Alaska Digest

Wire reports

Posted: Thursday, February 24, 2005

Lawmaker's ethics amendment fails

JUNEAU - An attempt by a Democratic lawmaker to tack an ethics amendment onto a bill revising the state's criminal sentencing guidelines failed to pass the House on Wednesday.

House Minority Leader Ethan Berkowitz's amendment would have limited a state employee's holdings in any company with which the employee deals in an official capacity to the lesser of $5,000 or 1 percent.

The amendment failed 23-14. The vote was split mainly along party lines, with Republican Reps. Vic Kohring of Wasilla and Jim Elkins of Ketchikan voting yes along with 12 Democrats. All 23 House members voting no were Republicans.

Berkowitz's amendment follows the resignation of Gregg Renkes as state attorney general. Renkes faced conflict of interest allegations over his stock holdings in a company that played a role in an international coal deal Renkes was helping shape.

An outside investigator looking into Renkes' case found that Alaska has no limit written into law for the amount of a company's stock a state employee can hold while dealing with that company.

Renkes stepped down on Feb. 11, blaming continued political attacks for his resignation.

Berkowitz's amendment was being considered for a bill that would establish prison sentence ranges for certain crimes. The bill is being fast-tracked through the Legislature so that Alaska is in compliance with a U.S. Supreme Court decision made last year on sentencing rules.

The bill is up for a final House vote on today. The Senate has already passed it.

House Judiciary Chairwoman Lesil McGuire, R-Anchorage, said in a floor debate that the amendment had merit, but the sentencing bill was critical and not the right place for it.

Berkowitz "made his points today and there will be another time," she said.

Governor takes shot at workers' comp revision

JUNEAU - Gov. Frank Murkowski is taking another shot at workers' compensation revision this year with a proposal he says will make the system less expensive for employers and more efficient for workers.

But his plan could have trouble making it through the Legislature over objections from interest groups and lawmakers. A similar proposal died during the regular session last year and another was rejected during the special session last summer.

Labor Commissioner Greg O'Claray said Alaska has the second-highest workers' compensation premiums in the country, next to California. Rates have increased 36 percent on average over the last two years, he said.

Some small businesses have seen their premiums more than double over the last five years, he said. The costs for the Kodiak Island Borough, for example, went from $43,275 in 2001 to $88,573 in 2004, according to the labor department.

O'Claray said Murkowski's bill aims to lower the litigation costs and medical costs associated with the workers' comp system. The proposal caps medical fees paid for injured workers at levels set in 1999 and establishes a review committee to study the system and report to the labor commissioner in March 2007.

The proposal also would bypass the Superior Court and send appeals of claims to a five-member commission appointed by the governor.

Feds drop case against two forest protesters

JUNEAU - Federal prosecutors have decided to drop criminal charges against two protesters who donned U.S. Forest Service uniforms during a demonstration against President Bush's plans to revise the roadless rule in national forests.

Kenyon Fields and Corrie Bosman of the Sitka Conservation Society had faced misdemeanor charges of possession of a federal insignia for their part in last September's protest in front of the Forest Service's Sitka office.

The pair were arraigned last week in U.S. District Court in Juneau and a hearing was scheduled for March 17. It had drawn the interest of the American Civil Liberties Union, with the group's Alaska leader calling it a clear case of freedom of speech.

On Wednesday, First Assistant U.S. Attorney Deborah Smith said prosecutors had filed a motion to dismiss the charges, electing instead to send a letter of warning to Fields and Bosman.

Fields on Wednesday said he had not known the charges were being dropped nor had he received a warning letter.

"It was an unfortunate waste of taxpayer money and agency time," Fields said. "However, we're glad that someone with solid constitutional purview took a look at this and recognized our freedom to engage in this activity."

Smith said it was standard policy to issue a warning to first offenders.

The Sept. 7 demonstration outside the Forest Service office was in protest of the Bush administration's proposed reversal of the roadless rule in the Tongass National Forest and other national forests in the country.

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