Governor's first year tops news statewide

Posted: Monday, December 29, 2003

ANCHORAGE - Wolves, salmon and bears competed for Alaska headlines but the state's top 10 stories in 2003, as determined by The Associated Press, start with a politician named Murkowski.

That would be Frank, the governor, not Lisa, the U.S. senator. She's farther down on the list.

Here are the Top 10 stories, plus some that almost made it:

• 1. Frank Murkowski's tumultuous first year

Fresh from being sworn in as Alaska's eighth governor, Murkowski was seemingly dogged by public relations missteps and contentious decisions.

The day after New Year's, Chief of Staff Jim Clark sent an e-mail ordering employees, from commissioners on down, not to talk to the press because policy had not been developed. Later, when the governor underwent emergency angioplasty, staff initially said he was suffering from dehydration.

Murkowski's picked a 20-something congressional aide to head the state's social services agency and his attorney general, Gregg Renkes, is also a former aide who has never practiced law in Alaska.

Murkowski axed a popular seniors program - longevity bonuses. He proposed several taxes, which the administration characterized as "user fees," and endorsed a failed sales tax bill in the Legislature.

He appointed a replacement state senator, Jim Elkins of Ketchikan, then unappointed him after Elkins made remarks Murkowski deemed untoward.

The controversy will continue. At year's end, Murkowski targeted more groups for taxes - smokers and cruise ship tourists.

• 2. Alaska's fiscal gap

Despite deep cuts in spending, the state does not take in enough money to pay its bills - unless earnings of the Alaska Permanent Fund are counted. That remains politically unpalatable. The Legislature makes up the difference by spending from a savings account, which is projected to run dry in 2007.

Solutions to the gap can be summed up in four words: Much talk, no plan.

House Republicans formed a Ways and Means Committee to explore new revenue. Its co-chairman, Rep. Mike Hawker, an Anchorage Republican, recommends taking a serious look at funding some state services with permanent fund earnings.

• 3. Predator control

The Alaska Board of Game, with six new Murkowski appointees, voted in March to kill wolves and move brown and black bears from the hunting unit near McGrath. The goal: give moose calves a chance to reach an age where they are less likely to be slaughtered by predators, and to build up moose stocks to allow village residents to hunt again.

Plans are proceeding for 40 wolf kills there and 100 more wolves in the Nelchina basin northwest of Cantwell.

Friends of Animals of Darien, Conn., vowed a tourism boycott if wolves were harmed.

• 4. Bristol Bay salmon lawsuit

Western Alaska fishermen sued salmon processors and Japanese importers in 1995, accusing them of fixing prices. Jurors heard four months of testimony, then took four hours to decide there was no conspiracy. Fishermen had sought more than a billion dollars. Lawyers continue to argue over how to divide $40 million paid by defendants who settled out of court.

• 5. U.S. Senate seat

The other Murkowski, Lisa, was sworn in after she was appointed late in 2002 by her father to his vacated U.S. Senate seat and faced grumblings of nepotism. Alaskans passed over for the appointment, including Fairbanks businessman John Binkley and Teamsters head Jerry Hood, hinted they might challenge her in the primary but one by one dropped out.

Murkowski's opponent in the 2004 general election likely will be Democrat Tony Knowles, the former governor. The first serious U.S. Senate race in 24 years will attract national attention.

• 6. Longevity bonuses

After the Legislature approved a state budget, Gov. Murkowski vowed to veto $130 million. The biggest chunk was $44 million for longevity bonuses, which gave checks of up to $250 per month to about 18,000 eligible seniors.

The program was created in 1972 to reward seniors who were in Alaska before statehood. It was expanded to include all seniors in 1984. Legislators eventually voted to phase it out by allowing no new participants.

Murkowski said the bonus was neither equitable nor affordable. But he had never mentioned his intentions during his gubernatorial campaign against Democrat Fran Ulmer and the move angered seniors who had backed him at the polls.

• 7. No Child Left Behind

Alaskans demonstrated how education reform designed for mainstream America might not be suited for Alaska by leading federal Education Secretary Rod Paige to Tuntutuliak and Savoonga. In June, the federal Department of Education bent some rules for Alaska but left others in place, such as a requirement that high school students in eight subjects be taught by "highly qualified" teachers. That usually means a college degree in the subject, which is unlikely in a rural Alaska high school with one to three teachers.

• 8. Priest abuse

The Catholic church remained on the defensive with revelations of abuse by priests. An Anchorage Archdiocese report said five priests sexually abused minors since 1966 and two others abused minors before they came to Alaska.

Archbishop Roger Schwietz, who commissioned the report, acknowledged that one was Monsignor Francis Murphy, the subject of an Anchorage Daily News special report in August.

In June, four former altar boys filed a lawsuit accusing a priest of molesting them as altar boys in St. Marys in the 1970s.

• 9. Ted Stevens and tribal sovereignty

U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens attached a rider to an appropriations bill that would have prevented Alaska tribes from getting Justice Department grants to fund their courts and pay their police officers. Money instead would have gone to the state.

Stevens followed that with comments on sovereignty to the Alaska Public Radio Network.

"The road they're on now is the road to the destruction of statehood," Stevens said, "because the Native population is increasing at a much greater rate then the non-Native population. I don't know if you realize that. And they want to have total jurisdiction over anything that happens in a village without regard to state law and without regard to federal law."

Many in the Native community quietly scrambled to negotiate with Alaska's most powerful politician but Vernita Herdman, advocacy coordinator for the Rural Alaska Community Action Program, dared to call Stevens' words racist language. Stevens said the accusation of racism "was a stain on his soul." Herdman paid for her remarks with the loss of her job, but she did not retract her statement.

• 10. Big Lake Chapel shooting

Early on April 24, Pastor Phillip Mielke heard a noise at his church over a homemade intercom system. He investigated, carrying a .44-caliber Magnum revolver. He confronted two men, Christopher Lee Palmer, 31, and Francis Marion Jones, 23, on steps leading to the basement. When they rushed at him, he fired, and he continued firing as they fled. Both died.

The tragedy touched off a debate about how far Alaskans may go to protect themselves and their property if they put themselves in harm's way. Mielke, 44, was put on trial in Palmer and acquitted of manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide.

Among the stories that could have been picked:

• Anchorage was transfixed in March when two young brothers, Malcolm and Isaiah Johnson, ages 8 and 5, disappeared without a trace from their southside home. Two weeks later, they were found drowned in a partially frozen pond about a half mile away.

• Two Malibu, Calif., residents, wildlife author Timothy Treadwell and companion Amie Huguenard were attacked and killed as they camped among brown bears in Katmai National Park and Preserve. Treadwell was known for getting within arm's reach of the animals in his passion to show how man and bear could coexist.

• Nome was shocked in August when a 19-year-old woman who had moved from Unalakleet, Sonya Ivanoff, was found shot to death. The community received a double shock when Alaska State Troopers charged Matthew Owens with the murder a day after he was fired as a Nome police officer.

• Wrangell was similarly affected in February when high school teacher William Gablehouse, 48, committed suicide after apparently killing his estranged girlfriend, Sheryl Roberta Nelson, her daughter, Shandelle Marie Nelson, and Sheryl Nelson's niece, Adrienne Shalon Nore.

• Among Alaska's unsolved mysteries: What happened to Bethany Correira, the 21-year-old former Talkeetna resident who disappeared from her Anchorage apartment May 3.

• Noteworthy Alaskans died in 2003, including former state Rep. Ramona Barnes, Alaska's first female speaker of the House; former state Sen. Frank Ferguson, a powerful Alaska Native legislator.

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