State briefs

Posted: Wednesday, April 10, 2002

National team to investigate Anchorage hotel fire

ANCHORAGE - The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms is sending a 25-agent national response team to Anchorage to assist with the investigation of a fire that destroyed a downtown hotel.

The 90-room Aspen Hotel was under construction and was scheduled to open June 1. It went up in flames at about 2:30 a.m. Tuesday. The loss was estimated at $4.9 million.

Fire investigators said two homeless men sleeping in the building escaped the inferno. The building's exterior was completed as was interior framing work. Contractors were installing drywall this week.

It's not known what sparked the blaze. Local fire officials will work with the federal agents, who are available when requested by local fire departments to investigate catastrophic fires and bombings.

The hotel would have been the fifth to be opened by Aspen Hotels of Alaska since 1999. The company also owns hotels in Valdez, Fairbanks, Soldotna and Juneau.

Sales agents had already collected about 800 reservations for the Anchorage hotel for the upcoming tourism season at an average room price of $135 a night.

Carol Fraser, a vice president with Aspen, said she was optimistic that the company will rebuild the hotel. The project was insured, she said.

'Fiscal realities' reduce penalties in DWI bill

JUNEAU - The sponsor of a bill to get tough on drunken driving has removed key provisions because they cost too much.

"I've had to swallow a very bitter pill here," Rep. Norm Rokeberg, an Anchorage Republican, told the Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday. But he said the bill still contains worthwhile elements.

Rokeberg introduced House Bill 4 last January in response to several high-profile fatal drunken driving cases in 2000, including an Anchorage case in which a man with six previous convictions of driving while intoxicated struck and killed a college student.

The bill passed the House last year and is now winding its way through Senate committees.

Rokeberg's latest version of the bill no longer calls for stiffer sentences for most DWI offenders. He said "fiscal realities" forced him to pare the bill's $4 million costs. The state is facing a projected budget gap of about $1 billion next year.

Marti Greeson of Mothers Against Drunk Driving said the organization recognizes changes had to be made to reduce the bill's costs and still supports it. But she also told the Finance Committee it could help pay the costs through raising alcohol taxes.

Senate fast-track bill gives Redistricting Board $50,000

JUNEAU - The Alaska Redistricting Board would get a fraction of the money it requested to complete work on the state's legislative map under a measure passed in the Senate on Tuesday.

Senate Republican leaders included $50,000 in a supplemental spending bill to allow the board to make court-ordered changes to the state's new legislative map. But the funding plan did not include $200,000 in unpaid legal fees incurred while defending legal challenges to the map in court.

Senate Republicans who crafted the bill included a provision that forbids the board from using any of the funds toward the costs of the legal challenge. But it would allow the board to hold a meeting in Juneau on Friday to consider alternate plans to fix the redistricting map in time for a June 1 deadline, said Gordon Harrison, board executive director.

Harrison requested $454,000 from the Legislature to fund the office and pay past legal debts. But that plan met stiff resistance from House and Senate leaders.

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