctic Council Host Committee.

GUEST COMMENTARY: Litigation not way for Alaskans to pull together on Medicaid

This past week has been a tough one for Alaskans. On Aug. 18, we learned that heavy rainfall had triggered six landslides in Sitka, and three men—beloved residents—were missing. The next morning, I headed to Sitka. The devastation was staggering. Family members and friends were on-site, hoping for a miracle and fearing the worst. I listened. I wished I could do more to ease their pain. I felt some of the same emotions when I visited several villages in the past few weeks. One community is on the verge of losing its school because so many young people are leaving their ancestral home for urban areas, where the cost of energy is lower. In another community, there is not a single flushing toilet. Our great state is facing some serious challenges. Meanwhile, members of the Legislative Council have chosen to sue me for accepting federal money to provide health care for low-income, working Alaskans. Since July 16 when I announced my intent to accept the money, not a day has gone by without someone approaching me to thank me or share a personal story. In Valdez, a doctor told me her patient will be able to receive treatment; she said Medicaid expansion will save her patient’s life. But there are others for whom the decision comes too late. Anchorage health care providers recently shared with me the individual stories of three Alaskans who did not have access to affordable health care. A 50-year-old man suffered for months with a toothache he could not afford to treat. The pain finally led him to an emergency room, where he learned the abscessed tooth had infected his brain. He underwent surgery, but it was too late. The procedure left him so debilitated, he died two months later. A 60-year-old man suffered a stroke, but refused to see a doctor because he didn’t have money or insurance. After his family insisted for six weeks that he seek medical attention, he finally went to the emergency room—only to suffer several more strokes that impaired his ability to talk and walk. He died three months later. An uninsured 23-year-old man with diabetes who did not have access to primary care was hospitalized three times with acute kidney failure before he died. My heart goes out to the grieving family members and friends of these Alaskans whose deaths could have been prevented with early diagnosis and treatment. This is not merely about policy. This is about people.   I am accountable to these Alaskans. I am also accountable to the Alaskans who foot the bill for the uninsured. Providers at Central Peninsula Hospital in Kenai, Fairbanks Memorial Hospital and Alaska Regional Hospital tell me that health care coverage for one uninsured patient can cost a medical facility $1 million. They told me about the $226,000 bill incurred by an uninsured 36-year-old woman whose chronic pancreatitis led to nine emergency room visits and four hospitalizations. They told me about an uninsured 21-year-old man with acute kidney failure who made multiple trips to the hospital, including 13 emergency room visits in one year, six trips for dialysis and a two-month hospitalization. The bill topped $575,000. These are costs the rest of us shoulder. It just doesn’t make sense when we have an opportunity to bring home Alaska’s tax dollars to pay some of these bills. That’s what Medicaid expansion allows us to do.  I am disappointed members of the Legislative Council chose to “defend the power of the purse” over the will and needs of the people. At a time when the state is facing a $3.5 billion deficit, 10 legislators chose to spend $450,000 to hire an outside law firm to block what more than 60 percent of Alaskans want; they chose to sue to prevent $145 million in federal dollars from being injected into our economy to provide lifesaving care for our fellow Alaskans. It’s unfair to paint all 60 legislators with a broad brush because of the actions of a few. I greatly appreciate the lawmakers who have voiced their support for Medicaid expansion and reform. It’s time we all work through our differences and pull together. It doesn’t make sense to waste money suing each other, especially when the budget is so tight we are laying off teachers, cutting troopers, and grounding search-and-rescue aircraft. I had the option on Dec. 1 to unilaterally expand Medicaid. But I wanted to work through the legislative process. I included federal Medicaid expansion dollars in my proposed budget; lawmakers removed it and asked that I introduce legislation. I introduced legislation. When lawmakers failed to take action during the legislative session, I put my Medicaid reform and expansion legislation on a special session call. Legislators again gaveled out without taking a floor vote, calling a new session without Medicaid on the agenda. Alaskans could not wait any longer.  I used my executive authority. I don’t take that power lightly. I stand by my decision to expand Medicaid. I remain firm that it’s the responsible thing to do. It’s the right thing to do. We need to turn our attention now to Medicaid reform and redesign. We need to work together to ensure Medicaid remains an effective and affordable safety net over the long term. It’s time for collaboration, not litigation.

Alaska Communications partners with Akeela for telehealth

In yet another movement into telehealth space, Alaska Communications Systems Group Inc. has partnered with Alaska behavioral health facility Akeela to provide remote care to rural patients. “With these relationships, we demonstrate how we work with customers to understand their needs, and then design, custom build and manage complex network solutions,” wrote Alaska Communications Senior Vice President Bill Bishop in an email. “We’re proud to say our track record of providing secure, reliable connections to clinics across Alaska means we’re improving access to health care, improving the quality of care, and reducing costs for our new partners at Chugachmiut, JAMHI and Akeela.” In July, Alaska Communications partnered with the Juneau Alliance for Mental Health, Inc., or JAMHI, and Sitka Community Hospital to provide the equipment and necessary bandwidth to give rural patients behavioral and primary healthcare access. Chugachmiut is a Tribal consortium serving the seven Native communities of the Chugach region with health and social services, education and training, and technical assistance. Telehealth, or telemedicine, administers medical care remotely through internet or traditional telephone connections. Through video and digitally-enabled biomedical readings, physicians and nurses in one area are able to provide primary, urgent, psychiatric, and even intensive care to rural patients without needing expensive transit for themselves or the patient. Akeela provides mental health and substance abuse treatment, as well as rehabilitation programs for inmates in every correctional facility in the state. Akeela has outpatient treatment facilities in Anchorage, Nome, Fairbanks, Kenai, Sutton, Juneau and Seward. Unlike JAHMI and Sitka Community Hospital, Akeela has not received state or federal grant money for its telehealth equipment. According to Christopher Constant, Akeela’s director of grants and marketing, the connectivity agreement with Alaska Communications will be geared toward providing mental health counseling remotely. “We needed a network provider that would allow us to grow and continue to facilitate wellness throughout the life spans of all Alaskans. Alaska Communications took the time to listen and understand what we needed, and provided a top-tier solution,” Akeela’s chief operations officer Mark Marlow said. “As a result of our new relationship, we can provide greater access to our behavioral health programs without travel, which lowers costs and makes us more efficient.” Alaska Communications has a program specifically geared toward coordinating such partnerships in tandem with its telecommunications services. It also has an existing partnership with Chugachmiut, a medical and social care tribal consortium that provides care to Southcentral locations. DJ Summers can be reached at [email protected]

Appeal in Akiachak case revives tribal sovereignty fight

JUNEAU — When Gov. Bill Walker and Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott joined forces last year, they created the Unity Ticket. A legal action filed Aug. 24 by the state is straining that image. The appeal, filed in the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., seeks to overturn a D.C. District Court ruling that would allow Alaska Native tribes to put land into federal trust. Trust status would prevent the state or local governments from taxing the land and allow tribes to control such things as access and many aspects of law enforcement. “Alaska Natives believed Gov. Walker when he said he would set a new course,” said Richard Peterson, president of the Central Council Tlingit-Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska. “Instead, by authorizing the state’s appeal, Gov. Walker is just following the old, costly, self-defeating ways of fighting instead of collaborating.” Fighting for ‘Indian Country’ The case in question is called State of Alaska v. Akiachak Native Community et al., or the Akiachak case for short. It pits the state against four tribes and an individual who are seeking a right that tribes in the Lower 48 have — the ability to put land into federal trust and create what is formally known as Indian Country. For decades, the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act was thought to have erased that ability among Alaska Natives. In 1994, three tribes asked the Secretary of the Interior to erase the “Alaska exemption.” In 2001, the Interior’s associate solicitor for Indian Affairs said ANCSA precluded trust land in Alaska. A lawsuit followed, contending the solicitor was wrong. In 2013, D.C. district court judge Rudolph Contreras agreed with those who launched the lawsuit. The Department of the Interior began accepting applications for trust land, but the state’s pending appeal has kept those applications from advancing. Land rights and tribal sovereignty are old issues in Alaska, but the current case is bigger than most. “This is probably the biggest issue that faces tribes right now,” Peterson said. It’s also one of the most contentious. No dissent at the top The Central Council has not signed on to be a party to the lawsuit, but that hasn’t slowed Peterson from affixing the Council’s name to petitions advocating the state to settle. The legal battle began under Gov. Sarah Palin and continued under Gov. Sean Parnell, both Republicans. When Walker, a former Republican-turned-independent, joined Mallott, a Democrat, Tlingit and clan leader, many hoped that their electoral win would settle the legal battle. Mallott has been a longtime backer of giving tribes the right to put land into trust. In 1999, the Alaska Commission on Rural Governance and Empowerment, with Mallott as co-chair, formally recommended the state cooperate with tribal efforts to transfer land into his trust. In his campaign, Mallott told Bethel voters in 2013 that he agreed completely with the notion of tribal sovereignty. “By not recognizing tribes, it also continues to keep a divide between us as Alaskans that needs to be done away with,” he said in a KYUK-FM report. On Aug. 25, Mallott changed his tone. “I will support his decision,” he said of the governor’s action. He explained that he believes, given time, Walker will change his mind. “He is not doing it because he opposes tribal sovereignty,” Mallott said. He simply hasn’t had the time to understand the issue, and the state couldn’t delay legal proceedings again. Furthermore, appealing now doesn’t mean the state will see the lawsuit through to a conclusion. “I certainly and fully appreciate and understand the frustration,” he said. “I believe that I am in a position of working with Gov. Walker to get the state of Alaska to a point where tribes are able to exercise the full range of tribal responsibility and bring about trust, respect and understanding between Alaskan tribes.” In the weeks before the appeal was announced Monday, Walker traveled to Akiachak, Tuluksak, Chalkyitsik, Barrow and Haines to talk about the trust issue and others facing rural communities. Mallott said that kind of outreach is appreciated. “I think in the main, tribes have appreciated very much that response and that relationship,” he said. After Monday’s appeal, that appreciation might fade quickly. “Unfortunately, Gov. Walker needs to realize that it was the Native vote that got him elected, and now he’s risking alienating that support,” Peterson said. Fish and game opposition In its appeal, the state argues that widespread creation of trust land could lead to “a complex and confusing patchwork of dissimilarly governed areas.” That could affect things as varied as fish and wildlife management. An Indian Country designation would allow tribes to apply their own regulations, something that has alarmed hunting and fishing organizations. In June 2014, writing on behalf of the Territorial Sportsmen, David Mastolier said: “To now consider layering lands owned by 200+ villages and 12 regional corporations over this jurisdictional landscape would be unfathomable. Over 200 separate tribes enacting their own fish and game regulations ... would be a resource management and conservation nightmare.” He added that TSI, which conducts the Golden North Salmon Derby each year in Juneau, was “strongly opposed” to the Department of the Interior’s proposed land-into-trust rule. That rule was approved in December but remains on hold thanks to the state’s appeal. Indian Country is immune from state and federal taxation, another controversial point for some Alaskans. The Tlingit-Haida Central Council has applied to put the Andrew Hope Building into trust, Peterson said. The organization is not taxed by the City and Borough of Juneau, but as Peterson explained, if the Central Council were to rent space in the building, that space could be taxed. Putting the building into trust would keep that from happening. Alaska Natives suffer disproportionate levels of social and economic problems. Tribes contend that trust status would be a powerful economic tool to fix those problems. “Socially, the suffering that we’re seeing is off the charts,” said David Voluck, a Central Council court magistrate and co-author of “Alaska Natives and American Laws,” one of the key legal texts addressing indigenous law in Alaska. He says that when people point at ANCSA as an unchanging document that forever separated Alaska Native and Lower 48 laws governing American Indians, they’re off base. “The idea that there was this wholly sacred intent, that there was the Founding Fathers of 1971 who wrote this,” is wrong, he said.

The Bookworm Sez: Understanding talents as destiny

Around work, you’ve gotten a reputation as the go-to person for certain things. Everybody has a talent; yours happens to be on the job. People know you’re good, they utilize your ability, and you don’t mind. It’s not a big deal to you, but could there be more to it? T.D. Jakes thinks so, and in his new book “Destiny: Step into Your Purpose,” he shows how your talents may reveal a new path. In the moments after leaving a meeting with Coretta Scott King some years ago, T.D. Jakes began to ponder something she’d said about destiny. He “lived a life to which (he) felt drawn.” That kind of success, he knew, was attainable for everyone. You have talents that are inherent inside you, says Jakes. You may not understand them. You may call them God-given, dumb luck, or fate, but those talents are your destiny and “…people must learn to live genuine lives that allow them to perform the… tasks they are gifted to do.” In following your destiny, remember that it’s a process. That doesn’t mean things can’t happen quickly, but it’s unlikely. Time will give you the chance to grow and learn to use your talents to their utmost; just be patient and understand that few things happen when it’s convenient. Meanwhile, gather all the skills you can get, which “may be just what you need to propel you...” And remember that “the only reason we have steps is to get us to a higher level.” Learn to prioritize, not just in your tasks, but in your relationships, your finances, and in your dreams. Don’t “fix every problem that comes across your radar.” Know how to handle situations that are important, and “leave behind small thinking.” Don’t confuse who you are with what you do. Remember that pain and failure are part of the journey, but don’t let them deter you from your destiny and don’t waste a second of your life. And remember that “Sometimes the best hello to a new opportunity is the good-bye you gave to a dead situation.” As I see it, there are two main aspects that set “Destiny” apart from other books that line the business shelves at the library or bookstore: it’s perhaps not surprisingly quite faith-based, and it’s very surprisingly quiet in its steadfastness. Author T.D. Jakes is almost laser-focused-insistent in his urgings for readers, in fact, and that’s not a bad thing. Jakes’ words feel like a giant hand on your back, like an industrial magnet pulling toward success and his advice, though sometimes repetitive, is startlingly intense. Again, that’s not a distraction, but there was one thing that did bother me: I saw words on responsibility but not much about what to do if a destiny is misread or, if chased, turns sour. And so, though I liked this book quite a bit, I would’ve liked to see more of balance. Still, I can’t argue with pages and pages of fierce inspiration and direction — and that alone could make “Destiny” your go-to book. Terri Schlichenmeyer is the author of The Bookworm Sez, which is published in more than 200 newspapers and 50 magazines throughout the U.S. and Canada. Schlichenmeyer may be reached at [email protected]

Movers & Shakers 8/30/15

Nina Kemppel is the new president and CEO of the Alaska Community Foundation, and will join ACF in mid-October. Kemppel comes to ACF from serving as president and CEO of the Alaska Humanities Forum since 2012. Before joining the Alaska Humanities Forum, Kemppel was principal at the Coraggio Group, a West Coast strategy and organizational change firm in Portland, Ore. She also spent four years in Boston at a global management-consulting firm, Oliver Wyman, where she worked with several Fortune 500 companies as well as nonprofit organizations. She holds a bachelor’s degree in economics from Dartmouth College and an MBA from the Tuck School of Business. Prior to her business career, Kemppel had an international Nordic ski racing career spanning 13 years that included a record-breaking 18 U.S. National Championships. She competed in four Olympic Winter Games and in 2002 skied to what was then the highest Olympic finish in history by an American woman in the 30-km classical race. Kemppel has also won the Mount Marathon race nine times, eight consecutively. In 2009, she was elected to the Alaska Sports Hall of Fame. Northrim Bank hired Jean McKnight as senior vice president, senior Commercial Loan Unit manager, and Jenn Ludden as assistant vice president, Electronic Banking Operations manager. McKnight joins the Northrim team with 38 years in the financial industry. She was most recently with First National Bank Alaska were she was vice president and team leader in the Corporate Lending Division. McKnight has also worked for KeyBank where she was a senior business relationship manager, and Rainer Bank/Security Pacific Bank as a corporate lending manager. She has lived in Anchorage for nearly 30 years and holds a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Oregon State University. Ludden joins Northrim Bank with 11 years in the financial industry. Prior to moving to Alaska, she worked at Bank of America in a variety of positions starting as a teller and working her way to management. Ludden holds a bachelor’s degree in architecture from the University of Arizona. Karen Linnell has been hired as project manager of the Copper River-Ahtna Inter-Tribal Resource Conservation District. She will be based out of the Ahtna office building in Glennallen. Linnell brings to Ahtna 12 years of experience in project management and cost control. Karen has spent the last two years as Tribal Administrator for Cheesh’na Tribal Council. Linnell recently served on Alaska Gov. Bill Walker’s Transition Team as the chair of the Wildlife Committee. Dr. Paula Martin has been hired as campus director of the University of Alaska Southeast Sitka Campus. Currently, Martin serves as assistant director for Academic Affairs and associate professor at UAA’s Kenai Peninsula College, a role she has held since 2008. Martin earned her Ph.D. at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in entomology in 1993. She taught at Emory University, where she led its Human and Natural Ecology program. She then accepted an opportunity to create a new department, Environmental Science and Studies at Juniata College in Pennsylvania. Williams Scotsman, a North American supplier of workforce accommodations, modular space and storage solutions, announced the appointment of Craig Pester to the position of area manager in Alaska. In this newly created role, Pester will provide leadership for the company’s ongoing growth in the Alaskan market with a focus on modular facility leasing, as well as its newly introduced Stayover Lodge offering. Pester, a native of New Zealand, has established an accomplished career in senior management roles with Aramark, Hampton Inn and Westin, while working in markets ranging from Australia, Alaska and most recently, the Pacific Northwest. WHPacific named Director of Transportation Louis Bassler as Project Manager of the Year. In fiscal year 2015, Bassler handled projects ranging in contract size from $9,000 to more than $500,000 with a combined project portfolio of nearly $8 million. Bassler is the director of Transportation for WHPacific in Alaska, who has been with the company for 19 years. He has more than 30 years of engineering, project management, and construction management experience on public and private projects in Alaska. He specializes in road projects and highway, pathway, and boardwalk projects requiring specialized arctic and subarctic design and construction expertise. His experience includes improving safety, reducing traffic congestion, and improving vehicle access.

GOP cites constitution in Medicaid lawsuit vs. Gov. Walker

The fight over expanding Medicaid between Gov. Bill Walker and Republican legislators has gone from the Capitol to the Anchorage Legislative Information Office and is now headed for a courtroom. The Republican-heavy joint Legislative Council voted 10-1 Aug. 18 to sue Walker over his use of executive authority to accept federal funds to expand the state Medicaid program. Minority Democrat Rep. Sam Kito of Juneau was the only dissenting vote. Senate Majority Leader John Coghill, R-Fairbanks, said the attorney fees would be split between the House, Senate and Legislative Council budgets. Walker announced July 16 that he would accept $148.6 million from the federal government for Medicaid expansion beginning Sept. 1, the end of a mandatory 45-day waiting period. It is possible the majority’s push for an injunction to halt the expansion process could be heard as early as Aug. 24, Coghill said. “We’ve kind of been put in a position where you either defend the integrity of the Legislature or not defend it,” he said. Accepting and spending money by the State of Alaska typically requires the Legislature’s approval. However, because this Medicaid funding is federal dollars and does not involve the general fund, it could be done administratively. The legislators contend that expanding Medicaid coverage to a group of previously uncovered individuals qualifies as adding a new, optional group, which would require the Legislature’s approval. Also approved was spending $450,000 to secure legal counsel from the Washington, D.C.-based law firm of Bancroft LLC and the Anchorage firm of Holmes, Weedle and Barcott.  “I’m just really disappointed,” a visibly frustrated Walker said during a press briefing after the Legislative Council vote. “I cannot understand, I cannot fathom to understand why suing to take away health care coverage of working Alaskans is a partisan issue. I don’t have a clue as to why they’ve done that.” Growing the low-income health care program will make about 42,000 uninsured residents eligible for coverage; about 20,000 are expected to sign up in the first year. Newly eligible for Medicaid under the program will be adults without dependents who make less than 138 percent of the federal poverty level; for single individuals that is $20,314 per year and for married couples it’s $27,490 annually. House Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, said he understands the governor’s frustration, but that Walker exceeded his authority when he moved to start a new state Medicaid program. “We as the Legislature have the authority to pass laws and set state policy and we feel that this time the Legislature has been left out of that policymaking decision, and out of that process, and this is the constitutional way that we are allowed to uphold the powers that the Legislature has,” Chenault said. “The legislative process is working. Government was never intended to be fast. Normally when legislation moves through quickly, that’s when we find we have the most problems.” Walker said he is confident in his position and that Alaska governors have accepted money this way seven other times. He did not directly address the potential legal issue of establishing a new program without legislative approval. Ultimately, the state will likely spend about $1 million in the fight after his administration hires outside counsel because of cuts to the Department of Law, Walker said. Kito said in a formal statement that the decision to sue the governor will cost the state money and up to 4,000 jobs that could be associated with adding money to the state’s health care system. “I am very disappointed with the Legislative Council vote to hire outside counsel to pursue a lawsuit against our governor, challenging his action in accepting Medicaid expansion,” Kito said. “The governor’s attorney general and the legislative legal department have both prepared legal opinions indicating that the governor, under existing state law and our Constitution, has the ability to accept Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act.” Rep. Andy Josephson, D-Anchorage, said U.S. Supreme Court rulings made accepting the federal money optional, not providing care to the expansion population once the money is taken, and therefore the governor is not accepting optional funds for a new program. Alaska state Medicaid law encompasses those groups required to be covered by the federal statute and an additional 15 groups that are eligible. State law requires any new groups to be approved by the Legislature, but Attorney General Craig Richards has asserted that the expanded eligibility for Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act falls under the federal “required” group. Under that interpretation, the only thing struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court was the enforcement mechanism allowing the federal government to withhold Medicaid funds from states that refused to expand their coverage. Republicans skeptical about expanding Medicaid, one of the largest line items in the state budget at about $1.5 billion per year in state and federal funding, have long said the current system must be reformed to save money before federal expansion money is accepted. The governor said that he had been encouraged by recent conversations he has had with Legislative Budget and Audit Committee chair Rep. Mike Hawker, R-Anchorage, on reforming the Medicaid program. “We began working on (Medicaid) reform on Dec. 1, 2014, when we were sworn in,” Walker said. Both sides insist there is still a good working relationship between Walker and Republican leaders despite the current situation and battles on other matters. Walker, who included Medicaid legislation in a special legislative session he called in late April, said all he has ever asked for is a vote by the Legislature. Chenault said repeatedly that the Legislature and the administration each hired expert consultants to make recommendations on how to restructure the Medicaid program. Legislators need that information before making a decision, he said. Coghill said the Medicaid legislation was tough to handle during the special session on top of trying to close budget negotiations “in a very austere year.” Health and Social Services Commissioner Valerie Davidson has said more Medicaid money would also save the state $6.6 million this year and more than $100 million over the next six years by using federal funds to foot the bill for things the state is currently paying for. The state would not have to contribute this fiscal year, which ends next June 30, but contributions would begin in fiscal year 2017 and by 2021, the state would be required to put up a 10 percent match on any federal Medicaid expansion dollars, which would be about $20 million, according to Health Department projections. Senate President Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage, noted that costs have exceeded projections in a number of the 29 states that have accepted Medicaid expansion. A $145 million line item for federal receipts to expand Medicaid included in Walker’s operating budget proposal was cut out by the Legislature, and a bill to expand Medicaid introduced by Walker did not make it out of the House Finance Committee during the special session.

Standard and Poor's downgrades Alaska rating outlook

Standard and Poor’s Ratings Services lowered the outlook on the State of Alaska’s credit rating from “stable” to “negative” on Aug. 18, and gave politicians one year to reorganize the fiscal house before the downgrades accelerate. Standard and Poor’s wrote that the current budget deficit is inconsistent with the state’s “AAA” rating on its general obligation bonds and its “AA+” on appropriation-backed bonds, but cited the state’s still healthy budget reserves as a bridge that could maintain the high ratings. However, the ratings agency warned that there is not much time — one year — before it will begin downgrading the state’s credit, and rapidly. “The outsized reserves have thus far shielded the state’s credit quality from the degradation that the large deficits would inflict on most states’ credit quality,” according to the report. “But the magnitude of the fiscal deficits makes the arrangement unsustainable and, unless corrected, inconsistent with the current rating. Therefore, we would likely lower the rating on the state — possibly by more than one notch — if state lawmakers do not enact measures to begin correcting the state’s fiscal imbalance within the next year.” A state’s credit rating affects the cost to borrow money in the bond markets; better ratings get lower interest rates and poor ratings pay higher interest rates. The state would finance some of its share of the Alaska LNG Project, should it proceed to construction, with an ownership stake currently at 25 percent. Gov. Bill Walker has briefed legislators that he would like the state to hold a majority share in the project of at least 51 percent, and that he would finance the state’s entire share of the project that is estimated to cost between $45 billion and $65 billion. “The state will not go to the bond market for AK LNG for a few years, so there is still time to get our finances in order,” Walker said in a statement to the Journal. “The agency’s actions do, however, require action soon from the state. Our administration continues to have conversations with lawmakers about revenue options and cost cutting measures.” Alaska finished the 2015 fiscal year ended June 30 with a deficit of about $3 billion, which was covered by nearly emptying the Statutory Budget Reserve. The 2016 fiscal year deficit is also projected at $3 billion or more, and is to be covered with a withdrawal from the Constitutional Budget Reserve, or CBR. However, at current projected deficits, the CBR will be depleted within a few years, leaving the state accounts with only the Permanent Fund principal — which cannot be accessed short of a constitutional amendment — and the Fund’s earnings that pay for annual Permanent Fund Dividend check payments. The Earnings Reserve account had a balance of about $7.15 billion as of June 30, according to the Standard and Poor’s report. S&P noted the state does have some fiscal flexibility to address its budget shortfall not available to most states: the lack of any state income or sales tax, and the annual earnings from the Permanent Fund. “By introducing a statewide income or sales tax—even if it were set at a low rate relative to other states—the state could generate several hundred million in unrestricted revenue annually,” according to Standard and Poor’s, which then concluded, “In our view, therefore, the state has sufficient potential fiscal resources—if it can assemble the political will—to restore alignment in its UGF (unrestricted general fund), the state’s main operating fund. “But, absent a course correction, the time horizon before which the state’s current fiscal trajectory could undermine its credit quality is now within our outlook window of one-to-two years.” The Aug. 18 report also cited oil tax exploration credits as a budget item that could be used to address the gap based on their “mixed results” in return on investment to the state. The report also acknowledges political atmosphere in Alaska that will make such choices tougher, calling the last legislative session that dragged on through two special sessions “contentious.” “In our view, it would be a significant political achievement for the state’s lawmakers to reach agreement on any one of the fiscal reforms mentioned above,” the report stated. “But closing the fiscal gap likely will require a much bigger lift—assembling what amounts to an overhaul of the state’s overall fiscal structure. “Repairing the state’s fiscal structure is likely to be politically difficult because, ultimately, it requires lawmakers to impose a certain degree of fiscal austerity on state residents. It almost certainly involves some combination of trimming the dividend, raising taxes, and additional spending reductions. Nevertheless, challenging as it may be, we believe there is a path to fiscal sustainability for Alaska given its significant budget reserves prudently amassed during the prior era of higher oil prices.” Andrew Jensen can be reached at [email protected]

AP Exclusive: UN to let Iran inspect alleged nuke work site

VIENNA (AP) — Iran will be allowed to use its own inspectors to investigate a site it has been accused of using to develop nuclear arms, operating under a secret agreement with the U.N. agency that normally carries out such work, according to a document seen by The Associated Press. The revelation on Aug. 19 newly riled Republican lawmakers in the U.S. who have been severely critical of a broader agreement to limit Iran’s future nuclear programs, signed by the Obama administration, Iran and five world powers in July. Those critics have complained that the wider deal is unwisely built on trust of the Iranians, while the administration has insisted it depends on reliable inspections. “International inspections should be done by international inspectors. Period. The standard of ‘anywhere, anytime’ inspections — so critical to a viable agreement — has dropped to ‘when Iran wants, where Iran wants, on Iran’s terms,’” said U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce in a reaction typical of opponents of the broader deal. The newly disclosed side agreement, for an investigation of the Parchin nuclear site by the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency, is linked to persistent allegations that Iran has worked on atomic weapons. That investigation is part of the overarching nuclear-limits deal. Evidence of the inspections concession, as outlined in the document, is sure to increase pressure from U.S. congressional opponents before a Senate vote of disapproval on the overall agreement in early September. If the resolution passes and President Barack Obama vetoes it, opponents would need a two-thirds majority to override it. Even Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, has suggested opponents will likely lose a veto fight, though that was before the Aug. 19 disclosure. John Cornyn of Texas, the second-ranking Republican senator, said, “Trusting Iran to inspect its own nuclear site and report to the U.N. in an open and transparent way is remarkably naive and incredibly reckless. This revelation only reinforces the deep-seated concerns the American people have about the agreement.” The Parchin agreement was worked out between the IAEA and Iran. The United States and the five other world powers were not party to it but were briefed by the IAEA and endorsed it as part of the larger package. On Aug. 19, White House National Security Council spokesman Ned Price said the Obama administration was “confident in the agency’s technical plans for investigating the possible military dimensions of Iran’s former program. ... The IAEA has separately developed the most robust inspection regime ever peacefully negotiated.” All IAEA member countries must give the agency some insight into their nuclear programs. Some are required to do no more than give a yearly accounting of the nuclear material they possess. But nations— like Iran — suspected of possible proliferation are under greater scrutiny that can include stringent inspections. The agreement in question diverges from normal procedures by allowing Tehran to employ its own experts and equipment in the search for evidence of activities it has consistently denied — trying to develop nuclear weapons. Olli Heinonen, who was in charge of the Iran probe as deputy IAEA director general from 2005 to 2010, said he could think of no similar concession with any other country. The White House has repeatedly denied claims of a secret side deal favorable to Tehran. IAEA chief Yukiya Amano told Republican senators last week that he was obligated to keep the document confidential. Iran has refused access to Parchin for years and has denied any interest in — or work on — nuclear weapons. Based on U.S., Israeli and other intelligence and its own research, the IAEA suspects that the Islamic Republic may have experimented with high-explosive detonators for nuclear arms. The IAEA has cited evidence, based on satellite images, of possible attempts to sanitize the site since the alleged work stopped more than a decade ago. The document seen by the AP is a draft that one official familiar with its contents said doesn’t differ substantially from the final version. He demanded anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to discuss the issue in public. The document is labeled “separate arrangement II,” indicating there is another confidential agreement between Iran and the IAEA governing the agency’s probe of the nuclear weapons allegations. Iran is to provide agency experts with photos and videos of locations the IAEA says are linked to the alleged weapons work, “taking into account military concerns.” That wording suggests that — beyond being barred from physically visiting the site — the agency won’t get photo or video information from areas Iran says are off-limits because they have military significance. While the document says the IAEA “will ensure the technical authenticity” of Iran’s inspection, it does not say how. The draft is unsigned but the proposed signatory for Iran is listed as Ali Hoseini Tash, deputy secretary of the Supreme National Security Council for Strategic Affairs. That reflects the significance Tehran attaches to the agreement. Iranian diplomats in Vienna were unavailable for comment, Wednesday while IAEA spokesman Serge Gas said the agency had no immediate comment. The main focus of the July 14 deal between Iran and six world powers is curbing Iran’s present nuclear program that could be used to make weapons. But a subsidiary element obligates Tehran to cooperate with the IAEA in its probe of the past allegations. The investigation has been essentially deadlocked for years, with Tehran asserting the allegations are based on false intelligence from the U.S., Israel and other adversaries. But Iran and the U.N. agency agreed last month to wrap up the investigation by December, when the IAEA plans to issue a final assessment. That assessment is unlikely to be unequivocal. Still, it is expected to be approved by the IAEA’s board, which includes the United States and the other nations that negotiated the July 14 agreement. They do not want to upend their broader deal, and will see the December report as closing the books on the issue.

AGDC talks confidentiality, offtake points

All Alaska Gasline Development Corp. contracts would be open to the public under a draft regulation proposed Aug. 13 at its board of directors meeting. A contract submitted for board approval would be posted on the Alaska Gasline Development Corp., or AGDC, website at least 10 days prior to the meeting at which it is to be discussed, the draft regulations state. Overall, the five pages of proposals limit what types of confidentiality agreements the corporation and its directors can enter into. “If the regulations are adopted in this form it is simply going to be fairly open going forward,” AGDC attorney Ken Vassar said. “We’re not going to enter into any contracts that by their terms are themselves confidential. That’s just not an agreement that would be available to us.” AGDC is the managing organization for the state’s role in the large Alaska LNG Project led by industry. It is also responsible for the smaller, state-led Alaska Stand Alone Pipeline project. Proprietary and financial information and trade secrets of firms AGDC is under contract with could still be withheld. AGDC could also still enter into confidentiality agreements; however, the existence of the agreement itself would be made public, Vassar said. Attorneys with AGDC worked with Attorney General Craig Richards to draft the regulations in attempt to address the tension of making information available to the public, while recognizing the state is in business with businesses that need to keep certain details under wraps. Gov. Bill Walker fired three AGDC board members in January, citing confidentiality agreements they had signed regarding the AK LNG Project as reasoning. Walker told the new board members he appointed to not sign confidentiality agreements as well. At the time, Richards said the administration understands the need for protection of certain private information, but that the confidentiality provisions AGDC worked under were too broad. The plan then was also to have a new policy in place by late spring, Richards said in January. Some Republican legislative leaders expressed concern over the AGDC firings and the governor’s statements, saying they worried about the message the actions sent regarding the states willingness to work with industry on the $45 billion-plus LNG export plan. The proposed regulations follow more general state Open Meetings Act guidelines, and lay out a course of action similar to what other state entities involved in business with private firms do. “Consistent with any confidentiality agreements of the corporation and applicable law, the (AGDC) board will endeavor to limit the amount of confidential information it withholds from the public and the time period for which information is kept confidential,” the policy states. “The corporation shall presume that information is available for public disclosure and is not confidential, absent clear indication or demonstration to the contrary.” AGDC board chair John Burns noted that confidential information could still be discussed when the board enters an executive session, as is common with other state boards and managing bodies, but no formal action could be taken at that time. The draft regulations will be put out for a 30-day public comment period before final guidelines are adopted. The hope is to have the draft rule finalized by the end of the year. Offtake points Also discussed at the meeting was AGDC’s work to determine how many, and where, gas “offtake” facilities would be located to allow Alaskans access to natural gas from the project. The guiding legislation for the AK LNG Project, Senate Bill 138, calls for at least 5 interconnection points along the along the 800-mile pipeline. Those interconnection points, or access flanges, can be put in the pipe fairly easily during construction and would then allow a group to add gas to the system or remove it either for industry or residential use. The offtake facilities themselves, which depressurize and odorize gas for distribution, cost more and are the state’s responsibility. Without associated transmission and distribution costs, the price for an offtake facility is estimated at between $14 million for the smallest and $38 million for the largest capacity offtake the state might need. AGDC President Dan Fauske said project engineers want to know where the interconnection points will be and that up to 20 interconnection points could be included in the gas pipeline. “For the point of discussion, it was decided, 20,” Fauske said. “This is an area of contention in the negotiations in terms of spur lines.” The offtake facilities and any other infrastructure beyond the interconnection points are not considered AK LNG Project costs and would be covered by state or local governments or another entity interested in selling or using gas. Fauske said AGDC would provide an economic analysis of potential offtake points and let policymakers decide.

Student science camp explores Togiak Refuge by boat

DILLINGHAM –  “Woo, this one’s bigger! Oh man, this is beautiful,” said 18-year-old Savanna Sage as she reeled in a Dolly Varden from onboard an inflatable blue raft on the Pungokepuk River Aug. 7. Just minutes prior, Sage had caught her smallest rainbow trout of the trip. Sage, who will be a senior at Dillingham High School this fall, was one of six students from the Bristol Bay region who participated in the Togiak National Wildlife Refuge’s high school science camp from Aug. 5 to 8. Prior to the trip, she had caught one rainbow this summer, a small one out at Lake Aleknagik, near Dillingham. By the first night, she had caught more than one rainbow that was longer than 20 inches, and by the third day, she had caught at least two dozen fish, and was practicing carefully releasing the fish so they could swim away safely. Fishing was a highlight of the float trip for Sage and other students. That morning, Drew Wassily, who will be a freshman this fall, caught the first rainbow of his life. The trip wasn’t just a chance to catch fish. Camp started with a float plane ride from Dillingham to the Pungokepuk Lake, where campers helped paddle 16 miles down the Pungokepuk River to a pickup site on the Togiak River. The paddle included some hauling boats through shallower spots, and just one stretch of relatively small rapids that elicited cheering once the full flotilla of four boats had made it through.  Along the way, the group used three different campsites, and did a variety of activities, including using a minnow trap to catch and identify juvenile salmon from a minnow trap baited with bacon; a discussion of leave-no-trace practices for camping; a lesson on survival gear and fire-starting skills; creating plaster casts of animal tracks; and a lesson on roasting Twinkies over a campfire. Hayleigh Johansen and Alyssa Nunn also helped pick blueberries for pancakes — just as they had for much of the summer at home. Johansen said she had been helping pick berries all summer, including a gallon when her family was in Ekwok. “I’ve picked since I was five,” Johansen said. Togiak National Wildlife Refuge Education Specialist Terry Fuller said that camp was meant to teach kids about the refuge and help them develop an appreciation of the outdoors. The refuge stretches more than 4 million acres including much of the west side of Bristol Bay, and north to the land near Platinum. Students from eight communities that border the refuge, including Dillingham, Manokotak, Platinum, Quinhagak, Togiak and more were eligible to apply for the camp. Fuller said camp is also an opportunity for the students to get to know one another, and learn from their peers. “You have people kicking in to help each other out,” Fuller said. “It’s fun. It’s fun to watch.” About two dozen students applied for the high school camp, which was whittled down to just six participants because of funding. All costs were covered, and any needed gear was loaned to the students. The refuge hosts two environmental education camps every summer: the high school float camp, and a more stationary science camp at Cape Pierce focused on marine life, for middle school students. Fuller, the refuge’s education specialist, is a primary instructor for both camps. Although Fuller and other refuge staff members and an intern offered direct instruction during group time, they also spent much of the trip fielding questions and offering information about the river, fish and other features nearby based on each student’s individual interests. Before Wassily dove into in Pungokepuk Lake in a dry suit to snorkel with salmon, refuge staff Allen Miller prepped him for the experience. “And that’s really all you have to do, is be a really good observer,” Miller said. “Just notice details. Look for what kind of fish they are, if they’re adult fish, young fish, if they’re on the top or the bottom.” The verdict after he got out? Tons of fish to look at, and he kept going back in. “It’s kinda hard to swim in these things,” Wasilly said. “These are cool though, these suits.” Molly Dischner is a reporter at KDLG radio in Dillingham, and was a chaperone for the float camp.


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