Alaska News Nightly: April 19, 2012

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Israel Keyes Pleas Not Guilty In Koenig Kidnapping, Killing

The Associated Press

The 34-year-old man accused of kidnapping and killing Samantha Koenig from an Anchorage coffee shack has pleaded not guilty to all charges.

Israel Keyes entered his pleas through his lawyer in U.S. District Court today in Anchorage.

A grand jury yesterday indicted Keyes in the death of Samantha Koenig. Keyes pleaded not guilty to charges of kidnapping resulting in death, receiving and possessing ransom money and debit card fraud.

Prosecutors believe that Keyes abducted Koenig on the evening of February 1 just as she was preparing to close the coffee shack for the day, and then killed her the next morning.

If convicted, Keyes could be sentenced to life in prison or death.

Sex Crimes Bill Ready For The Governor

Dave Donaldson, APRN – Juneau

The House and Senate have finished one third of the items on the agenda for the special session that began yesterday. Members expected fast action on the bill strengthening the state’s laws against sex crimes. It passed both bodies with no opposition. The Senate  passed the measure first Thursday – and later the House concurred with the single five-word change to the bill they had passed during the regular session.

Senate Hears Plan For In-State Gas Pipeline

Dave Donaldson, APRN – Juneau

The Senate has begun learning about the bill setting up the development of a gas pipeline from the North Slope to South Central and the rail belt.   The measure passed the House last month and had two hearings in its first committee of referral during the regular session. A re-written version returned Thursday for the first time during the special session. And sponsors focused on explaining the need for many of the elements the Senate had eliminated.

Legislators Extend Film Tax Incentive Program

Joaqlin Estus, KNBA – Anchorage

At the end of the regular session, legislators adopted a bill to extend a film tax credit incentive program for ten years. It will be funded at $200 million over 10 years starting in 2013. It adds to incentives created in 2008 so film companies will be able to get a base 30 percent tax credit for expenditures in Alaska, with additional credits for local hire, films made in rural Alaska, and during the off season.

As set up by Legislators in 2008, the film incentive program now allows filmmakers and producers to get tax credits for up to 44 percent of expenditures in Alaska. Senate Bill 23 would allow them to get tax credits for 58 percent or more.

Bob Crockett is president of the Alaska Film Group, a trade association with about 100 members. He applauds the extension of the program and several changes outlined in the bill.

“It calls for more transparency. It calls for more ground spread, more Alaskans on film projects. It increased the incentive from 10-20 percent for Alaska crew positions, and expanded the rural hire filming incentive to 6 percent,” Crockett said.

Industry representatives say it’s not uncommon for as much as half of a film’s budget to go into pay for the producers, directors, screenwriters and major actors, so-called “above the line” expenditures. Senate Bill
23 limits tax credits to 5 percent of above the line costs, but allows an increase of half the cost of expenditures paid to local residents, an idea new to Crockett.

“I like the concept where you tie above the line numbers to how much local hire and money to Alaska businesses. That’s a healthy concept. How it actually plays out for above the line is something we’ll have to work through and see if it works,” he said.

Wasilla Republican Representative Anna Fairclough was a member of a House Finance subcommittee that held several hearings and authored many of the changes to Senate Bill 23. She says she voted against the film tax credits legislation in 2008, and took this opportunity to address her concern about content.

“If 90 percent of the revenues Alaska receives are from development such as oil and gas exploration or mining, we wouldn’t want something, a movie, to display us in an inappropriate way or to shut down Alaska being able to provide that benefit to our people,” she said.

Fairclough says the solution is to create a Commission to review tax credit applications and scripts:

“And some would say that that’s trying to censor what we’re doing,” Fairclough said.

During the process, we didn’t hear subjective criteria that is being used to evaluate whether or not a film did or didn’t do that. So what the subcommittee did was recommend a commission be formed for that
review process and that they develop criteria. It still may be subjective to some, but at least criteria to measure a film against. So is it going to portray the people of Alaska in a positive way or negative way and is it actual and factual or is it something else.

That Commission will be made up of the heads of the departments of Commerce, community and economic development; Natural resources; Revenue; and Labor and workforce development. In deciding whether to approve tax credits, they’ll consider a film’s effects on job prospects, the Alaska economy, and public perception of state policy on natural resource development.

Senate bill 23 also shifts parts of the program from the Division of Commerce, Community and Economic Development to another state agency.

“We’ll plan a smooth transition where the incentive review and awards process is moved to the department of revenue and the department of commerce continues to be involved in the promotion of Alaska as a film location, and working on production coordination, and connecting Alaska businesses and workers to these job opportunities that come up,” Juanetta Airs, Director of the Division of Commerce, said.

Senate Bill 23 next goes to the Governor for his consideration.

Cleveland Volcano Ash Cloud Quickly Dissipates

The Associated Press

The Alaska Volcano Observatory says a brief eruption at Cleveland Volcano in Alaska’s Aleutian Islands sent up an ash cloud that quickly dissipated.

Geophysicist Dave Schneider says the cloud rose as high as 15,000 feet and dissipated in about two minutes. He says the cloud was not a hazard to aviation.

Schneider says the explosion at 4:38 a.m. Thursday was similar to small events at Cleveland Volcano since December. Those explosions created ash clouds that dissipated quickly and did not affect air traffic.

Cleveland Volcano is a 5,675-foot peak on an uninhabited island 940 miles southwest of Anchorage.

Scientists detected the explosion based on seismic information recorded at stations at nearby volcanoes.

Persistent Ice Slows Snow Crab Season

Stephanie Joyce, KUCB – Unalaska

Record-breaking ice in the Bering Sea continues to take a toll on the snow crab industry. Crabbers, processors and regulators met last week to discuss the possibility of extending the season. The inability to forecast the ice has everyone frustrated.

Last week marked a new low point for the Bering Sea snow crab fleet. With sea ice covering most of the fishing grounds and more than half of the fleet tied up in harbor, boats only managed to deliver one and half million pounds of crab. That’s the lowest weekly delivery so far in what’s already been an unusually slow season.

Although fishing did pick up over the weekend, the surge in activity might be short-lived. The extended forecast is calling for ice to cover the entire Bering Shelf – including most of the crab grounds – by the end of the week.

That doesn’t bode well for crabbers harvesting the remaining third of the snow crab quota by the time the season ends on May 31.

One possibility discussed at last week’s meeting was extending the snow crab season into June. Crabbers have been pushing the idea for several months now, but processors are less enthusiastic and Fish and Game is waiting to see how things play out.

“Our first option would certainly be to have the season done by the end of May,” says shellfish biologist Wayne Donaldson.

He says Fish and Game is concerned that extending the season will interfere with the snow crab molting and mating period. They’re also worried that it could affect the overfished tanner crab species. But Donaldson stresses that any extension is purely hypothetical at the moment.

“We’re still in the monitoring mode, just assessing the ice reports as they come out three times a week, trying to keep a handle on what the weekly harvest rate is. We still hold out some hope, although that hope seems to be diminishing by the week, that we could take the TAC by the end of May.”

The forecast isn’t promising. National Weather Service ice forecaster Kathleen Cole says the long-term outlook is for ice covering the fishing grounds until mid-May and she says even that might be optimistic.

“I will update this at the beginning of next month and as I look at it now, I see some areas where I think I’ve maybe gone a little bit too far, but I also see areas where I may not have gone far enough. In fact, the last ice to St. Paul is one that I’m thinking I may need to extend.”

That uncertainty makes the crab fleet nervous. As one crabber said at last week’s meeting, it’s hard to catch crab if you’re constantly running from the ice.

“All we need is some southerly winds, sustained southerly winds, but right now the next week doesn’t look very productive. So, unfortunately, we’re in a tight spot here: we just can’t get to where we need to get to. So, that’s just the way it is, I guess.”

The uncertainty for crabbers won’t resolved for another few weeks. Fish and Game has said it won’t decide until at least the end of the month whether to extend the snow crab season.

Nenana May Receive Additional Funds In Capital Budget

Emily Schwing, KUAC – Fairbanks

The city of Nenana could get $75,000 if the Governor signs off on the finalized capital budget bill.  The money will go towards a study that would line out the benefits and pitfalls associated with creating a new Borough or incorporating the Interior community into an existing Borough.

Officials Unsure Of Summer’s Tourism Outlook

Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks

Tourism officials aren’t sure what type of a season to expect this summer.  Numbers have been up and down since peaking in 2008, and then tanking the next year with the recession.  Fairbanks Convention and Visitor’s Bureau Director Deb Hickok says varying sectors of the market have performed erratically in the years since.

Hickok says interior businesses have largely weathered the tough years, but she’s cautious about the future.

Hickok provided an update to the Fairbanks Chamber of Commerce yesterday.  Among information shared were statistics that showed Fairbanks ranked 8th among Alaska communities in terms of overall visitation, and 3rd as an overnight destination with an annual direct economic impact of $115 million.

Alaska Native Leader Passes Away

Lori Townsend, APRN – Anchorage

A long time Alaska Native leader and executive director of the Nanuuq commission died recently. Charlie Johnson, an Inupiat from the Nome area passed away on April 12. He was 72. Johnson’s list of accomplishments and titles stretches across decades. He was a former chair of the Alaska Federation of Natives as well as a former leader of Kawarak and the Bering Straits Native Association. He is being remembered by friends and co-workers as a man who worked tirelessly for Native issues, but also stayed deeply involved with his family. Nanuuq commission deputy director Jack Omelak and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Susi Miller sat down to talk about their colleague and friend. Miller says Johnson built the nanuuq commission.

Memorial Held For Murdered Coast Guardsmen

Jennifer Canfield, KMXT – Kodiak

Over 800 people gathered in hangar three on the Coast Guard base for the memorial honoring Petty Officer 1st Class James Hopkins and retired chief petty officer Richard Belisle on Wednesday. Hopkins and Belisle were found dead in one of the buildings at Communications Station Kodiak by coworkers. KMXT’s Jennifer Canfield went to the memorial and created this audio postcard.

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