Monthly Archives: October 2009

No Immediate Relief for Rural Alaska

Federal relief for Western Alaska residents is not on the way anytime soon.

More than two months after receiving news of the economic turmoil in Yukon river fisheries, the federal government has still not made any decision – for or against — the state’s request that an economic disaster be declared for communities in Western Alaska. Continue reading

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Rural Alaska is Not Satisfied

Frustration and anger of rural Alaskans at a legislative meeting in Bethel this week were directed at the Department of Fish and Game for its management of subsistence and commercial fisheries in Western Alaska this year that saw few openings in either category.  But the critics only touched one concern people have.

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New Energy for Cook Inlet

Cook Inlet Regional, Incorporated, today added another piece to help fill the long-term energy needs of the Railbelt. It uses Underground Coal Gasification – or U-C-G, a technology that turns coal into gas that’s ready to pump into the existing energy infrastructure – without mining.

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Coghill Gets Senate Appointment


North Pole Representative John Coghill has been chosen to replace Republican Gene Therriault in the state Senate.   Governor Parnell announced Coghill’s appointment in Fairbanks this afternoon.

I felt that Representative Coghill has some current and unique experiences. He’s a person of integrity. I’ve worked with him. I’ve seen him not only have and hold to his principles, but he’s able to listen to people of different views.  And he’s ready to treat people with respect and dignity.

Coghill is the current chairman of the House Rules Committee, a powerful position responsible for scheduling votes that  are scheduled on the House floor. Elected to the House in 1998, he previously served as Majority Leader. He is the son of former Lieutenant Governor Jack Coghill. The senate seat includes his own district in North Pole and the Valdez district.

The nine Senate Republicans still have to concur in the appointment. Coghill says he doesn’t foresee that as a problem – adding, “but you never know.” Asked about that, Coghill recognized that there are two separate sets of Republicans in the Senate – six are members of the Majority Coalition with Democrats, and four in an unrecognized minority. Both sets of Republicans must vote together on the appointment.

I have told people and indicated that the way the coalition is made up right now, I’m not particularly interested in joining that Coalition. But I’m not willing to say I won’t work with them either. So, I’m open to discussion, but I don’t anticipate joining the coalition at this point. There’s … mostly philosophically driven.

Coghill’s selection opens his House seat that Governor Parnell will have to fill by appointment. It also opens a restructuring of the House majority as members have to find a new Rules Chairman.


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Helping Pay for Higher Education


Governor Parnell wants to make a college education available to more Alaskans.   He outlined today (Tuesday) a merit-based program that would pay as much as one hundred percent of tuition costs at any university or job-training center in the state.   He told students at Anchorage’s West High School about what he sees as the Governor’s Performance Scholarship program.

You don’t need to be sharp for your own benefit.  You need to be sharp for Alaska’s benefit.  We need you to have your skills in tact and ready for the work force ahead.

The program would pay one hundred percent of tuition costs for every graduate with an A average,  seventy five percent for those with a B average and fifty percent for those with a C-plus average.  Those payments would go to students from any Alaska high school who has taken four years of math, language arts and science plus three years of social studies.   They could attend any university or job training institution in the state.

He says the funds for the scholarships would come from the earnings of four-hundred million dollars to be set aside by the legislature in next year’s session.

Getting the program through the legislature might be a heavy task, though.   House Finance Chair Mike Hawker says the announcement leaves a lot of questions unanswered.

Where exactly is this four hundred million coming from?  Is he planning on setting aside money that is already set aside in the Constitutional Budget Reserve?   I don’t know.   I have a real concern that the legislature last year didn’t set aside the Billion dollars that we need to forward fund K-12 education anyway.   We have to go back and come up with that money first this year.   But what is an Alaska graduating student?  Is it a student that spent four years in an Alaska high school or is it a student that transferred in a week before graduation?  A huge number of questions that will have to be answered before we can make an intelligent decision.

Hawker says he will also wait to see what other priorities are on the legislature’s agenda for the session.  For example,  he says meeting the needs of south-central residents will have a much higher priority for him.

Parnell says that twenty-two other states have merit-based scholarship systems.


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Secret Session: Anchorage Real Estate


The Legislative Council later this month (Oct. 27) will open a subject that is typically controversial among lawmakers – office space in Anchorage.

The Council is responsible for routine management of the legislature’s internal affairs.  Chairman John Harris says the lease is coming to an end on the current legislative building on Fourth Street … and the Council needs to consider its options.

We can legally extend the lease that we’re in now and we can expand on it some if the lease option is ten percent less than fair market value.   The other options are that we’ve talked to the Department of Administration on jointly doing something on a piece of property not too far away from the Atwood building in town here.  We’ve put out feelers or request for information from other folks around town on what’s available on what they could provide from either new construction or existing building, renovated buildings, whatever.

The public announcement for the meeting says it will mostly be held in executive session – which excludes the public from observing the discussion.    Harris says that’s needed so members can discuss the proprietary and financial information concerning the options available.  However, that draws the attention of Juneau residents who are committed to protecting the capitol. In past years, the  Council has debated  new meeting space for sessions and full-time occupancy in Anchorage.   Juneau Republican Cathy Munoz says she has talked to Harris about this particular meeting and says the subject warrants being held in private.

First of all, Rep. Harris contacted each of the delegation members down here in Juneau to assure us, well before the meeting had been scheduled, that this was very routine in nature, that there were planning to look at the specifics of that lease and make a determination on whether they wanted to continue in that particular space.

Munoz says she will be in Anchorage on another legislative issue and plans to attend the Council meeting.


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Governor Supports Child Health Care Increase


Health Care for children is rising in importance for next year’s legislative session.   Bills that would increase participation in the Denali Kid Care program have new support.   Sharon Leighow is Governor Parnell’s spokesperson.

The governor recognizes that many people have trouble affording health care. And Gov Parnell would support expanding Denali Kid Care eligibility limits to two hundred percent. Anything above that level and he would consider co-pays,  some form of co-pays.

A bill passed the Senate last year that would raise the cap on those families that could get complete medical care – primarily for children – from a family income of one hundred seventy five to two hundred percent of the state’s poverty level.  And others are pending that would allow parents who earn more than double the poverty level to purchase the coverage.

The increased level would add thirteen hundred children to the rolls.  Anchorage Democrat Les Gara – who has sponsored another bill — says the co-pay element would make health care available to another ten thousand children.   He says right now the government provides medical insurance for people who aren’t working.   And people some people get coverage as a job benefit.

We don’t provide the medical coverage needed to children of people who work who can’t afford medical coverage, right?  This isn’t an issue of giving out welfare benefits.  This is an issue of helping people get medical care for their children because the people they work for don’t offer health insurance.  For very little money,  we could allow families to buy into the Denali Kid Care program and every child in the state could have for very little money have health insurance.

Anchorage Senator Bill Wielechowski says having the governor openly behind the bill will help in getting the eligibility increased.

When you have alignment between the legislative branch and the executive branch it’s amazing the things that can happen.  Bipartisan alignment, you have Democrats who have supported this bill for years, you have a Republican governor who supports it.  I think it really is our best prospect of getting this passed that we’ve had in many years.

Wasilla Republican Wes Keller is chair of the House Health and Social Services committee and has two of the bills under consideration.  He says he anticipates one of them passing this session – saying the committee has two points to work on – first is how Denali Kid Care fits into the national health care debate,  the other is finding a way to structure the “co-pay” element of the plan.

Leighow says at this time, the administration will not introduce its own bill, nor is it part of the governor’s agenda,   but she says that the governor is prepared to accept what the legislature sends him.


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Judge Hears Motion to Dismiss Pension Suit


Attorneys yesterday (Wednesday) argued the merits of the state’s eleven Billion dollar lawsuit against Mercer, Inc.  That’s  the actuarial consulting firm that was advising the state at the time the Retirement Systems began to develop their current financial shortfall.  The Retirement Management Board has charged Mercer with malpractice, breach of contract, fraud and misrepresentation.

Supporting a motion to dismiss the case,  Mercer attorney Wes Howell said the state has not linked any specific charge with any specific amount of damage.   Additionally, he said the state did not follow the advice that Mercer had given to prevent the problems. As an example,  he said that in 2002 Mercer recommended the employer contribution to pension benefits be increased to nearly twenty five percent.  But that never happened.

In fact, the contribution rate that was adopted was not 24.91,  but 11.77.  and yet at the same time they are saying they relied on the 24.91 recommendation and implicitly saying if we’d recommended 30 they would have done something different.  When in fact they rejected – or decided consciously – not to follow the recommendation that had been made by Mercer in 2002.

Arguing against dismissing the case, the state’s attorney Lew Clayton said the links can be made in trial, not in a motion hearing.   He argued that if the retirement system’s true financial condition had been known, the state could have taken steps to avoid the shortfall.

He also cited cases of unqualified people servicing the account,  failure to consider information the state had pointed out,  and he said Mercer concealed the correct information.

They lied to us for years about the findings they had made.  They were hired – and the complaint says this, it comes out of their own mouths – they were hired with one paramount purpose in mind:  to calculate the liabilities of the plan, to give us advice about what contribution levels to set,  because they knew exactly how we were relying upon that advice.  How do we know they knew?  Their sworn testimony, their own documents.

The state is asking for two-point-eight Billion dollars in injuries, plus triple that amount in damages,  and an unspecified amount in punitive damages.

The judge asked for more, written information before making a decision on the motion to dismiss.  Trial is now scheduled for next Spring, but that could be delayed.


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Pension Suit in Court Today


State Attorneys this afternoon (Wednesday) will explain in court their eleven Billion dollar lawsuit against the company giving actuarial advice when the state’s shortfall in pension funding arose.

At their most recent audit, the Public Employee Retirement System and the Teacher’s Retirement System showed a combined actuarial shortfall of seven and a half Billion dollars.  The state claims that Mercer, Inc.,  was guilty of malpractice, breach of contract, fraud and misrepresentation while it was under contract to calculate the amount of money that employers should contribute to their workers’ retirement plans.

Mercer says the state is incorrectly blaming the company for investment losses, increases in health care costs, and decisions made by the retirement board that counteracted its advice.  The company says its advice is only an estimate – not the results of an exact science.  It also points to the legislature that did not follow their advice.

The state is asking for two-point-eight Billion dollars in actual damages it links to Mercer,   triple that amount for damages and unspecified punitive damages from the company.

This first hearing is on Mercer’s motion to dismiss the suit.


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Bill Walker Announces Bid for Governor’s Office

9/28/09 Anchorage attorney Bill Walker today (Monday) added his name of those running for the Republican nomination for governor in next year’s primary election. Walker is a former Mayor of Valdez where he is now city attorney . He has also become the spokesman for those supporting an All-Alaska gas line from the North Slope to Valdez where it would be liquefied and shipped to off-shore markets. Walker says while there are many Alaska issues that concern him, his focus is on energy.

The overriding issue for me is the cost of energy in our state. And the gas line is a piece of that. And I am frustrated as I watch other countries, other host governments, develop their projects and announce their projects and we do not.

He says he favors a state-owned gas line from the North Slope completely within Alaska – built and operated by the private sector. He said with strong U-S gas supplies now, the state should be looking to world markets as well as to the lower forty eight for customers. He is supported by former-governor Wally Hickel – who shares his views on an in-state gas project. Walker is well-known for his advocacy of an All-Alaska gas line. However, he says he’s getting ready to show the public that he is interested in other issues – and that he’s concerned about Alaska’s future generations that need a replacement for the wealth that has come from oil production and from the TransAlaska Pipeline system.

The TAPS has been good to us. Alaska has done well by TAPS and we owe it to the next generation that our resources get to Alaskans and we need to provide the economy that we have grown accustomed to.

Walker has a website outlining his position on the gas line – as well other issues he is concerned about. That is at So far, his only opponent in the Republican primary is Representative John Harris, former speaker of the state House of Representatives. Harris was also a Mayor of Valdez. Governor Sean Parnell has indicated that he plans to run, but has not yet taken the formal steps to be on the ballot.


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