Naomi Klouda

Board hears concerns about crimes targeting cannabis industry

An uptick in burglaries targeting marijuana businesses has officials concerned, but no one seems to be tracking thefts and break-ins at Alaska’s cannabis businesses to get an idea on how safely the cash-only industry is faring. According to James Hoelscher, the chief enforcement officer at the Alcohol and Marijuana Control Office, or AMCO, the number of theft-related hits targeting these businesses is on the rise. He suggested the state agency may need to help out by providing guidance on security. At a presentation before the Marijuana Control Board Jan. 25, Hoelscher described finding hollow doors and simple locks on businesses that failed to fully analyze their security. “During inspections, we can and do give them pointers and help out by highlighting a potential problem,” Hoelscher said. Because AMCO doesn’t yet track crimes committed at the establishments, the information presented by Hoelscher at the last meeting was based only on what he has heard while working enforcement, Executive Director Erika McConnell said when asked for numbers of burglaries. “It seems like burglaries are on the uptick because of what we’ve heard anecdotally, but we have no official data to support that,” she said. The board passed a regulation in November that will require any crimes occurring on premises to be reported to AMCO. But that new regulation hasn’t yet made it out of the queue of an analysis by the Department of Law and then a signature by Lt. Gov. Bryan Mallot. Board member Nick Miller, a cannabis business owner, said he knows of two retail shops that were hit recently. One was an armed robbery that involved making off with both cash and marijuana. “I don’t know why the armed robbery wasn’t publicized,” Miller said. “It’s hard to sort out because there is no official reporting. Three other incidents I know of were two cultivations were broken into and product was taken, another was a retail shop but they didn’t get anything.” Anchorage Police reported 1,982 burglaries took place in 2017, up from the 1,822 reported in 2016, but they do not aggregate out any that took place at cannabis businesses, said APD Spokesperson Renee Oistad. One key aggravation to owners is the abundance of information that gets posted online about their floor plans and business layouts. When Danish Gardens was hit on Dec. 19, burglars made off with $150,000 in marijuana. Because the thieves, caught on video, weren’t owner Dana Wyrick’s employees or people he knew, he said he strongly suspects they were privy to his operations from gleaning the information online through his licensing application at AMCO’s website. To date, Wyrick said, AMCO hasn’t taken his cultivation operation’s sensitive information offline. AMCO is in the process of remedying that by removing certain information. “We are working on taking the floor plans off line but we are not finished yet. We focused first on those who showed camera placements,” McConnell said in an email. But floor plans are not eliminated from the application, she added. The application form was modified to state that applicants should not put placement of cameras on their diagram. A precaution on the form now reads: “For your security, do not include locations of security cameras, motion detectors, panic buttons, and other security devices.” This revised form is available on AMCO’s website and the older version of this form will no longer be accepted starting Feb. 1, McConnell said. What will not change is posted home addresses of business owners on both the AMCO and the Municipality of Anchorage websites. Assemblyman Christopher Constant said the municipality took the initiative before AMCO to scrub security information from its website. “We’re very interested in protecting these businesses, but we must still comply with public disclosure laws,” Constant said. “We won’t be taking off the home addresses of businesses because that’s public disclosure. The addresses show up on the tax (rolls). Everyone’s personal information is online, even the highest prosecutorial judges; everyone has their addresses online. There’s no way to shield them. We can’t make an exemption for cannabis businesses.” The Anchorage Assembly tasked the planning department to come up with specific recommendations for what other private information should be taken off line, Constant said. “What are we willing to protect? The kinds of things we’ve already made decisions to scrub are security plans in specific uses: cameras and safes, any of the basics of that nature that provide a road map to somebody with less than decent purposes,” he said. The planning commission’s recommendations for what else can come off should be coming in early February, he said. Another option is that information required under public disclosure laws can be taken offline and made available only to people who visit municipal or other government offices and show identification to access a public document. Attorney Jana Weltzin, whose specialty is cannabis law, made that recommendation at the Juneau board meeting when she gave public testimony urging the board to do more to protect cannabis businesses. Weltzin told the board thieves hit four of her clients’ businesses. “We always let enforcement know,” she said. “Danish Garden took the biggest hit. If you make their information publicly available, do it by requiring they go through a public records request; then you would have their identity. Don’t make it online and make it so accessible.” Three of the burglaries were attempted but not successful, Weltzin said. The one at Danish Gardens caused a major hit in both income and its ongoing operation. “(Dana Wyrick) lost $150,000 that he was planning on using for the operation of his business. He had to lay off half his work force,” she said. Weltzin would like to see AMCO track the data on crimes that occur on business premises. “It’s important data we need to articulate intelligently how the regulations should be shaped,” she said. Still, any upswing in criminal hits on the marijuana businesses likely isn’t a matter of targeting, said Miller. “I don’t believe marijuana businesses are being targeted any more than convenience stores or banks. It’s just a part of business, especially in Anchorage,” Miller said. “Burglaries have gone up in the past 18 months and we’re just another business. Those that take extra precaution will be less at risk.” Miller recommends that businesses use the resources out there, such as free security inspections offered by the APD. Miller estimates 95 percent of cannabis businesses have invested in professional security installations. “Yes, it is a cash business but there are precautions and things you can do to protect your assets,” Miller said. “I would just recommend that any marijuana business out there review how they deal with cash and all their security practices. There should never be a domestic door in a commercial building.” Naomi Klouda can be reached at [email protected]

Marijuana board carries on with new member after federal shift

The Marijuana Control Board approved more than 22 new business licenses at its Jan. 24-26 meeting in Juneau, and continued to wade through public safety and new federal scrutiny on the state’s legal marijuana commerce. The board also voted in a new chair after former chair and Soldotna Chief of Police Peter Mlynarik resigned Jan. 4. Former Vice Chair Mark Springer of Bethel, who has the seat designated for rural Alaska, was voted unanimously as the new chairman, while Brandon Emmett, who holds one of two industry seats, was named vice chair. North Slope Borough Police Chief Travis Welch, who replaced Mlynarik, participated in his first meeting after being appointed by Gov. Bill Walker on Jan. 19. He still has to be confirmed by the Alaska Legislature. Solutions are still being sought to protect public health while the board gets a handle on inconsistent THC testing levels and the finding of hazardous aspergillus mold that showed up in some marijuana harvests. A committee is at work setting new testing standards after holding its first meeting on Jan. 17. Its task is to find a standardized way to ensure safe, accurately labeled products are sold at stores. One major change ahead is the introduction of new testing by the Department of Environmental Conservation Health Lab, Executive Director Erika McConnell told the board. “Part of the (lab’s) job is to audit various private labs around the state (such as drinking water labs) so they have trained lab auditors on staff,” McConnell said. CannTest and Steep Hill, both Anchorage marijuana testing labs, “have promptly provided information requested to the state lab,” McConnell said in her director’s report. The audit will be finished in a couple of weeks. The board on Jan. 2 issued a consumer alert that warned inconsistencies in testing meant the public needed to be aware that THC levels may not be what’s as labeled on products. In another case, one testing facility found a potentially dangerous mold on a product but the other testing facility failed to detect it, the alert stated. Neither testing facility is named. After that, the Alcohol and Marijuana Control Office, or AMCO, received a letter from Steep Hill’s attorney, Birch Horton Bittner &Cherot, telling the director they objected to wording in the PSA. The letter states that Steep Hill — part of a national consortium of labs — was concerned the PSA is “overly broad, lacks specificity, and is not a proper scientific or legal conclusion” that maligns the testing lab’s reputation. Steep Hill’s letter asks for AMCO to rescind its alert and issue a revised and clarified statement. McConnell asked the board for direction on whether to rescind and revise the alert, but the board took no action. Because the alert came from the board, approval to rescind and revise it needs to come from the board, she said. The board acknowledged the letter, but chose not to respond, Springer said. The board also gave McConnell permission to allow marijuana that is found contaminated by the aspergillus mold to be made into concentrates. The process of distilling kills the fungus and allows the cannabis to be used rather than destroyed. McConnell said the board’s action authorized her “to allow harvest batches that fail for aspergillus to be sent to a concentrate manufacturing facility to be used to make a concentrate, as long as the concentrate made from the moldy harvest is tested for microbials.” This could save entire harvests from needing to be taken off the market at potential huge revenue losses for the cultivator. This was the first board meeting to take place in the aftermath of U.S. Attorney General Jeff Session’s memo that rescinded previous federal policy toward legal marijuana operations in states. Sessions rescinded the “Cole Memo” written in 2013 that established a federal policy of non-interference in marijuana operations legalized at the state level as long as federal priorities were followed such as keeping drugs out of the hands of minors and protecting against involvement by criminal elements. In an early statement to the board Jan. 24, Alaska Deputy Attorney General Harriet Milks, who sits in on each meeting to provide legal advice, recapped the state’s intention to move forward. She quoted the Alaska U.S. Attorney Bryan Schroeder as saying current enforcement priorities will not change. “The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Alaska will continue to use the long-established principles of federal prosecution to determine what cases to charge,” Milks quoted from Schroeder’s statement. “One of the key principals is to follow federal law enforcement priorities, both at the national and local levels. The highest priorities of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Alaska are consistent with those of the Justice Department.” Milks also referenced a letter Alaska Attorney General Jahna Lindemuth and 18 other attorneys general from across the country sent to Congress Jan. 16 in the wake of Session’s memo. It seeks legislative action to expressly allow banks to provide services to marijuana businesses operating in compliance with state law. “Allowing banks to work with these businesses is good policy,” the letter states. Federal legislation allowing transactions to occur through the banking system is an important step to enabling state regulators to do what voters have asked, Lindmuth’s letter stated. The board then briefly discussed their support of such changes that would make the industry safer from black market and criminal elements. Regulations passed The board passed an amended regulation on revocation of handler permits in cases where the person committed a felony within the past five years or a Class A misdemeanor related to misconduct involving a controlled substance in the past two years. The handler’s permit can also be revoked if the applicant is currently indicted, on parole or probation. Thefts by a number of those holding handler permits have involved stealing from their employers, but there was no mechanism in place to revoke their permits, McConnell noted in proposing the change. Another problem that surfaced is people selling marijuana on the validity of their handler’s permit outside of a legal venue, McConnell said. Springer said he could see that problem unfolding as “a guy approaches you and says, ‘hey want some? I have a legal marijuana handler’s permit.’” Under the new regulation, the board could suspend or revoke a handler’s permit, refuse to renew a permit, or impose a civil fine if the board finds that a permit holder has acted in violation of the regulations. Affiliate definition The board unanimously approved adding in new requirements for those that will be required to be named on business application and removed the word “affiliate.” This is an attempt by the board to get a better handle on those who exercise influence and decision-making in a business. Alaska residents are the only ones allowed to be licensed, McConnell noted. Yet, the office has no way except through licensing to enforce that requirement. Now each business application has to include names of each general partner, manager, officer and director. This means each will be undergoing background checks. Inspections If businesses aren’t ready for their inspection at that stage in their application process when an appointment is made, they will be charged $500. “In our large state and with a limited enforcement staff, visiting a facility for a second or third time can be costly and time-consuming,” McConnell said. “This regulations project adds a repeat inspection fee for those licensees who request an inspection but, due to not having completed all items on the pre-inspection checklist (e.g., not having plants tagged, not having premises set up consistent with board-approved diagram)” end up needing to reschedule. The director could waive the fee for good cause, however. Marijuana trade shows will be now be allowed after a unanimous board vote. The new regulation allows one plant, one ounce and sample products to be transported to trade show events and exhibited. Each product has to be tracked through METRC, the Marijuana Enforcement Tracking Reporting and Compliance Inventory Tracking System, and those handling the products must have a handler’s permit. The measure was brought forth by board member Emmett, who represents the marijuana industry. “We can now have tradeshows,” Springer said at the end of the vote. Smells Of all complaints, the most persistent from the public involves detecting odors emitted from marijuana cultivations, Enforcement Chief James Hoelscher told the board. Enforcement receives “a lot of passionate complaints about it and they submit to us logs of when they are smelling the strong odor of marijuana.” The board amended language to say the licensee “does not emit an odor that is detectable by the public from outside the cultivation facility except as specifically allowed by a local government approval through the approval of a conditional use permit or CUP, or other zoning permits. ^ Naomi Klouda can be reached at [email protected]

Alaska VA makes progress after taking over Choice referrals

Alaska’s 72,000 veterans will continue to receive care under a program that the state office of the Department of Veterans’ Affairs took pains to reconfigure over the past 18 months. The Veterans Choice Program received an additional $2.1 billion in December, just weeks prior to the three-day government shutdown. VA Secretary David Shulkin wrote a letter to Congress Dec. 12 warning that money for the program, which allows eligible veterans to receive health care from a community provider rather than waiting for a VA appointment or traveling to a VA facility, was running low. Sen. Dan Sullivan, who helped push for the $2.1 billion in funding from his seat on the Senate Committee on Armed Services, announced Jan. 9 to Alaska’s veterans that his efforts continue to focus on devising new ways to overcome problems in achieving quality medical care. In the meantime, Sullivan favors keeping the Choice program in place to pay doctor reimbursement bills and the December appropriation should last four to six months. At 1 out of every 10 Alaskans, the state has the highest per capita population of veterans in the nation, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Alaska VA Healthcare System Director Dr. Timothy Ballard took his position in July 2016, the same month that Alaska’s congressional delegation decided they had heard enough complaints to justify an “Alaskanization” of the program that was created in 2014 amid the national scandal of long wait times and employee misconduct that even led to veterans dying while awaiting care at VA facilities. Prior to Ballard’s Alaska appointment, he was the CEO and commander of the 88th Medical Group at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio. There he oversaw a staff of 2,200 at 39 clinics, nine outpatient clinics and four inpatient units. Alaska VA services include the Anchorage VA Outpatient Clinic; a 50-bed domiciliary for substance abuse; rehab treatment/homeless services for vets; a 10-bed intensive care unit and a 24-bed medical services unit at Joint Base Elmendorf Richardson; community clinics in Fairbanks, Kenai and the Mat-Su Valley; and outreach clinics in Homer and Juneau. Short staffed When Ballard moved into his Alaska office, he immediately saw that the VA here was understaffed with about 550 members. Ballard found staff members that were filling three positions at a time, which led to part of Alaska’s problems in providing health care services. Congress created the 2014 VA Choice program with a $10 billion fund to pay for medial services that went beyond what the local VA could provide or if it had wait times that were longer than those at other health care facilities. Then came the problems. When the VA Choice Program was created, two call centers were contracted to handle veterans’ health care appointments and approve payment. In the west, it was the Phoenix-based TriWest; in the east, Health Net Federal Services. Alaska vets were placed under TriWest’s services. The program was supposed to ease the extremely long wait lists to get care by opening a network of non-VA providers when it “didn’t have capacity or capability to meet the need,” Ballard said. “There were fairly immediate problems that mainly had to do with the fact most of their agents are out of state,” he said. Alaska veterans would call TriWest to set up to seeing a specialist, as required for pre-approval. But TriWest’s medical specialists could be anywhere in Alaska and without knowing the state, the agents set up odd, long-distance appointments. “(For example,) you need to be seen by an ophthalmologist,” Ballard said. “So we’re going to send you to Juneau to see an ophthalmologist there. The vet might protest, ‘but there’s no roads to Juneau, you know.’ And so veterans felt frustrated. They were sending them to towns that didn’t make sense.” But in July 2016, the Alaska VA was granted permission to take back its referrals by setting up offices in-house at the VA Alaska headquarters on Muldoon Road in Anchorage. This pilot program coincided with Ballard’s arrival. Instead of going through Arizona, the program shifted to oversight by Cynthia Massey, chief of the Integrated Care System for the Alaska VA Healthcare System. Massey’s team now handles 1,000 referrals per week, Ballard said, a staggering amount for one of the country’s smaller VA systems. “Other VAs have a staff of 3,000 – we had 555 when I came on the job last year,” he said. He immediately requested more doctors and other position to gain about 100 new staff. So far, he’s received half of that number. Some of the new staff were installed at the Anchorage referral office, which helped ease a significant frustration, Ballard said. Ballard said he still needs to fill positions varying from physicians, nurses, budget people, maintenance crew and even police officers to help secure the facilities. Referrals and reimbursements Another big source of aggravation for veterans was the tug-of-war to get reimbursed for non-VA care. Their VA-approved referrals to primary care and other providers would be reimbursed in one of two ways: either through the Choice program or by Non-VA Coordinated Care, or NVCC. Out of the 1,000 provider referrals per week from the Alaska VA, about half are reimbursed by NVCC and other half by Choice, Ballard said. “But NVCC referrals have to be sent through the national payment center. Where there’s been problems is when the bill is sent to the wrong reimbursement center. A number of vets complained they were in collections because their provider hadn’t been paid,” Ballard said. When bills ended up back in a veteran’s mailbox, they were simply marked “denied” without the explanation that they went to the wrong payment center. If not dealt with, mounting medical bills went to collections and sometimes accumulated to staggering sums. In addition to the referrals, Massey’s team untangles these disputed bills and clarifies which payment centers the doctor visit reimbursements need to be sent. “It’s going very well,” Massey said of the referral program, now. The Alaska private and federal healthcare network coordinates with the VA program so that Alaska veterans have a number of medical options. One of those is to use Tribal medical facilities, such as the Alaska Native Medical Center in Anchorage or the Southcentral Foundation care providers. Even if the veteran is non-Native, a VA-Tribal sharing agreement allows vets to use any Indian Health Service medial facility in the state. Then the bill goes to the VA, Massey said. Another 16 approved private doctors and health care providers are also available, vetted by TriWest and added to those approved for veteran referrals, Massey said. These include whole health alternatives such as acupuncture, physical therapy, chiropractic, osteopathic manipulation and pain management. One in four appointments are generated to these modalities, Ballard said, services that the VA doesn’t provide. “We heavily rely on these community providers,” Ballard said. Addressing opioids Another big challenge is opioid addiction and treatment, also covered under the Choice program. The Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act, or CARA, signed in July 2016, included guidance on care for veterans that have been prescribed opioids. The official policy was to give veterans alternatives, said VA Chief of Integrated Care Services Cynthia Joe. “The idea is to reduce opioid use and so we try to facilitate the stoppage,” Joe said. “There is no safe dosage of opioids. They run an increased risk of overdose with higher dosages given to them over time.” Many veterans are frustrated with the push to take away a tool that helped manage pain, for some, over the course of many years. “Some have used it for the past 20 years, and in their minds, successfully so. They question ‘why are you going to stop it now?’” Ballard said. The CARA Act provided guidance but the relationship between physician and patient still may include opioid prescriptions, he added. A number of providers hold Suboxone credentialing, a level that demands a special Drug Enforcement Administration licensure to treat opioid use disorder. This drug is helping ease the addiction pains of getting off opioids. Paired with other therapies including massage, yoga and mindfulness techniques, the effort is on to help veterans find options to pain management, Joe said. But unfunded mandates also press hard on the understaffed facility, Ballard has found. The CARA Act placed demands on VAs to help bring down the severely high suicide rate among veterans. A program for mental health and substance abuse at the VA has small resources such as 15 designated beds at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Domiciliary Care Program on C Street in Anchorage. The facility offers 50 beds to cover all homeless vets, substance abuse residency and care for criminally related mental health behavior. Between unfunded substance abuse mandates in the CARA Act, there’s also guidance on suicide prevention that requires better-staffed programs. “These programs are required by law, an increase mostly in the policy initiatives but they amount to unfunded mandates,” Ballard said. Other changes for improved care involve more direct access to physicians through registering online to talk with the doctor or fill a prescription, a system called My Healthy Vet. Regularly scheduling town halls to get direct communication also help, Ballard said. The most recent one was Jan. 23 in Wasilla and another was to be held Feb. 1 in Fairbanks. More i1nformation is at Naomi Klouda can be reached at [email protected]

Sticker stock for Legislature at $100M Medicaid request

A request for another $100 million to fund Medicaid claims raised questions on the Senate Finance Committee in the first days of the legislative session, but the answers will have to wait. Senate Finance Committee co-chair Anna MacKinnon, R-Eagle River, appeared caught off guard by the announcement of the need for an additional injection of supplemental funding when the topic came up in hearings Jan. 18. The $100 million unrestricted General Fund, or UGF, supplemental spending request for the Medicaid program in the governor’s budget is for the current state fiscal year 2018 that ends June 30. The request is for the additional 42,500 people added to Medicaid under the expansion Gov. Bill Walker accepted in 2015, according to Office of Management and Budget analyst Neil Steininger. Alaska’s total Medicaid program covers 196,762 people as of December, Steininger said. The total increase between fiscal years 2015 and 2019 is 75,000 people. “(That’s) inclusive of both expansion and non-expansion enrollees,” Steininger said. “Of that approximately 42,500 are expansion enrollees, the remaining 32,500 are enrolled in the regular Medicaid program.” That’s stretching Alaska’s already thin budget all the tighter, MacKinnon said. Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, also had concerns. He said Medicaid is currently operated as if it can be paid on “an open checkbook.” Both he and MacKinnon are scheduling meetings later this month to better understand the issues around the state’s rising Medicaid costs. The current UGF in the budget for 2018 Medicaid is $564.2 million. With federal and other fund sources the total Medicaid budget passed last summer is $1.7 billion, Steininger said. Of that, the federal government pays nearly 67 percent. Alaska Budget Director Pat Pitney told Senate Finance members the administration is in the middle of making changes to Medicaid that it expects will save money. The state also is considering a new health care authority that would aim to lower the health care costs of state workers and retirees. Alaska has some of the highest health care costs in a country that has some of the highest health care costs in the world, she said. Part of what allowed the expansion of Medicaid rolls was increasing the income allowance to 138 percent of the federal poverty level, a change that was made under the Affordable Care Act. At the latest count of nearly 200,000 enrollees, this means about one out of every four Alaskans is now covered by Medicaid. State not considering work requirements Just after the first of the year, Alaska, like other states, was sent a letter from federal Medicaid officials outlining steps to take toward mandating that certain Medicaid recipients work as a requirement to qualify for benefits. But Alaska is not interested in pursing this option, according to the Alaska Department of Health and Human Services, said spokesman Clinton Bennett in a statement issued Jan. 16. There will not be any pending action on the State of Alaska’s part to enforce work requirements for those who receive Medicaid, Bennett said. Sixty percent of those on Medicaid in Alaska already work. “The Department of Health and Social Services is not considering such changes to Alaska’s Medicaid program at this time. A majority of Alaskans enrolled in Medicaid are children, retirees, disabled individuals, or are living in working households,” Bennett said. The Alaska Legislature intends to follow the agency’s lead, according to the Senate and House Health and Social Services Committee chairs Sen. David Wilson, R-Wasilla, and Rep. Ivy Spohnholz, D-Anchorage. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, or CMS, officials emphasized that the work requirements would only apply to “able-bodied” adults. Exemptions include children, the elderly, pregnant women and people with disabilities. States must obtain federal approval before enacting any such requirements, but the Trump administration has indicated a willingness to enforce the new work requirements, according to a news release from the CMS. Kentucky became the experimental ground for work requirements when CMS granted a permission waiver to the state. Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin has said it will impact only the new enrollees who received Medicaid under the state’s expansion of the program. Other states that applied for the waiver include Arizona, Arkansas, Indiana, Maine, New Hampshire, North Carolina Utah and Wisconsin. ^ Naomi Klouda can be reached at [email protected]

Renowned physicist offers insights to ANSEP audience

Artificial intelligence will soon allow you to blink and access the internet through a contact lens. Oil wells will be outfitted with smart technology to communicate its structural flaws or a leak. Cars outfitted with computers will drive us everywhere. These were some of the predictions of Dr. Michio Kaku, a theoretical physicist, best-selling author of eight books and renowned futurist who was the keynote speaker at the Alaska Native Science and Engineering Program’s Dissemination Conference Jan. 19 at the University of Alaska Anchorage. The conference brought 54 middle school students, ANSEP university students and 90 attendees from nine universities to Anchorage. Among his many accomplishments, Kaku co-founded the string field theory, a subset of Albert Einstein’s quest to solve the holy grail of modern physics. He was in Alaska to help motivate ANSEP students to develop their own formula for their success. The popular star of science programs described several technological innovations afoot in science that will change life in the next 50 years. Robotics replacing humans in that time period, however, isn’t one of them. “It might happen by the end of this century when you have grandkids,” he told a crowd of about 600 people ranging from sixth graders to post-graduates. “We put animals in zoos. We don’t want that to happen to us, for our machines to put us behind bars. That’s a long-term threat. How smart is our most advanced robot? They currently have the intelligence of a retarded cockroach. “One day they will be as smart as a mouse. After that, as smart as a rabbit, then a cat, then a dog. By end of the century, they may be as smart as a monkey. At that point they could be dangerous. I think we have a long way to go before they will be dangerous.” Kaku’s own love for science was realized as a child when, at age 8, he observed a news account on the death of a prominent scientist. “His name was all in the newspapers. In the newspaper there was a picture — a picture of his desk. On the desk was a book. The caption said this is the unfinished theory of our greatest scientist. I said ‘why couldn’t he finish it? What was so hard and why couldn’t he finish it?” Kaku recalled. “The scientist was Albert Einstein. The book was his unfinished Unified Field Theory.” That’s when he realized he wanted to become a scientist and continue Einstein’s unfinished work. That’s what he’s been doing ever since, though Einstein’s unified field theory still isn’t considered finished. Growing up in San Jose, Calif., Kaku, who was born in 1947, recounted his early life as one of two children of Japanese-Americans. “During World War II, my parents were locked up from 1942-1946 because they originally came from Japan. They were locked up for four years. All their assets confiscated. They were flat broke. When I grew up, I realized if I am going to do anything with my life, I’m going to have to do it myself,” he said. Kaku assembled a particle accelerator or “atom smasher” in his parent’s garage for a science project while he attended high school in Palo Alto. His goal was to generate a “beam of gamma rays powerful enough to create anti-matter.” Instead, he caused all the house fuses to short out. But he attracted the attention of Edward Teller, a Hungarian-American theoretical physicist known as the father of the atom bomb, while at the National Science Fair in Albuquerque, N.M., who took Kaku under wing and awarded him the Hertz Engineering Scholarship. In 1968, Kaku graduated from Harvard first in his class. He attended Berkley Radiation Laboratory at the University of California Berkley and received his Ph.D. in 1972. He is currently professor of theoretical physics at the City College of New York as well as the science correspondent for most all major news channels. “We are all born scientists,” Kaku told the audience at ANSEP. “We come into the world wanting to know why the sun shines, why do the stars blink. Where we come from. Then we begin to explore the world. Then we hit the greatest destroyer of scientists. That is junior high school. It’s destroyed more scientist than any other institution known to scientists.” Memorizing parts of a flower and facts from the periodic table of elements kills off the innate scientist, he said. But the world needs its scientists. Scientists are the ones who supplied the wealth for 19th and 20th centuries, he said. They invented television, radar, microwaves, CAT scans, MRI’s and the GPS satellite, as well as the transistor and the laser. They created the world wide web and assembled the internet, he added. Telepathic communication is coming next. He predicts the internet will be replaced by something called BrainNet. “Computer power doubles every 18 months,” he said. “By the year 2030, chips will be scattered like electricity. You don’t think about electricity, in the walls and under your feet. It disappears; it’s everywhere and nowhere.” Likewise the internet will be everywhere and nowhere. Glasses will be worn that recognize people’s faces, a biography next to the image. Already, solders use goggles that feed info via the internet, he said. will be instantly accessible to help people connect via sight and information fed through the nanotechnology. It will be up to science teachers to teach concepts and principles rather than rout memorization, Kaku said. A college education will become more important than ever to meet the new demands in genetics, biotechnology and nanotechnology. “The car will have a mind of its own. Your car is going to become intelligent. We’re going to live in a world where chips will be placed in everything, and AI will be placed in everything,” he said. The demand for service, repairing and manufacturing jobs around the auto industry alone will generate millions of jobs, he said. “The auto came along and wiped out the horse industry. But it opened a whole lot of industries,” he said. Biotechnology and medicine will explode in the future, he said. “There will be even more demand for nurses. Alzheimer’s is becoming the disease of the century. By the time you’re in your 80s, 30 to 40 percent of them have Alzheimer’s. Just naturally, a good fraction of all the baby boomers,” Kaku said. Japan provides a preview of that. It’s a tremendous crisis hitting Europe and the U.S., requiring a surge of nursing needs and assisted living centers, he said. New materials stronger than steel, such as graphene will assist in better engineering and construction of big infrastructure buildings and bridges. “Energy has a direct impact on what’s happening here (in Alaska),” he said. “Oil wells of the future will become intelligent. They will be able to tell us ‘repair me. I’m getting old. I think there’s a leak in my left oil well.’ Instantaneous monitoring will increase efficiency to maintain them and to faze out when they need that.” He welcomes the brave new world as one where goods and services are cheaper, and people will have access to better health. All people have to do to become a billionaire in such a world is to take an industry, and isolate where the middlemen and aggravations frustrate consumers. Amazon, Uber and Airbnbs did this, Kaku said. “Make a list of all the points that aggravate people. Cut through all the excess layers that are unnecessary,” he advised. Biotech breakthroughs are soon to allow a search through millions of human genes to find which ones cause the aging process. “We will be isolating where the genes of old people break down and cure these genes. Something close to immortality is a thing of the future,” he said. If cancer can be detected in the blood, for example, it can alert people early on when they have 100 cancer cells or so in their bodies and not wait until 10 years later when the cells have multiplied into the billions. “They can do that this year,” he said. “Now we have liquid biopsies available that detect cancer cells circulating in the blood. They will be able to spot it and the word tumor will disappear. We will no longer say ‘tumor’ like we no longer say ‘leaches’ and ‘bloodletting.’” Naomi Klouda can be reached at [email protected]

Judge gives OK for trustee to examine Rogoff finances

A public trustee will be allowed to look at bank statements, cancelled checks and documents related to a $13 million loan taken out by former Alaska Dispatch News owner Alice Rogoff. At a Jan. 18 hearing, U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Gary Spraker said the permission comes with conditions to protect confidentiality, but he ordered that outright objections to looking at “certain” documents on the part of Rogoff’s Northrim Bank attorney are too vague and need to be spelled out more specifically. He said he’s “not going to rule on the question en masse.” The bankruptcy case, filed as a Chapter 11 reorganization on Aug. 12, 2017, and converted to a Chapter 7 liquidation after the sale of the company Sept. 11, is still in the discovery phase to find assets for repaying Rogoff’s $2.3 million in debts to dozens of local and national businesses and individuals. At dispute was whether some cancelled checks and loan documents are deemed to contain private information about Rogoff’s personal finances and marital separation agreement funds from billionaire ex-husband David Rubenstein. The terms of a divorce settlement and financial amounts agreed to on Dec. 8, 2017, are confidential, Rogoff attorney James Lister has argued in court filings. Lister is with the Washington, D.C., office of Birch Horton Bittner &Cherot, P.C. He traveled to Anchorage for the hearing. Rubenstein let it be known through his attorney that he is “insisting that the contractual confidentially revisions be enforced, and point(s) to remedies available to Rubenstein under the MSA (marital settlement agreement), if they are not,” Lister argued. Northrim Bank attorney Michael Parise stated there could be confidential information on the back of cancelled checks. He also argued that 3,000 emails and other communications relating to Rogoff’s Northrim loan may contain confidential information related to Rogoff’s marital separation agreement. Parise also told the judge it’s burdensome to dig out the communications that can be viewed by the trustee, and it’s expensive because an attorney will need to review it all ahead of time. But Spraker said he wasn’t comfortable hearing so much speculation on what is possibly in the documents. “The inherent vagueness is concerning,” Spraker said. “We’re talking cancelled checks and bank statements. What is inherently confidential about a bank statement?” Rogoff borrowed $13 million from Northrim to help purchase the Anchorage Daily News for $34 million in April 2014. Christine Tobin-Presser, the attorney for public trustee Nacole Jipping, said she didn’t believe she would need to look at the loan documents going back all the way to 2014 at first because the Northrim loan was initially seen as not as relevant. “The debtor’s assets (the Alaska Dispatch) hadn’t been pledged until March 2017 on the loan,” Tobin-Presser said. “Yet, $60,000-$70,000 monthly payments were made (in the years) prior to that, which the debtor (Alaska Dispatch) had no obligation to pay.” That’s relevant to the whole picture, she argued. “Ms. Rogoff had the wherewithal to pay it, yet had the debtor make the payments,” Tobin-Presser said. “Ms. Rogoff was the CFO for U.S. News &World Reports for 10 years and yet she chose to run her business in such a way as to intertwine personal debt with the debtor’s. And it’s relevant.” Tobin-Presser asked for communications surrounding the loan documents to ascertain why these debts were paid by the Alaska Dispatch and not from Rogoff’s personal accounts. When Rogoff took out the loan in 2014, she did not list the Alaska Dispatch News assets as collateral. Rogoff had been separated from her husband, David Rubenstein, since 2005 but had a marital agreement paying her $5 million per year, according to the court filings in another court case involving Alaska Dispatch News co-founder Tony Hopfinger. Hopfinger co-founded the Dispatch along with Amanda Coyne as an online news publication and sold his interest to Rogoff for $1 million in an agreement signed on a cocktail napkin to be paid in 10 installments over 10 years. He is alleging that she only made one payment and owes him $900,000. The case is to be argued in Alaska Superior Court in March. Because the Rubenstein-Rogoff divorce was finalized later, in December 2017, the financial contents of the their divorce also are confidential under the terms of settlement, her attorney Lister has asserted. She did not put up the Dispatch assets as collateral until reworking the Northrim Bank loan in March 2017. By then, Rogoff has said the newspaper was financially distressed and the loan had to be renegotiated. Rogoff’s use of Dispatch funds to pay the Northrim loan may constitute the bankruptcy term “avoidance action,” Tobin-Presser said, which means assets of the Dispatch were not properly applied to it. Trustee Jipping needs to look at the documents to determine whether that was proper. She is doing so under the guidance of Tobin-Presser, who is from the law firm of Bush Kornfield LLP of Seattle. Tobin-Presser also traveled to Anchorage for the hearing. The next hearing will be Jan. 31 at 2:30 p.m. In the intervening weeks, Spraker ordered the parties to determine amongst themselves how they will handle the confidential information and turn over bank statements, cancelled checks and loan documents that Jipping has a right to review. If there are objections, Spraker said he wants refined arguments, not speculative or vague ones. “We need to understand the context and reason for objections… Give that additional attention and then bring it to court,” he told the lawyers. ^ Naomi Klouda can be reached at [email protected]

ANSEP shows off model to national conference

Middle school students from Anchorage learned how to build a computer from the motherboard up at a University of Alaska Dissemination Conference. On the conference’s second day, the sixth- to eighth-graders teamed up with faculty and officials of universities from around the country to show them how it’s done. It was a two-step process: learn, then teach. “I’ve never built a computer before,” said University of Alabama in Huntsville outreach coordinator Rosemary Robinson, elated as she and her team plugged in the computer tower to a screen and keyboard. “It works!” Joy Shein, a sixth grader from Turnagain Elementary, led the effort, teaching the two adults from Alabama the myriad wire connections that must be properly placed before the lights fire up. Robinson brought one of her biology majors, Desalyn Johnson, with her on the weeklong trip to Alaska. The occasion was called the “Dissemination Conference” hosted by the Alaska Native Science and Engineering Program at the University of Alaska Anchorage. It brought 54 Anchorage School District students together with 90 conference attendees from around the country. A National Science Foundation grant paid for their trips, but each of the middle schoolers, college students and faculty were selected in a competitive application process. The event was to share formulas for success from the UAA program with regional education groups from across the nation, said Herb Schroeder, the founder and vice provost of ANSEP. “Anybody anywhere can do what we do with ANSEP,” Schroeder said. “It’s all about inspiring children when they are young so that they have a vision of what their lives can be like in the future. I’m an engineer and I can remember exactly when I realized that is what I wanted to be. I’ve spoken to a lot of people who say they remember the exact moment when they realized ‘I want to be a biologist’ or an engineer or a teacher. It’s that spark that ignites a vision for their future.” The third floor of the UAA Consortium Library came alive with 100 newly built computers at the end of the process. Robinson and her team of two students — the sixth grader and the college student — wore the same happy expressions of accomplishment. This was exactly what Schroeder had hoped to see throughout the room. “Everything we do is hands on and experiential. As I walked around the room, I saw they all had the same emotions when they are done that the kids have when they are done: So proud, this is so cool and so fun,” Schroeder said. “They say exactly the same thing.” The faculty came from Auburn University, Chicago State University, Clemson University, the University of Alabama, University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, University of Hawaii, University of Montana, University of Texas at El Paso and a team from the North Dakota Secretary of Education. The point of the conference was to “disseminate” a path to disadvantaged students from Indian Country, the Appalachians, inner cities and Pacific Islanders. The idea is to help better teach STEM topics in K-12 so that students come to college prepared for their studies. “Alaska isn’t the only one that struggles with students arriving poorly prepared for their studies,” Schroeder said. “Everyone of them struggles with this as well.” ANSEP was the recipient of a $3 million National Science Foundation grant that allowed them to hold the conference. Since its inception in 1995, UAA has awarded 600 baccalaureate degrees to 600 Native scientists and engineers. They’ve also guided more than 2,500 students from sixth grade through the PhD pipeline to help transform education across the state. Schroeder said the program is successful in its mission to assist Alaska students in completing science, technology, engineering and mathematics degree programs. “(This) effects change in the representations of minorities in the workforce,” he said. “We are proud to be a model for others around the country. At the end of the conference we want every participant to understand the issues related to replication of ANSEP in their own community and move from planning to implementation of a similar program.” One participant, Marc Bluestone, is the superintendent of K-12 schools at New Town, N.D., which encompasses the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation. The high school has a 49 percent graduation rate. It is Bluestone’s home reservation as well. “We have a lot of apathy about not just education. I want to go back and strengthen us where we are at with STEM activities,” said Bluestone, who had just finished building a computer with the help of Marcella Williams from Spring Hill Elementary School in Anchorage. Because he was in Anchorage observing the ANSEP model with others from the North Dakota education commissioner’s team and the university system, he felt implementing a new plan will have built-in support and first-hand knowledge from the conference. A key strength is incorporating elementary and middle age students in STEM emersion, he said, to capture them at a young age: “This is a message we hear over and again.” Another conference attendee, Jeff Dase, is chief of schools at Network 12 in Chicago. He has 13,400 students in 30 elementary schools and five high schools. They offer a summer STEM program that is along the lines of ANSEP, he said. “I’m interested in closing the gap for STEM understanding between elementary and high school where we see low performance on SATs,” Dase said. “This event really gabbed us,” he said, referring to building a computer with a middle school student. His partner was sixth-grader Stephen Holmstock from the Alaska Native Cultural Charter School. “It was so cool that Stephen showed us how to build the computer. Having a kid show you something is a powerful way to instill learning in them,” Dase said. A team of two, one a very short six-grader from King Cove and the other an engineering director from Clemson University, were some of the first to finish building their computer. Dr. Thomas Peters and Russell Dushkin had their computer finished within 10 minutes after the lunch break. “I don’t think Russell looked at his notes more than two times,” Peters said. “ANSEP has a nicely articulated model, it’s easy to sell. We have pieces of it, but not a system at Clemson (University.) We have multiple universities all doing the same things. Getting collaboration between them is more challenging.” But the computer build was giving Peters ideas, he said. To Chicago’s Dase, it was interesting to him that each student will go home with the computer they built the first day as part of their own learning. “They will show that computer to others in their classrooms, and teach other students how they did it,” Dase said. Schroeder didn’t schedule a lot of sitting and listening into the conference. “Most of their interactions were with students. We had very little with adults primarily as facilitators,” he said. “Most of their interactions were with students in middle school, high school and university. And when they leave, we’re hoping they take our blueprint with them to inspire their own students for a vision of their futures.” Naomi Klouda can be reached at [email protected]

Uber, Lyft object to proposed new fees at international airports

The public can weigh in on a new fee proposal that will impact Uber and Lyft passengers by tagging a $3 fee on rides to and from the state-owned airports in Anchorage and Fairbanks. The passenger pick-up and drop-off fees of $3 each way would be instituted at both Ted Stevens International Airport in Anchorage and the Fairbanks International Airport. Public comments will be taken up until 4:30 p.m. Jan. 31. The proposed rates become effective on Feb. 1, according to the proposal. Department of Transportation spokeswoman Meadow Bailey said the transportation network companies, or TNCs, have only recently begun operations at the two international airports after being authorized to operate in Alaska by the Legislature last year and the state does not have reliable data on activity to date. TNCs are already restricted to the second level departure ramp at the Anchorage airport in an effort to ease congestion on the baggage claim level. “We understand that TNC activity is growing rapidly, and as has been the case in other airports around the country, pose the possibility of having a transformative impact on airport ramp operations (i.e. congestion) and other airport revenue streams from airport concessions, such as rental car and vehicle parking,” Bailey wrote in an email. Department Marc Luiken intends to implement fees for the newly operating to help pay for future infrastructure challenges they will require or to replace lost revenue. Lyft and Uber were quick to respond to the proposal. Uber spokesman Nathan Hambley said the two TNCs wrote a joint letter expressing their disappointment. The fee will end up imposed on passengers and airport employees who use the ride service, he said. “We hope the Fairbanks (FAI) and Anchorage (ANC) will consider adjusting this proposal to reflect a more balanced approach to fees that doesn’t lay the burden of paying high costs at the feet of customers and airport employees who use TNCs,” stated a joint letter from Bakari Brock, Lyft’s senior director of U.S. operations for vendors and airports, and Alejandro Chouza, general manager of Pacific operations for Uber. Their letter sheds light into how other airports across the nation handled the TNCs. “Many airports across the country with passenger volumes similar to FAI and ANC do not charge a fee for pick-ups or drop-offs whatsoever. Moreover, of those similarly-sized airports that do charge a fee, the majority charge a fee for pick-ups only,” they wrote. “For example, airports in Flint, Mich., Oklahoma City, Okla., and Santa Barbara, Calif., do not charge any per-trip fees; while airports in Orange County, Calif, Portland, Ore, Indianapolis, Ind., Fort Myers, Flo., Pittsburgh, Penn, charge less than $3 for pick-ups only.” Lyft and Uber wrote that even the Houston airport, which serves the nation’s third largest city, charges one fee of less than $3 for TNC pick-ups. There is no proposal to change the costs of $75 per year fee for taxis and $150 use fee per year for buses, Bailey said. “Taxis and tour bus operations are viewed by the airport as distinct from each other. Tour buses provide group transportation conveyance that serve a different market and consume different airport resources (ramp and loading area) than do taxis. Therefore the airport doesn’t see a meaningful comparison between tour buses and TNC’s,” Bailey wrote. The airports welcome the additional choice TNCs are anticipated to provide the traveling public but the fact that they are not regulated like taxis makes them an unknown, Bailey said. “However, while taxi operations at the airport are regulated, constrained, and fairly well understood, TNC operations are not,” Bailey wrote. Airports officials believe TNC operations “pose significant uncertainty to the airports with respect to impact on revenue streams from established parking and rental car concessions, as well as capital investment which may be required to meet additional demand and related congestion imposed on airport ground transportation ramps and infrastructure.” The proposed transaction fees to be charged the TNC’s will serve to offset some, but likely not all the impacts TNC operations may potentially create. They anticipate the impact to show up in ground transportation study, design, and construction to meet the needs of the operations, “which are already constrained to operations at the departure level ramp at ANC,” Bailey wrote. But if the fee is imposed, the Lyft and Uber officials say they hope the revenue goes directly to the improved operations at the Anchorage and Fairbanks airports. “Nearly all airports that have imposed a pick-up fee have agreed to use a portion of the revenues from collection of that fee to improve the private for-hire customer experience with additional wayfinding signage, improved holding lots for drivers and improved pick-up/drop-off access,” their letter said. Bailey said DOT is aware of similar fees at other airports, but this proposed fee is based on trying to address concerns specific to ANC and FAI airports. “Those concerns relate to a mix of things, including but not limited to, the safety and security of the traveling public, providing a range of choice of ground transportation options, and ensuring quality facilities that adequately meet the demand and help fund the ability to provide the variety of ground transportation services operating at the airports,” Bailey wrote. Comments should be addressed to Keith Day, Controller, Alaska International Airports Systems, P.O. Box 196960, Anchorage, AK 99519-6960 or emailed to [email protected] ^ Naomi Klouda can be reached at [email protected]

Walker names new member to Marijuana Control Board

North Slope Borough Police Chief Travis Welch has been appointed by Gov. Bill Walker to the public safety seat on the Marijuana Control Board. The position opened up on Jan. 4 when Soldotna Police Chief and board Chairman Peter Mlynarik resigned after U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded what’s known as the Cole Memo, which was the prior administrations official policy non-enforcement of federal marijuana laws in states that have legalized it for recreational use. Welch lives and works in the city of Ukpiagvik, formerly Barrow, and is from Bremerton, Wash. He earned an economics degree at Brigham Young University and completed a master’s degree in criminal justice/safety studies at Saint Joseph’s University. He also has an associate’s degree from Latter-day Saints Business College. Welch has worked for the North Slope Police Department since 2008, rising from the ranks of officer to sergeant, detective and then lieutenant before becoming Chief of Police in July 2015, according to his LinkedIn profile. According to staff at the North Slope Borough, Welch is currently traveling on business and was not available to comment on his appointment. Welch will go through the legislative confirmation process, along with current members Loren Jones and Nick Miller, whose appointments were renewed by the governor. Jones’ and Miller’s seats were to expire Feb. 28 but each of the men reapplied to be on the board. Welch’s first board meeting will be in Juneau Jan. 24-26. The 14-day application period ended Jan. 18. Staff in the governor’s Boards and Commissions Office did not provide a list of those who applied to the Journal. After Sessions withdrew the Cole Memo, Mlyarnik said the industry was no longer legitimate and he expected “changes ahead.” He drew criticism last year when he campaigned in favor of an ordinance to ban commercial cannabis operations in the unicorporated areas of the Kenai Peninsula Borough. The measure lost by a 2-1 margin. He also was upset about the board’s response to inconsistencies in testing results on marijuana at the only two labs in the state. In a 5-0 vote that included Mlynarik on Jan. 2, the board decided to issue a consumer alert rather than take his recommendation to suspend industry operations until the testing issue is resolved. Mark Springer, the board’s vice chair, said they will be voting on who will be their next chairman of the board at the Juneau meeting. They also will be looking at 52 cannabis business applications and several regulation projects. “We’ve got some work ahead of us, but a lot of the licensing can go pretty quickly,” Springer said. “At least we will do it all with a full board.” The U.S. Attorney for Alaska made a statement Jan. 4 that nothing would change as far as enforcement priorities in his jurisdiction after Sessions’ decision. Naomi Klouda can be reached at [email protected]

Committee recommends sanction for Eastman over ethics violation

The House Subcommittee on Ethics is recommending censure of sanction for Rep. David Eastman, R-Wasilla, after concluding he violated Alaska law by disclosing the existence of a complaint filed against a fellow legislator. The committee, which includes members of the public, Eastman and House Majority Leader Chris Tuck, D-Anchorage, recommended he be removed from the committee for the remainder of the current legislative session in a decision released Jan. 18. Eastman told the Associated Press he intends to seek a formal hearing before the committee. Tuck and the four members of the public on the committee found that Eastman violated the Legislative Ethics Act when he told this reporter on April 28, 2017, that an ethics complaint had been filed against Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux, R-Anchorage. The act prohibits the disclosure of complaints that are under investigation or have been dismissed, and that details of proceedings are confidential until the committee reaches a conclusion whether probable cause exists that a violation occurred. The Journal contacted Eastman while working on a story about legislators who’d formed political action committees, which included Eastman, LeDoux and Rep. Paul Seaton, R-Homer. During the course of the interview, Eastman said that an ethics complaint had been filed against LeDoux and recommended this reporter check with the Legislative Ethics Office. The reporter then called the Legislative Ethics Office and spoke with Administrator Jerry Anderson, who quizzed the reporter about where the information on this alleged filing came from. He informed the Journal that he could not answer any questions about the alleged violation filed against LeDoux. The decision issued Jan. 18 by the Ethics committee stated Eastman “violated AS 24.60.17(c) and (l) by disclosing to a member of the public the existence of a complaint filed with the Select Committee on Legislative Ethics that was confidential under the specific provisions of AS 24.60.17(c) and (l).” Anderson said members of the Ethics committee receive several hours of training per year on applicable laws. This reporter and Journal Managing Editor Andrew Jensen met with Anderson at the Legislative Ethics Office in Anchorage on May 17, 2017, and provided formal testimony on the interview with Eastman and his disclosure of a complaint against LeDoux. Dennis “Skip” Cook, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Legislative Ethics, filed a complaint in this matter and on Jan. 12 the subcommittee met “and determined there was probable cause to believe that a violation of the Ethics Law had occurred, and that Rep. David Eastman committed such a violation.” As for whether or not the ethics complaint was dismissed against LeDoux, Anderson said, “that if such an ethics investigation is underway, it remains confidential from the public. If it was concluded and dismissed, that would remain confidential.” The press release issued Jan. 18 does not mention LeDoux, who confirmed to the Associated Press a complaint was filed and dismissed. Eastman has three options, according to Anderson. He can resign from the Legislative Ethics Committee; he can ask for a confidential meeting with the committee to seek reasons for the decision; or “he can go ahead and ask for a hearing, a formal public hearing where he can request to see what is behind the investigation, to include testimony and interviews available,” Anderson said. Eastman could also be removed from the Ethics committee by a vote of the House Committee on Committees. That group is made up of Chair and House Speaker Rep. Bryce Edgmon, D-Dillingham; Rep. Charisse Millet, R-Anchorage; LeDoux; Seaton; Tuck; Rep. Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, and Rep. Neal Foster, D-Nome. House Majority Spokesman Mike Mason said no Committee on Committees hearing is yet scheduled to take up the matter. A message left for Eastman had not been returned at the time of publication. Eastman was censured by the House in a 25-14 vote on May 11, 2017, after he made public statements alleging that rural Alaska women get pregnant on purpose in order to receive free travel to Anchorage to get abortions. ^ Naomi Klouda can be reached at [email protected]

Districts try to trim overhead as enrollment, budgets decline

On Kodiak Island, eight village schools now share a single principal. Cutting principal positions from the schools lowered administrative costs for the Kodiak Island Borough School District according to Superintendent Larry LeDoux. Last year, the district of 2,420 students, spread out hundreds of miles from Akhiok on the southern end to Ouzinkie in the north, lost $1.9 million in its operating budget. Cuts came in part from a 25 percent state budget cut that formerly shared new construction costs between the state and local boroughs that bonded for them. “Then because of declining enrollment, another several hundred thousand dollars was lost from our budget,” LeDoux said. “Our one principal is on the airplane all the time.” The Kodiak district is among more than 50 statewide that are holding the line on expenses amid state budget cuts, rising staff insurance costs and status quo BSA, or base student allocation, funding. What those principals and assistants to the superintendents are paid is often cited as an area of overhead schools should continue to cut. Data from the Department of Education and Early Development shows districts continually cutting and readjusting in the three areas of what’s designated as “administrative staff. The first category saw the fewest changes, under the heading of administration leaders. These are the superintendents, principals, directors of maintenance, public information coordinators and special assistants. In that category, all school districts combined saw a 0.6 percent increase over the five school years from 2012-16. In 2012, state school districts had 629 administrators and 633 in 2016. Losses came in a second group known as program staff. This includes bilingual coordinators, directors of federal aid programs, special education coordinators and staff development. This group shrank by 5.9 percent, from 422 to 397, over the five years from 2012-16. The third category involves occupational therapists, speech therapists, career counselors, curriculum specialists and school nurses. That group saw a 2.7 percent decline statewide over the five-year period, from 1,017 to 990. Each fall, districts report all certified staff employed as of Oct. 1. These numbers do not count teachers or classified staff, Education Department data progaram manager Brian Laurent said. Counts are unduplicated within each job group, but not across job groups, he added. The figures include any staff member with some full-time equivalency or FTE assigned to one or more positions in the job group. Counts are unduplicated within each job group, but not across job groups. For example, a principal who also serves as director of special education would be included in both the administrative staff and in program staff, Laurent said. “The school districts report responsibilities and they may have staff that do multiple duties,” Laurent said. This makes the raw data not as meaningful without followup from each district. “But what I find most interesting is that the numbers prompt conversations with the school districts and every one of the 54 are different. Each has its own story to tell. We provide the numbers. I think it’s great that we’re prompting these questions.” Juneau gets creative with cuts At the Juneau School District, downsizing amounted to $11 million in cuts and loss of 92 positions over five years, said Chief of Staff Kristin Bartlett. Creative recombining is keeping some programs from ending, she added. “Our graduation rate is up to the highest at 86 percent. We’re feeling good about that,” Bartlett said. (Statewide graduation rates were 76.1 in 2016). Of the 92 positions cut, some were physical therapists and occupational specialists, which are now contracted out. The JSD also reduced an assistant superintendent position and several assistant principals. An uptick in the number of special education students in the recent year meant hiring additional staff that were reduced in previous years because of lower student counts, she said. “Our strategy has been to keep cuts away from the classroom. We made a lot of administrative cuts, as well as to support that surround the class but aren’t teachers,” Bartlett said. After cutting and creative recombining, the district is looking at cuts that could do greater harm to students, meaning larger classrooms and loss of teachers for the gifted programs. Formerly, six enrichment teachers served six elementary schools. Now three such teachers travel school-to-school, she said. Science coaches, literacy coaches, information technology and maintenance staff also were cut. “The closer cuts get to the classroom, the more harm they do the students,” Bartlett said. Every district is different The Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District has a different problem: growth. Nevertheless, that district also has fewer administrative program positions over the past five years. The Wasilla-Palmer area is the fastest growing area of the state, now with a population of 101,095, and spokeswoman Jillian Morrissey said the district grew by more than 150 new pupils this year to 18,894. Last year counted about 300 additional students since 2014. “We are still finding more desks, more chairs and more classrooms to put kids in our schools,” Morrissey said. “At the same time we’ve had flat funding in both areas, from the state and from the borough. That’s meant a loss of funds per student.” Of the big five school districts — Anchorage, Fairbanks, Kenai, Juneau and Mat-Su — “we receive the lowest level of local funding contributions compared to other funding districts,” she added. Two new schools were built to accommodate the burgeoning population, Dena’ina Elementary and Redington High School in the Knik-Fairview area. The need to hire teachers also continues for the Mat-Su district. For the 2017-18 school year, Mat-Su added 50-75 teachers but only a few were new hires as shifts were made through attrition to keep costs down, Morrissey said. About 85 fulltime equivalents, however, were cut from the budget last year. “We’re still an anomaly in the state, but now is not a good time to build new schools,” she said. “We use portables since we’re not currently adding on to schools.” Aiming at insurance costs Fairbanks North Star Borough School District’s population has gone down by about 3 percent, not as much as some of the rural school districts that encompass villages where economic conditions forced families to move out. Through budget cuts, the district also lost more than 10 percent of its support positions in two categories. But Chief Financial Officer Lisa Pearce said part of the problem stems from an inability to attract professional support staff such as nurses, who are incentivized through better pay to pursue private sector employment options. The district has been forced to outsource to fulfill special education staffing requirements, she said. “Flat funding does cause us to move backwards,” Pearce said. “We have contractual obligations. Our cost of doing business increases, but our budgets do not.” The district owes $3 million this year to meet its contractual obligations with three bargaining units of unionized teachers, staff and principals, she said. But a bright spot for the Fairbanks district came from making major changes to the structure of their employee health care plans in a desperate move to reduce costs. “We saw a savings on health care costs because of this major change, decreasing our cost by 2 percent. While you’ll hear horror stories of increases, ours went down,” she said. Kodiak’s troubled economy School budgets are complicated and troubles don’t come from one place, LeDoux notes. Unlike the Mat-Su district, Kodiak’s entire island population has made some sharp shifts downward. Two schools — one at Karluk and one at Port Lions — likely will close next fall due to fewer than 10 students enrolled. But even in the City of Kodiak, student enrollment has dropped, LeDoux said. Overall, the district is gearing up for about 50 fewer students in a district that carries about 2,500 students. “Commercial fishing has seen some real losses the past few seasons. Fewer fishing permits are owned by people in the villages, and so they move out to find work,” LeDoux said. Estimates for Kodiak Island’s population are 13,287 for 2017, down from over 13,700 in 2015. Over the last 10 years, Kodiak Island schools lost about 200 pupils, LeDoux said. Lower population numbers translates to lower budgets, he adds. But yet another area is a direct hit from state budget cuts. The Legislature made the decision to cut the state’s share of school construction from 80 percent to 75 percent to 50 percent. That meant Kodiak Island Borough was left with an additional 25 percent of the construction costs on a new $80 million Kodiak High School, LeDoux said. The borough’s medical insurance costs, meanwhile, also rose 8 percent this year, on the heels of a 16 percent increase a few years ago, the superintendent added. “We’re caught between a rock and hard place. It’s getting very difficult. We spend a lot of time just doing budgets,” LeDoux said. “Yet we have great people working hard to make it work. I always say our business is kids, one by one. There’s no success like one child. And there’s no failure like one child.” Naomi Klouda can be reached at [email protected]

Young tries again with legislative fix to marijuana conflict

Rep. Don Young teamed up with California Democrat Rep. Barbara Lee on Jan. 11 to introduce one of the first measures of the year meant to protect states’ legal marijuana laws in the wake of the recent federal shakeup to the industry. House Resolution 4779 by Young and Lee, dubbed the REFER Act, seeks to provide certainty to financial institutions, patients, entrepreneurs, and other individuals by restricting federal funds regarding marijuana enforcement, he said. Young, now the “Dean” of the House of Representatives as the longest serving congressman, has co-sponsored about seven bills since 2015 that relate to protections for states that have legalized use of marijuana. None of them, however, have even received a committee hearing, though any of the bills could be brought back to help shape new laws, Young's spokesperson said. Though he didn’t support legalizing marijuana in Alaska, accomplished through a 2014 voter initiative, he has said it’s a matter of states’ rights to decide whether to decriminalize and/or commercialize its use. “(This) would keep the money appropriated to all federal departments and agencies from being used to crack down on these groups if they are operating within state and local regulations that permit the cultivation and use of cannabis,” Young said in a Jan. 16 statement. “(It) would be an expansion of current law, known as the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer Amendment, which prevents funds specifically appropriated to the Department of Justice from being used to interfere in states that have medical cannabis laws.” Young is a founding member of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, along with Reps. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., and Jared Polis, D-Colo. The caucus’ stated intention is to “increase medical research into cannabis and change regulations on banking and taxation for cannabis businesses.” States where marijuana is legal have relied on two measures to keep the federal government — which classifies marijuana as a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act — at bay. One was the memo written in 2013 by U.S. Assistant Attorney General James Cole that advised a hands-off policy in states that legalized recreational use of marijuana as long as they followed five conditions, including not allowing use by minors or letting in illegal drug operations. The other was an amendment attached to each federal budget since 2014, called the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer amendment (It was previously the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment but Rep. Samuel Farr has retired). The amendment prohibits spending funds on prosecutions against medical marijuana enterprises in states that have authorized it, which now numbers 29 including Alaska. A big criticism of both the Cole Memo — which was rescinded earlier this month by Attorney General Jeff Sessions — and the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer amendment is that they offered only temporary protection, Young noted. Congress hasn’t permanently protected state medical marijuana programs and adult recreational use from federal interference through direct laws granting states’ rights over the matter. Eight states plus the District of Columbia have legalized recreational use; and 18 states allow for the use of cannabinoid oil, also known as CBD, which is non-psychoactive. Young believes it’s Congress’ duty, in light of the recent rescission of the Cole Memo, “to provide certainty to these groups and respect the right of states to set their own laws.” The REFER Act would also prohibit the federal government from taking any punitive action against a financial institution involved in state-sanctioned marijuana-related activities. By withdrawing the Cole Memo, Sessions was basically forcing Congress to take action. “The federal government should respect the will of the voters in states that have voted to decriminalize cannabis. It’s time to stop wasting taxpayer money on the failed War on Drugs,” said Lee, co-sponsor with Young. “I’m proud to introduce the REFER Act, which would prevent the Attorney General and others in the Trump Administration from stifling the budding cannabis industry. If the federal government chooses to interfere in these state matters, it’s up to Congress to prevent this harmful overreach.” Specifically, HR 4779 bars federal funding for any efforts that seek to “detain, prosecute, sentence, or initiate civil proceedings against and individual, business or property that is involved in the cultivation, distribution, possession, dispensation, or the use of cannabis in accordance with the law or regulation of the state or unit of local government in which the individual is located.” It also prohibits the federal government from taking any punitive action against a financial institution “solely because the institution provides financial services to an entity” that is involved in state-sanctioned marijuana-related activities. Young has co-sponsored bills to require the federal government to respect state laws legalizing marijuana, to remove it from the Schedule I status, to allow financial institutions to do business with the marijuana industry, allow Veterans’ Affairs doctors to prescribe marijuana in states where it is legal, and to allow marijuana businesses to use the same tax deductions as other small businesses. Naomi Klouda can be reached at [email protected]

Rubenstein wants agreement with ex-wife Rogoff kept out of court

Former Alaska Dispatch News owner Alice Rogoff’s attorney asked a federal bankruptcy court on Jan. 9 to hold off granting access to certain bank documents until attorneys for her billionaire ex-husband David Rubenstein can review them. Federal Bankruptcy Judge Gary Spraker set a hearing for 9 a.m. Jan. 18 at the Historic Alaska Federal Court building to sort out motions on what should be kept out of public records in the prominent court case. The latest legal arguments between the attorneys for the trustee Nicole Jipping, representing the public’s interest, and Rogoff stem from a deeper look into the former newspaper publisher’s finances known as a Rule 2004 examination. Rogoff’s attorney contends the source of her money should be barred from public view because it is confidential under the terms of her December 2017 divorce from Rubenstein. The bankruptcy case, filed as a Chapter 11 reorganization on Aug. 12 and converted to a Chapter 7 liquidation after the sale of the company, is still in the discovery phase to find assets for repaying Rogoff’s $2.3 million in debts to dozens of local and national businesses and individuals. An additional $16.6 million debt is tagged onto the case from Rogoff herself, claiming the failed Alaska Dispatch News owes her that much for personal funds she fed into the operation. At the time of filing bankruptcy, and after selling the news operation for $1 million to the Binkley Co., on Sept. 11, 2017, she claimed the economy and dwindling revenues forced her to lose more than $4 million per year. On Jan. 9, Rogoff’s attorney objected on her behalf to a motion asking for Northrim Bank records. The records may show collateral and other assets she listed in order to obtain a $13 million loan to help pay the $34 million price to purchase the Anchorage Daily News from McClatchy in May 2014. She immediately sold the headquarters building on Northway Drive housing the newsroom and printing press to Anchorage telecom GCI in order to raise $14.5 million to help pay for the daily. The bottom line of the objections is a concern the Northrim loan documents would expose confidential marital settlement dollar amounts agreed to between Rogoff and Rubenstein. The couple were married in 1983 but separated legally in 2005. They divorced this past December, agreeing to keep the terms of their settlement confidential. Rubenstein’s wealth has been estimated at nearly $3 billion by Fortune. “An additional basis for objection applies to the Rogoff/Rubenstein marital settlement agreement and ancillary documents and communications regarding it,” wrote James Lister of Birch Horton Bittner and Cherot, P.C. of Washington, D.C. “Rogoff’s ex-husband David Rubenstein has a contractual confidentiality right in the MSA (marital settlement agreement) that must be respected.” Apparently Rubenstein has written to Rogoff’s attorneys through his own attorneys. He is “insisting that the contractual confidentiality provisions be enforced, and point(s) to remedies available to Rubenstein under the MSA if it is not.” Lister argues that Rubenstein’s attorneys should be allowed to weigh in on Jipping’s request. A copy of Lister’s objection was served to Rubenstein’s attorney “for domestic relations” Sanford K. Ain at Ain & Bank in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 9. Ain & Bank, P.C. is a “collaborative partnership of some of the foremost attorneys in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area, as well as the nation,” according to its website. Some of Rogoff’s personal financial information is embedded in loan documents. The Rogoff/Rubenstein marital settlement agreement might be considered a “loan document backing the loan, although it is obviously not an asset of the Debtor ADN,” Lister wrote. A marital settlement agreement is legally binding, he argues. So far, bankruptcy Judges Frederick Corbit and Gary Spraker have signed off on two of four Rule 2004 motions from Jipping’s attorney, granting the request to look at various accounting and banking transactions incurred by the former Alaska Dispatch News and Wells Fargo. The judges did so by signing “ex parte motions,” meaning without a hearing of all the parties present. Rogoff’s attorney said he expedited his request to the judge for denying this look into the Northrim loan contract out of concern that the judge will grant Jipping’s motion ex parte. He’s arguing it should be denied because where Rogoff acquired her money used to purchase the ADN “or to put money into (the) ADN, and what those personal financial assets are, is well beyond the scope of Rule 2004(b) pre-litigation and discovery.” No matter Rogoff’s personal wealth, federal bankruptcy laws require the inquiries be kept to an examination of the finances related to the Alaska Dispatch News’ debts and assets. Another point also has the two sides hung up. AK Publishing was the limited liability corporation Rogoff set up to pay the bills for the Dispatch, according to her statements in the case. Three Wells Fargo accounts were set up: one for payroll, one for accounts payable and one for general funds. Rogoff’s attorney is arguing the judge shouldn’t grant a blanket motion to look into those accounts because some may contain confidential non-Dispatch transactions. Christy Tobin-Presser of Bush Kornfeld LLP in Seattle, representing the trustee, argues that AK Publishing was set up to handle the debts of the ADN and there is no evidence that any other confidential information should be part of it. Tobin-Presser also set out stipulation agreements Jan. 12 on bank records that guarantee Jipping would keep confidential any findings that are not part of the 2004 exam, in response to Rogoff’s concerns. According to the timeline set forth by Judge Spraker, when the Rule 2004 examination is complete, a court hearing will be scheduled that requires Rogoff to answer questions. Then the judge will rule on what to allow or disallow as assets and liabilities, including whether to allow Rogoff to continue to claim a $16.6 million debt to herself. All those owed money by the former Alaska Dispatch News have until March 19 to file those claims in U.S. Federal Bankruptcy Court, Alaska Division. Naomi Klouda can be reached at [email protected]

Walmart deal makes for year-round processing jobs in Anchorage

Copper River Seafoods highlighted its emerging role as a mainstay in the Alaska economy in a short ceremony Jan. 8 that celebrated selling 250,000 pounds of fish per year to Walmart and Sam’s Club. Even in winter, the plant on the shores of Ship Creek is filled with 100 employees cutting frozen fillets into portions that go out the door destined for plates in Alaska and the Lower 48. About 30,000 to 40,000 pounds of sockeye and kita, or chum salmon, per week continue to be processed throughout the winter, according Copper River Seafoods CEO Scott Blake. Plants like Copper River Seafoods in Anchorage are maximizing seafood jobs in the state’s economy and the blue ocean economy framework, said Alyssa Rodrigues, economic development manager at the Alaska Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development. “Copper River is able to sustain 100 year-round jobs when most of our seafood jobs aren’t year-round,” Rodrigues said at the event, which included brief comments by Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz, Blake and Walmart officials. What’s different from traditional seafood marketing is this mainstay of jobs are created from value-added frozen fillets. Filets cut into portions go into a “Members Mark” packaging that indicates the partnership between Copper River Seafoods and Walmart. “Typically seafood is minimally processed. Value-added bolsters the ocean economy, getting more value out of Alaska’s ocean resources,” Rodrigues said. Gaining more value-added Alaska production is on the department’s top 10 strategic goals. Berkowitz called Walmart “an Alaska-sized company” that helps stimulate the economy and “deserves our recognition.” Walmart has said its Alaska deal with the seafood company is part of its 10-year commitment through 2023 to buy an additional $250 billion in products to support American jobs, said Walmart’s Kevin Loscotoff. In 2013, Alaska fishermen picketed the South Anchorage Walmart because of a sustainability certification dispute when the state ended efforts to keep the Marine Stewardship Council label. Walmart required a third-party sustainability certification for its seafood and was not going to keep stocking Alaska salmon as a result. The fracas, joined by then-Sen. Mark Begich and Sen. Lisa Murkowski, resulted in a deeper commitment from Walmart to purchase Alaska’s wild salmon for its customers and the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute has since developed its own sustainability certification process. Walmart announced its intention to put its buying power into products manufactured, assembled and sourced in America, said spokesman Scott Markley. “We’re half way through that commitment,” Markley said. Walmart has since purchased $800 million directly from Alaska suppliers, “and Copper River was part of that. We’re buying more with our existing domestic suppliers, which creates more jobs that helps our stores and local communities. And we can move quicker on trends.” The Copper River Seafoods plants in Cordova, Kenai, Naknek and Anchorage employ more than 900 people seasonally, a hiring task shared with the Alaska Department of Labor’s Job Center. The center recruits workers and provides orientation, said Nelson San Juan, one of the recruiters. Fishing families in Cordova were struggling in 1998 when Blake said they entertained top Walmart officials on a visit to Cordova. Copper River Seafoods at its conception consisted of four fishermen and one employee, Blake told the gathering. But Walmart wanted Copper River Seafoods and Blake wanted to net a partnership with the giant retailer. Through the years, their partnership grew, enabling the seafood company to grow to its current size. “Thanks to Walmart and Sam’s Club, and their belief we could do it, we now process and ship 250,000 pounds a year,” he said. Wild caught salmon supplied by Copper River has been on WalMart and Sam’s Club shelves in some form since 2007. The company also sells to Costco, restaurants in Alaska and the Lower 48 and other retailers. “Twenty-two years later, we’re close to employing 200 people year-round and we’ve become a significant employer for 1,000 fishing families,” Blake said. The seafood wholesaler also obtained Homeland Security clearance for its facility, which means the Anchorage plant is subject to shipping scrutiny ahead of time. “Our products ride in the belly of commercial airlines and rather than having them opening and searching our boxes, we would rather screen them ourselves,” said manager Billy Green during a tour of the 50,000-square foot facilities. “That way no one bothers with it.” After more than four years of routine and impromptu inspections, “we haven’t had a single failure,” he said. Naomi Klouda can be reached at [email protected]

Senate Education chairman wants budget by April 1

April 1 would become a new self-imposed deadline for the Alaska Legislature to pass the education budget if a bill pre-filed by Sen. Gary Stevens becomes law. School districts may favor such an idea after three years of not knowing their budgets until well after their school years ended. State law requires layoff notices in two tiers — one for tenured and one for regular teachers — prior to the end of the school year, which is generally the third week of May. “We adhere to a highly regulated system of dates and statutory requirements,” Anchorage District School Superintendent Deena Bishop said Jan. 8. “Dates become nested in the requirements, and we risk not fulfilling the mandates” when budget numbers aren’t known in timely fashion. Stevens, R-Kodiak, pre-filed Senate Bill 131, which would require the legislature to pass the education budget by April 1. Under current law, Alaska’s governor must meet a deadline of Dec. 15 to file an operating and capital budget for the following fiscal year, but the legislature has no state-mandated budget-passing deadline. Since 2015, the legislature has blown past its 90-day regular session and 120-constitutional session limit without passing a budget. In 2017, the operating budget wasn’t passed by the legislature until June 22. The Anchorage School Board and other district superintendents presented their 2018 legislative priorities to the Alaska Legislature in early December. This time, in addition to talking about losing to inflation during years of flat funding, the districts also were invited to talk about what deadlines are mandated by law that they are required to hold in place staffing and teacher positions. Stevens, who chairs the Senate Education Committee and is also a member of the Finance Committee, said he felt it was “time to pass an education budget so that districts aren’t forced to pink slip teachers that they hire back when the budget is passed.” Last year, the $1.4 billion education budget left funding at status quo levels to the previous year, but a proposed $69 million cut in the Senate’s budget plan left school administrators sitting on “too many unknowns,” he said. Many states do multiple budgets, Stevens noted. The Legislature already splits the process into three separate budgets: the mental health, capital and operating budgets. An independent committee system is in place to go through each annual education budget plan, he said. And several states do handle their education budgets separate from other state operations. “It does create some concerns I have,” Stevens said. “Handling it early may be an attempt to reduce the budget along with everything else. But if we could get the basic money out, then they could add in funding that becomes available later on.” Getting a new system for education funding decisions earlier in the year could be done in one of two ways, Stevens said. One is the bill process. Stevens’ SB 131 may travel through the Senate independently, or become paired with similar legislation proposed (but not yet filed) in the House by Rep. Paul Seaton, R-Homer. The two legislators have “talked about doing this for a number a years,” Stevens said, in seeking a mechanism for finishing school budgets sooner. “Or it could be taken up at the Finance table,” Stevens said. This would bypass the lengthy bill vetting system and allow the Legislature to propose and pass a stand-alone education budget for educators this year sometime in April. If taken on the Finance Committee route, the budget could be debated in early February and March, allowing it to move to floors of the Senate and House. “That could be done early and really force the focus,” Stevens said. “(This bill) begins the debate and discussion, lets all sides have their say about what impact it has when budgets aren’t known and how we can fix this.” Six years ago, Stevens said he introduced a similar bill. In fact, he could dust off the sponsor statement to that bill, and it would be the same for SB 131, he said. “But interestingly, many of the districts opposed it,” he said. “They believed they would gain more funding if they waited until the final days of the Legislature. But we can adjust the funding later in the session.” The advantage of going the Finance Committee route is that changes could be enacted this year in the production of an earlier budget. But it wouldn’t enshrine in law an education budget deadline, he added. Rep. Harriet Drummond, D-Anchorage, chair of the House Education Committee and former chair of the Anchorage School Board, said she likes the concept of a speedier education budget process and will work with members of the House toward that end. “We should be done with the budget before the end of the school year,” she said. It’s becoming too common to stretch past the 120-day constitutional limit for the regular legislative session. In fact, this year landlords leasing apartments to legislators handed out 120-day leases, she said, instead of offering the 90-day ones they did in the past. The Legislature “playing at brinkmanship with the budget isn’t smart at all. It unnecessarily upsets people,” Drummond said. In Anchorage, of the 200 people handed layoff notices in 2017, “almost everyone of them was rehired. It’s already hard to get teachers here. We no longer have good salaries. What’s to attract them if they get treated like this?” ^ Naomi Klouda can be reached at [email protected]

King Career Center to transform into high school if board approves

A new technical vocational high school planned for Anchorage could involve hundreds of new partnership opportunities for local businesses to help shape an emerging workforce. Plans for the King Career Center, to be expanded and renamed the Martin Luther King Jr. Technical High School, are set to launch in August if approved Jan. 22 by the Anchorage School Board. The move could give businesses a greater investment in increasing Alaska’s high school graduation rates. Currently, Anchorage is at 81.4 percent, up from 2016’s 79.7 percent. That message came from Tam Agosti-Gisler, president of the Anchorage School Board, at the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce Make it Monday Forum Jan. 8. The discussion centered on how programs are aimed at creating a more literate workforce and increasing Alaska high school graduation rates. Superintendent Deena Bishop, Best Beginning’s Direct Abby Hensley, United Way Director Michelle Brown and Agosti-Gisler talked about education programs that are making good strides for K-12. Plans for a new high school are a bright spot, they agreed. “One opportunity will include ‘speed mentoring’ for high school students (like speed dating) which gives the potential employer more information about whether it’s realistic to take an internship on,” Agosti-Gisler said. “Or it could be on-the-job training. This could be in real estate, engineering, city management. We already have an audiologist signed up and KTUU in the school for marketing, sales and television internships, for example.” Beginning in the 2018-2019 school year, the district hopes to transform the King Career Center into a fulltime high school. After serving since 1974 as a vocational center for other high schools, the district plans to let KCC become an alternative high school and assume a new identity or “brand.” A big selling point in these days of slashed school budgets is how the school will be funded, Agosti-Gisler said. “Since KCC has never been an accredited stand-alone high school, its funding formula was based on the home school of the student,” she said. But as a smaller high school established in its own right, its base student allocation fee or BSA will generate a higher percentage per student. This will generate an estimated $1.2 million more in funding per year than the school receives now. “The formula is complicated, where larger schools receive less funding,” she said. East High School is the largest school in the state and it receives the least amount per student in state. Dimond High school, by contrast, is funded at a higher BSA, she explained, due to a lower student population. King Technical High will be in the small school category, similar to a rural school. “We will use the money to reinvest in the high school,” Agosti-Gisler said. The process for approving these changes was first read in a proposal before the Anchorage School Board Jan. 8, with final reading and a vote set to take place Jan. 22. If the board approves, it becomes a new high school. “There has been a lot of support, from the school board, the district and from the Education Commissioner (Michael Johnson),” Agosti-Gisler said. KCC Principal Lou Pondolfino said students will be selected in a two-step process: their names must be chosen in a lottery system that can accept 300 students, and they will need to fill out an application. “We are looking for juniors who have at least 11 credits and for seniors who have 16 credits,” Pondolfino said. They also need to have a 90 percent attendance record and a 2.0 GPA or better. “We have a caveat. If any one of the items are not met, then an interview can lead a student into the school,” Pondolfino said. Students that are accepted will be signing up for their regular core classes in “a design-your-own-education format,” he said. To design their own education, students and their parents, guardians or mentors create a Personal Learning Plan specifically for the student to prepare for college, trade school, apprenticeship, or to start on a career. The high school will have space for its part-time students, 400 in the morning and 400 in the afternoon programs, plus the 300 fulltime high school juniors and seniors, Pondolfino said. Currently, KCC offers 27 different programs, including aviation, auto and diesel maintenance, construction trades of welding, carpentry and electrician, personal nursing care, veterinary assistant, emergency medical technician and fire rescue. “Our belief from being in the education profession and knowing what colleges are looking for is that every student will need some kind of post secondary ed,” Pondolfino said. In some cases, the student will graduate job-ready from the high school in some form, he added. There will be an administrative learning curve in rolling out the high school academics, the principal anticipates. “We don’t know what we don’t know yet,” he said. The school district is excited by how the high school may contribute to its goal of “90 percent by 2020,” meaning increasing the current high school graduation rate from 81.4 percent in the district to 90 percent by the year 2020. “This could impact graduation rates, getting kids who in 9th grade are disenfranchised, not buying into high school,” Agosti-Gisler said. “It would give them an alternative to aim for (in 11 grade) to get them on track.” Naomi Klouda can be reached at [email protected]

Marijuana board chair explains resignation after change in US policy

The Alaska Marijuana Control Board will still consider license applications at its next meeting but could be one member short after the Jan. 4 resignation of chairman and Soldotna Chief of Police Peter Mlynarik. The Alcohol and Marijuana Control Office, or AMCO, will continue to process license applications for new cannabis businesses, according to a release from the agency issued Friday morning. Those scheduled to have their applications considered at the Jan. 24-26 meeting will need to be available to answer the board’s questions as usual, meaning the status quo will hold after U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded the “Cole Memo” issued in 2013 that established a federal policy of non-interference in marijuana operations legalized at the state level as long as federal priorities were followed such as keeping drugs out of the hands of minors and protecting against involvement by criminal elements. Mlynarik’s resignation was effective immediately and vice chair Mark Springer of Bethel, who holds the seat designated for rural Alaska, will be the acting chair until a full five-member board chooses its chairman after a replacement is named by Gov. Bill Walker. A 14-day application period is open until Jan. 18 for applicants who want to fill the vacant seat. Anyone with a background in public safety is encouraged to apply, said Austin Baird, the governor’s spokesperson. This gives another week for the governor to name an appointment, if he choses to do so, by the next board meeting. The Sessions action on Jan. 4 proved to be the tipping point for Mlynarik, who held the public safety seat and served on the Marijuana Control Board since its formation in the summer of 2015. “When the memo was rescinded by Jeff Sessions, I felt that is what legitimized the states to go with legal marijuana, and when that was removed, it pushed me over the edge,” Mlynarik said Jan. 5. “As a member of law enforcement, I couldn’t go with that.” Mlynarik served 22 years as an Alaska State Trooper, including as a detachment commander, prior to being hired as police chief by Soldotna in 2012. He said he’s always been in a position that upholding laws isn’t distinguished between whether they are federal and state laws. “You are still responsible for public safety. I’m not going to go contrary to the federal government and what their intent may be. If changes weren’t ahead, memos would have stayed in place. It’s no secret that AG Sessions is no fan of marijuana,” Mlynarik told the Journal. Inconsistent testing Another source of concern for Mlyarnik was a conclusion he reached after an unscheduled Jan. 2 board meeting that was called to discuss the proper response to emerging issues with product testing. The board debated for 45 minutes on what to do after receiving problematic news on inconsistencies at the state’s only two commercial testing labs. In one example, the labs differed by more than 4 milligrams on an edible product, which are limited to 5 milligrams of THC per serving by state regulation. Yet more troubling, Mlynarik said, was the dangerous Aspergillus mold detected during testing at one lab. That the same sample, tested at the other facility, failed to spot the mold. The board broached the topic of whether to shut businesses down until resolving the testing issue or to issue a consumer alert, and it ultimately voted unanimously to issue the alert. “I felt more should be done,” Mlynarik said. “Having labs that are accurate and what is given to the public is more important, and I felt it deserved a more proper response than a committee to look into it when the amounts of THC aren’t known and there’s mold in their products.” Mlynarik thought the board should halt the entire marijuana industry until they figure out how to obtain accurate tests. “(Cannabis) probably shouldn’t be allowed to continue to be tested through there. In my opinion, it was a public welfare issue, and we should put that first rather than the industry. It’s not the intent to hurt the industry, but the main reason is to protect the public,” he said. If the state’s marijuana businesses were shut down, he said, “you would get answers more quickly. If there’s no exigency, then who knows how long it will take?” Mlynarik’s said his overall experience on the board was satisfying. He volunteered to serve on the board after Alaskans approved marijuana for recreational use in a 2014 ballot initiative. “I wanted to be involved because I felt it was necessary to have a voice in the public’s safety and welfare on the marijuana board,” he said. But Mlyarnik’s dual role in law enforcement and as a rule-maker for the marijuana industry didn’t always sit well. When he helped push a petition on the October 2017 ballot that would have banned marijuana businesses outside the Kenai Peninsula Borough, it upset Soldotna and Kenai owners whose licenses had been approved while Mlynarik served on the board. The ban, if voted in, would have put them out of business. Tina Smith, owner of a marijuana education business called Midnight Greenery, testified to the board in November that the affirmative votes opposing proposed bans in Fairbanks and the Kenai Peninsula Boroughs spoke “loudly” in favor of the industry. Smith complained trust was eroded when Mlynarik “spent time trying to prohibit the industry instead of solidifying the public’s safety, as you were chosen to do.” In an email to the Journal, Smith wrote that she feels like “he is jumping ship, one that he never wanted to be on once it actually started to be a success.” What’s next for the MCB? The Alcohol and Marijuana Control Office issued a statement a day after Sessions’ decision to address industry concerns, but the office won’t be able to answer legal questions. Micaela Fowler, special assistant with the Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development said AMCO is issuing this public statement to all business owners: “(We) cannot provide legal advice to applicants or licensees, nor can we advise whether you should continue your application or alter your business practices. The Department of Law is still working to evaluate what the impact of rescinding the Cole memorandum will be for Alaska. “AMCO will continue to implement state law in close conjunction with the Department of Law, and as new information is available, will make every effort to inform licensees and the public.” A significant number of new license applications are already being poured over by the board for the Jan. 24-26 meeting in Juneau, Springer said. They will continue to process those, he added, and work on regulation projects such as onsite-consumption. But the biggest issue is the testing inconsistencies. “We’re going to ride that pretty hard,” Springer said. “I completely respect (Mlynarik’s) decision and I understand his reasons. I think it says a lot for his personal and professional integrity that he would chose to resign in the face of the removal of the Cole Memorandum. He’s also concerned about testing inconsistencies.” The next new board member will also come from the public safety sector. But that doesn’t mean it has to be a police officer, Springer said. The member could come from the Department of Corrections or a local fire department, for instance. “But I don’t think any other law enforcement officers would argue with Chief Mlynarik’s reasons for resigning,” Springer said. The professional conflict Mlynarik felt “was always one of the mines he was stepping over. “ Almost every meeting, Mlynarik would remind everyone in the room: “‘Look we are dealing with something that is still federally illegal,’” Springer said. But Springer said he feels no such conflict. He watched the back and forth of news debates after Sessions’ announcement. “What he issued was strictly a prosecutorial guide to U.S. attorneys,” Springer said. Nevertheless, Springer and other board members said they will miss the Soldotna police chief. “He was fair to all comers,” Springer said. “Careful on applications. Asked good questions. Voted yes more than no. I will miss him very much.” Naomi Klouda can be reached at [email protected]

US Attorney: No change to enforcement priorities after Sessions’ decision

Alaska’s U.S. Attorney and state marijuana regulators vowed to continue business as usual after Attorney General Jeff Sessions changed the previous administration’s enforcement position on Jan. 4. Sessions rescinded the “Cole Memo” written in 2013 that established a federal policy of non-interference in marijuana operations legalized at the state level as long as federal priorities were followed such as keeping drugs out of the hands of minors and protecting against involvement by criminal elements. The Sessions memo notes marijuana is still illegal as a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act, and instructs U.S. attorneys to follow existing “well-established” principles that govern all federal prosecutions. Those principles include “federal law enforcement priorities set by the Attorney General, the seriousness of the crime, the deterrent effect of criminal prosecution, and the cumulative impact of particular crimes on the community.” Given those principles, Sessions concludes, “previous nationwide guidance specific to marijuana enforcement is unnecessary and is rescinded, effective immediately.” Alaska’s U.S. Attorney Bryan Schroder said current enforcement priorities will not change. “The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Alaska will continue to use the long-established principles of federal prosecution to determine what cases to charge,” Shroder wrote in a statement. “One of the key principals is to follow federal law enforcement priorities, both at the national and local levels. The highest priorities of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Alaska are consistent with those of the Justice Department nationally: combating violent crime, including as it stems from the scourge of drug trafficking. Consistent with those priorities, the U.S. Attorney’s Office released an Anti-Violent Crime Strategy in October of the past year. We will continue to focus on cases that meet those priorities.” A similar statement was issued by Colorado U.S. Attorney Bob Troyer, who said he will continue focusing on the national priorities by Session that are topped by prosecuting violent crimes. The Anchorage Daily News reported Thursday afternoon on the resignation of board chairman Peter Mlynarik, who is also the Soldotna Chief of Police and campaigned for a ban on commercial cannabis businesses on the Kenai Penisula this past fall. Another member of the board was unfazed by the memo. “We have our direction,” said board member Loren Jones of Juneau, who holds the designated public health seat. “We’re moving ahead until we see some action. As I look at the news he (Jeff Sessions) is saying, ‘I will tell our U.S. Attorneys in various regions to enforce as they will.’ We’ll use our state regulations and our state laws until such time as that changes.” Named for Assistant Attorney General James Cole who authored it, the 2013 memo rescinded by Sessions followed legalization of recreational use of marijuana in Washington and Colorado in 2012. Several states, including Alaska in 2014, subsequently had successful voter initiatives to legalize recreational use. Others have voted to legalize medicinal use of marijuana, which has been legal in Alaska since 1998. The right to possess and grow small amounts of marijuana for personal use was established in a 1975 Supreme Court decision based on the Alaska constitution’s privacy clause. Overall, 29 states have legalized medicinal marijuana; eight states plus the District of Columbia have legalized recreational use; and 18 states allow for the use of cannabinoid oil, also known as CBD, which is non-psychoactive. Federal prosecutions for state-authorized medicinal marijuana use are already prohibited under the current fiscal year budget. Alaska has collected $5.5 million in revenue since it first began collecting marijuana taxes in October 2016. There may be a period of uncertainty for the 149 legal cannabis operators at work in Alaska, but there’s also support from the state’s top officials. State Attorney General Jahna Lindemuth said she is looking at specific actions to clarify what this means for the state businesses. “This creates uncertainty for those states with legalized marijuana. We are still evaluating exactly what this means for Alaska. But we have a duty to uphold and implement state law, and that is what we will continue to do,” Lindemuth said in an official statement. Gov. Bill Walker said the State of Alaska relied on federal assurances in crafting the regulatory framework on legal cannabis that now exists. “Alaskans voted in 2014 to legalize the commercial sale of marijuana. I remain committed to upholding the will of Alaskans on this issue and maintaining our State’s sovereign rights to manage our own affairs while protecting federal interests,” Walker said in a statement. “Today’s announcement withdrawing the Cole Memorandum is disappointing. I will continue to work with the U.S. Department of Justice and our Congressional Delegation to prevent federal overreach into Alaska.” Sen. Lisa Murkowski sent out a message on Facebook expressing disappointment with Sessions’ decision. “My office can confirm that we received notification from the Justice Department this morning that they intended to withdraw the ‘Cole Memorandum,’” she wrote. “Over the past year I repeatedly discouraged Attorney General Sessions from taking this action and asked that he work with the states and Congress if he feels changes are necessary. Today’s announcement is disruptive to state regulatory regimes and regrettable.” Because Congress makes the laws, the question now becomes whether the Republican-controlled branch of government will take action regarding marijuana enforcement to replace the Cole memo guidance. Rep. Don Young, a founding member of the Cannabis Caucus, has filed bills that require the federal government to respect state laws legalizing marijuana, to remove it from the Schedule I status, to allow financial institutions to do business with the marijuana industry, allow Veterans’ Affairs doctors to prescribe marijuana in states where it is legal, and to allow marijuana businesses to use the same tax deductions as other small businesses. Sen. Dan Sullivan, along with four other Republicans, was in a meeting with President Donald Trump Thursday morning. “President Trump himself had said on a number of occasions that this is a states’ rights issue,” noted Sullivan spokesperson Matt Shuckerow. The former aide to Young, who has long classified the issue as one of states’ rights and did so again in his official statement on Thursday, added that the Alaska delegation is “united in the cause to protect the rights of Alaskans to operate in their own borders and boundaries.” But support of declassifying marijuana as a Schedule I drug isn’t seen as the main route for aligning state and federal laws on marijuana, Shuckerow said. “There are numerous legislative efforts out there to bring in line or align state and federal law on marijuana in some shape or form,” Shuckerow said. “Rescheduling marijuana is one avenue that in many cases is seen to some as extreme — some don’t believe in legalizing it entirely on a federal level.” Sessions’ move may be the impetus that pushes legislation and debate to the forefront, which Sullivan acknowledged in his official statement. “Today’s action by the Department of Justice — which contradicts previous statements by the president that this is an issue best left to the states, and adds new confusion and uncertainty for numerous states and communities — could be the impetus necessary for Congress to find a permanent legislative solution for states that have chosen to regulate the production, sale and use of marijuana,” Sullivan said. “As we move forward, I will be examining new and existing legislative proposals and working to ensure the rights of Alaskans and the State of Alaska are protected.” During Sessions’ confirmation hearings, he told members of the Senate who pressed him on marijuana enforcement that, “If that’s something that’s not desired any longer, Congress should pass a law to change the rule. It’s not so much the attorney general’s job to decide what laws to enforce. We should do our job and enforce laws effectively as we’re able.” In a letter Walker wrote to Sessions last summer, he addressed “marijuana regulations and criminal prosecutions in Alaska,” in answer to questions raised by Sessions. In that letter from Aug. 14, 2017, he assured Sessions that the state’s regulatory framework governing state-licensed marijuana businesses addresses federal interests. But he also noted that Alaska’s resources are going toward addressing the severity of an opioid epidemic gripping the state. “State law addresses risks of diversion by requiring all marijuana to be tracked from seed to sale, requiring all marijuana waste to be rendered unusable, and ensuring marijuana businesses do not have associations with criminal organizations,” Walker wrote. Alaska’s Marijuana Control Board addresses “public health and safety concerns by controlling advertising practices, encouraging responsible consumption, and working to ensure the public is aware of the risk of marijuana,” he said. Other hallmarks of Alaska’s legal operations restricts access to retail establishments, prohibits retail stores from locating and advertising in proximity to child-centered facilities, and bans advertisements targeting youth. But the state also continues to refine laws and remains open to accommodating federal concerns, Walker assured Sessions.

Marijuana board issues consumer alert amid testing issues

Testing inconsistencies in marijuana show it may be anyone’s guess just how much THC comes in those edibles and joints. The information prompted the Marijuana Control Board to hold a quickly-scheduled telephonic meeting Jan. 2 to figure out whether to shut down the industry until testing for THC can be more consistent or to issue a public consumer alert. The board voted unanimously to put out the public notice, which warns consumers about a dangerous mold and inconsistent THC levels in products. Chairman Peter Mlyarnik contended he doesn’t have confidence in the commercial labs “because there is such a large swing” in their THC content results. He thought stronger actions should be taken than a public notice. Loren Jones, the Juneau board member who represents public health, said he didn’t feel the board was in a position to shut down the businesses. And there didn’t appear to be significant public health threat to justify shutting down the industry. “We need to give the consumer alert and move forward as quickly as we can,” Jones said prior to the vote. The alert issued by the Alcohol and Marijuana Control Office states: “AMCO is vigorously investigating these inconsistencies and has already initiated actions to identify and correct the processes or deficiencies that have resulted in these reporting inconsistencies. In the meantime, all consumers of marijuana and marijuana products are urged to exercise care and good sense in choosing and consuming marijuana. Inspect the products you purchase. Limit consumption to the appropriate serving size. Read and heed the warnings that are on every package. Your welfare is our highest priority.” The topic has been dogging the board for months now. Products that were sent to the only two commercial labs in the state — Steep Hill and CannTest, both in Anchorage — allegedly contain different amounts of THC. A difference of 7 percentage points between the two labs might be acceptable, Member Brandon Emmett told the board. But a difference of 50 percent “just isn’t.” Enforcement Supervisor James Hoelscher recently sent different batches of cookie crumbs, capsules and buds to be randomly tested. A chart he showed to the board indicated the products tested at higher concentrations of THC at one lab than at the other. Edible products are limited by regulation to 5 milligrams of THC per serving. One lab’s test results showed THC content as 4.4 milligrams. The other measured 8.8 milligrams. Nailing down whether it’s the testing procedure in the labs that tilt the variations or something in the cooking process form two of the biggest questions, Emmett said, who represents the industry on the board. In the meantime, a consumer alert should let the public know that some products may be much stronger than they think and to exercise caution. Hoelscher said he checked with labs in Colorado, Oregon and Washington to see if they too saw such wild variation between testing facilities. “They too are wrestling with how to get it to test out what they claim on the products,” Hoelscher said. But the variation spread is much smaller between labs in those states than Alaska’s, he added. There seems to be a larger testing crisis going on in Alaska than those other states, Hoelscher said. Mold was identified in a marijuana flower by one lab but wasn’t detected by the other lab, according to their public alert. A few of Alaska’s marijuana growers and manufacturers are facing a crisis after random testing turned up mold and enforcement officers removed their products from store shelves. One business received a clean bill on healthy plants when a lab tested the marijuana flowers. But state enforcement officers — sweeping through shops to do their own random testing — found that same growers’ weed was contaminated by Aspergillus mold, said Emmett. Aspergillus is a group of molds broadly found when autumn turns to winter in the northern hemisphere. Exposure can trigger asthma or bronchial problems, according to information provided by the Alcohol and Marijuana Control Office. It strikes local marijuana harvests as a soil microbe that can become airborne. “Aspergillus is quickly becoming problematic,” Emmett said prior to the meeting. “The Aspergillus problem is further reaching than we anticipated. It’s a soil microbe so it’s ubiquitous.” In early December, marijuana enforcement officers shut down a Fairbanks business, Frozen Budz, after Aspergillus mold was found in its cookies and other products. A series of violations by the company, which included failure to test products for potency and mold, producing edibles not approved by the board, and using untraced marijuana to make the products, led to the revocation of its license and a $500,000 civil fine. A significant amount of inventory sold to retailers by Frozen Budz was yanked immediately from shops to protect consumers, leaving the shops’ owners suffering revenue losses. The loss of inventory varied between $2,000 and $10,000 per store, according to figures from the enforcement office, Emmett said. Frozen Budz products were available at many marijuana retail stores from Fairbanks to the Kenai Peninsula. In addition to not being properly tested, the cookies, tea and dessert drops may have had inaccurate THC amounts per serving, said Erika McConnell, director of the Alcohol and Marijuana Control Office. “The products are labeled as having 5 mg of THC per serving, but in reality, each serving may have a great deal more THC,” McConnell wrote in a consumer alert. “Additionally, the products have not been tested for contaminants such as bacteria, fungus or mold. Consumers who have purchased products made by Frozen Budz should be aware.” Mlynarik said the board found the acts of this licensee “especially egregious” for the significant health risk posed in selling “products that were not safe, tested or tracked.” Frozen Budz owner, Destiny Neade has said she is looking at what her options are to appeal the board’s ruling. Given there are just two marijuana testing labs in the state, the variations between the two can’t be checked by another lab, Emmett said. That’s soon to change with testing facilities to open in Wasilla and Fairbanks. About 100 of the state’s 149 cannabis businesses utilize the labs as growers or product manufacturers. “This (meeting) is related in that the testing that was done on Frozen Budz products revealed inconsistencies between the two labs and in results for a particular batch,” Emmett said. “So the state tested samples of marijuana flower on the shelf in various stores. Some of those samples may have had different test results.” Why the variations? Plants themselves can carry differing potency strengths between buds on the higher elevations of the plant and those produced lower down, Emmett said. But having only two labs in the state isn’t providing enough back-up checks on potency and microbes. Another problem in Alaska is that in this new industry, there’s no history from testing marijuana like there is in Oregon and Colorado where potency tests on medical marijuana form a foundational knowledge, Emmett said. “If there are two, and slightly different results, it begs the question about who’s correct or who is not. If you had three or even five labs, it’s a lot easier to say this is the range you get between testing procedures,” Emmett said. “That’s one thing we want to address with this testing committee. What are the testing ranges? What are the procedures that they have to use? I’d like to see that standardized. There’s an accepted procedure for each and all have to be tested in the same way.” A committee to look at all matters around testing was established at a board meeting in November. It is made up of Emmett, AMCO staff, five industry members and 15 science and health professionals from around the state, including a biochemistry professor from University of Alaska Fairbanks and a chemist from the state crime lab. The committee will seek out a way to bring a more empirical uniformity into the testing process. Harvesters face a potential devastating set of losses when their marijuana is pulled for administrative reasons after testing. A typical harvest of 10 to 16 pounds is valued at $40,000 to $72,000; at $4,000 per pound, the loss of an entire harvest found tainted by Aspergillus can bring economic trouble to growers. Naomi Klouda can be reached at [email protected]

Extension keeps networks on GCI, talks continue over rate hikes

Testy negotiations continue over cost increases between GCI and the owners of local network affiliates but a contract extension will keep the programming on at least through January. “GCI has negotiated a contract extension so that the folks at Vision won’t turn off on ABC and CW tonight,” GCI said in an announcement to customers New Year’s Eve. Without the contract extensions ABC and CW would have been removed from GCI service statewide on Jan. 1; the Fox contract was set to expire Jan. 15. “Vision will also continue to let GCI provide Fox programming to our customers in January. The negotiations aren’t final and we’re not out of the woods yet but we are making good progress,” the release stated. Fox programming includes the upcoming National Football League playoffs. GCI offers 450 channels in Anchorage, and negotiates new contracts for each one of them, said spokesperson Heather Handyside. Cost increases on contracts are usually between 5 percent and 20 percent, but Vision I and Vision II, the owners of the Fox, ABC and CW affiliates, requested a 300 percent hike on a new contract, according to GCI. “That represents millions and millions of dollars,” Handyside said, though she declined to name the specific amount. GCI is using social media to keep subscribers informed, Handyside said. Matanuska Telephone Association, which also offers television cable packages, is having the same price issues in renegotiating its contract, according to a message to subscribers. MTA President Michael Burke said MTA stopped airing Fox on Jan. 1 after the same type of contract dispute over pricing occurred with MTA that GCI is describing. In price negotiations, MTA was counter-offered even larger prices each time they negotiated, he said. "We're open to putting them back on at a reasonable price, but for now we've lost the ability to keep the channel and if they are willing to adjust thier ask," Burke said.  One option is to view Fox over the Hulu platform, which streams television programs and movies online. That platform is available to all cable customers as well, he said. “The broadcast TV market has been changing drastically over the last few years and some corporate broadcasters are demanding incredible rate increases,” MTA wrote in a message to viewers, without mentioning Fox directly. GCI let the public know about its contract problems and also provided email and telephone contact information to Scott Centers, Vision’s station manager. GCI’s notice urged viewers concerned about the potential loss to contact him and voice their thoughts. Centers said he didn’t want to talk about the on-going negotiations. “I will not issue any comments at this time related to the negotiations with GCI and Vision Alaska,” he wrote in an email. Handyside said given the sheer number of contracts negotiated to air all 450 stations, GCI is always negotiating price and one- to five-year contract lengths with distributors such as HBO, Disney, ESPN and many others. “We do it successfully all the time,” Handyside said. “But every so often there is a programmer or broadcaster and we can’t meet their rates. It’s out of balance when compared with other stations that we pay. We do get into these very tense negotiations. And sometimes it takes awhile.” Each year, it’s an industry standard for programming costs to hike up, Handyside said. “The starting point is driven by sports content,” she said. “The thought is that these are expensive programs and cable companies should be willing to pay a premium for them.” But in reality, price increases can only be absorbed so long by GCI before it must pass on those costs to its subscribers, she said. And those hooked to cable is a dwindling number in each annual revenue report submitted by GCI. GCI lost 3,500 cable modem subscribers from third quarter 2016 to third quarter 2017, and 9,000 basic cable subscribers in the same period. The loss is attributed to Alaska’s recession and changing streaming habits. Fairbanks and Juneau GCI customers just got Fox, ABC and CW back after two months. The lack of a contract in November caused GCI to lose programming for its customers in those areas, a spat that apparently upset viewers in Southeast Alaska when they lost access to Sunday football games, according to an article in the Petersburg Pilot. But the January extension just agreed to on Dec. 31 between GCI and Vision restored the programming in Fairbanks and Southeast through January “and prevented the CW and ABC programming from going dark on New Year’s Eve,” Handyside said. Over the next few weeks, GCI will continue to negotiate with Vision. Another way to gain the content of ABC, Fox and CW is with the old-fashioned antenna system. All local stations are required under the Federal Communication Commission’s “must carry” rule. This made all local affiliate stations available to the public for free. Naomi Klouda can be reached at [email protected]


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