House set to OK permanent fund spending on pipeline
JUNEAU - The House of Representatives is poised to approve spending $7 million from the Alaska Permanent Fund to help develop a natural gas pipeline.
On a 23-15 vote, the House on Wednesday rejected an amendment to the supplemental spending bill that would have removed a $7 million appropriation from permanent fund earnings. Four Republicans joined with 11 Democrats in support of the amendment.
"Many of us promised we wouldn't use permanent-fund earnings without involving the public," said amendment sponsor Rep. Eric Croft, D-Anchorage.
The earnings reserve is used annually to pay dividends and protect the fund against inflation.
The Legislature has already taken millions from the fund since 1989 to resolve disputes with the oil and gas industry, said Rep. Mike Hawker, R-Anchorage.
Using $7 million for the gas pipeline is a "way for the people of Alaska to make a small investment in the pipeline," Hawker said.
A spreadsheet distributed by Rep. Norm Rokeberg, R-Anchorage, showed that almost $65 million has been taken from the fund's earnings account since 1989.
Most of that money - $48 million - has gone to the Department of Law to resolve disputes with oil companies over taxes and royalties, said Bob Bartholomew, chief operating officer of the Permanent Fund Corp.
The state also plans to spend more than $21 million from the general fund to develop the gas pipeline.
Education funding tied to retirement system reform
JUNEAU - The Senate Finance Committee approved an education funding bill Wednesday that holds up more than half the $70 million increase approved by the House until lawmakers reform the state worker retirement systems.
The Senate panel's measure would increase education spending by just $32 million unless changes are made to the Public Employees' Retirement System and Teachers' Retirement System.
The additional $38 million in the House measure is earmarked for retirement costs. Under the Senate committee version, those finds would be cut unless retirement reform is approved.
"It's certainly a carrot to address the PERS and TRS issue," said Sen. Con Bunde, R-Anchorage.
Schools will have to make cuts if the retirement bill is not passed, he said.
The 93-page retirement-reform proposal, Senate Bill 141, received its first hearing Wednesday in the Senate Finance Committee.
Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, said rising health-care costs, a three-year bear market and other factors have resulted in a $5 billion shortfall in the $16.4 billion retirement system.
Opponents of the Senate education bill said education funding and retirement costs should be addressed separately.
The issues are complicated and tying them together could have unintended consequences, said Bill Bjork, president of the Alaska chapter of the National Education Association.
He said he is concerned about a provision in the retirement proposal that would increase teacher contribution rates by 5 percent in 2007 and 2008.
House Minority Leader Ethan Berkowitz, D-Anchorage, said education and the state retirement system are separate issues and that funding for one should not be contingent on the other.
The Senate committee measure now heads to the full Senate for consideration. Once approved, it will go to a conference committee, where members of the House and Senate will work out differences between the two proposals.
The education funding bill is HB 1. The retirement-reform bill is SB 141.
Dorr gets 99 years for wife's murder
ANCHORAGE - A Superior Court judge has sentenced Robert Dorr to 99 years in prison for the 2002 murder of his estranged wife.
Judge Larry Card sentenced Dorr on Tuesday to 99-year terms for first-degree murder and kidnapping, and four years for misconduct involving a weapon. The sentences will be served concurrently.
Dorr, 53, will be eligible for parole in 33 years.
He was convicted in November of shooting 46-year-old Gail Dorr three times on Oct. 28, 2002, as she tried to escape from him at a gas station in the Spenard neighborhood.
He then shot himself twice in the head, destroying the hearing in his left ear but otherwise causing no serious damage.
Judge tosses Mardi Gras lawsuit
SEATTLE - A federal judge on Wednesday threw out a lawsuit brought by eight people who said they were beaten during a 2001 Mardi Gras riot in Seattle's Pioneer Square.
The eight sued the city of Seattle, former Mayor Paul Schell and Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske. They claimed police stood by and watched as they were assaulted, suffering skull fractures, brain hemorrhages, and broken noses and teeth.
But U.S. District Judge Robert Lasnik ruled Wednesday that the city could be held liable only if the actions of the police put the victims at greater risk than they faced to begin with - something that did not happen the night of Feb. 27, 2001.
Vastly outnumbered by the crowd of several thousand partygoers, police were ordered to stand along the perimeter of the crowd during the riot. Police commanders said they feared any move to dispel the crowd would only incite violence and endanger the officers.
Meanwhile, known gang members roved through the square, attacking people at random. Kristopher Kime, 20, died after being beaten as he tried to help an unidentified woman who had been assaulted. His attacker, later identified as Jerell Thomas, is serving 15 years in prison.
"One is inevitably left wishing the police stepped in sooner," the judge wrote. "The police in the midst of the emergent and fluid situation, however, did not have the luxury of complete information or unlimited time to consider the possibilities. ... Moreover, the Constitution does not require the police to make the correct decision at all times."
The city settled a lawsuit brought by the Kime family for $1.75 million and the establishment of an annual scholarship of $2,500 for a self-sacrificing, compassionate high school student.
NOAA report says Navy sonar likely caused orcas to flee
SEATTLE - Sonar pulsing from a Navy guided-missile destroyer during training exercises near the San Juan Islands two years ago was likely loud enough to send killer whales fleeing, according to a recent report from the National Marine Fisheries Service.
The report backed up local orca experts who said sonar from the USS Shoup caused a group of orcas to behave abnormally, apparently trying to avoid the sound.
That contradicts the Navy's previous findings that orcas in Puget Sound's J Pod seemed unaffected by the sonar coming from the Shoup on May 5, 2003.
Cmdr. Karen Sellers, the Navy's spokeswoman for the Northwest, acknowledged that the Shoup's sonar signals were the "dominant noise event" experienced by the orcas that day, but said the Navy maintains that the "biological significance" was minimal, The Sun newspaper reported Wednesday.
NFMS' 10-page report, dated Jan. 21 but not released publicly until March 10, said the Shoup's sonar was not loud enough to cause the whales any temporary or permanent hearing damage.