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Updated: 2 hours 15 min ago

Lawmakers lack the guts for more cuts

2 hours 38 min ago

It is time to face cold, hard reality. Our lawmakers are unwilling, even uninterested, in further cutting government spending. It's too hard, they complain, and besides, we already have cut a bunch. It would cause an eons-long recession, they say, and employee unions will not like us. You cannot cut enough, anyway, to close the $3 billion budget gap, so "why try?" they ask.

In this latest round of budgetary despair — and they happen every 20 years or so — there was no meat ax taken to entire departments or programs to help close the budget deficit. There never was going to be. Instead, the governor and lawmakers nibbled here, and scratched a little there, but, in the end, one of two outcomes almost is certain: nothing will get done, or they will hand Alaskans the sticky, short end of the stick.

[After a marathon on amendments, House passes budget 22-17]

It reminds me of the late Gov. Wally Hickel, who declared during his campaign as an Alaskan Independence Party candidate he was going to, by golly, slash the number of state employees if elected. Within days of arriving in Juneau as the state's top executive, a news guy asked something to the effect, "Have you started cutting state employees?" Hickel huffed and said, "You can't do that."

Democrats, leading the House because three GOP members switched teams, have passed their version of Gov. Bill Walker's $4.2 billion budget. The caucus — despite a spirited and laudable tussle from the GOP minority — either cut an embarrassingly thin sliver, $32 million, from Walker's budget proposal or actually bumped the spending plan up, depending on whose mumbo-jumbo you believe.

If you were fretting the Democratic caucus would shutter the lawmakers-only legislative lounge or fricassee its chef — and, really, who was not? — you can breathe a sigh of relief. All are safe.

The Republican-led Senate is looking at slicing only about $180 million, along with about $60 million — or 3.75 percent — from Walker's proposed $1.6 billion education spending. Altogether, the cuts by both chambers amount to squat, an itsy-bitsy percentage of the deficit and a tiny percentage of the overall budget.

[Repubican bill would pay bigger PFDs, pull more cash from state savings]

Now that it is clear the Legislature has no stomach for real cuts to help close the gap, what's next? You. And the Permanent Fund.

House Bill 115 annually would make available to the Legislature 4.75 percent of the Permanent Fund, based on a five-year average. Thirty-three percent of that amount would be available for Permanent Fund dividends; 67 percent for government.

The measure also packs in a state personal income tax amounting to 15 percent of an individual's total federal income tax bill, or $25, whichever is greater — and takes a slice of any capital gains. It remains to be seen whether including a tax and Permanent Fund language in one bill violates the Legislature's single-subject rule for legislation.

Alaska had an income tax that started small in 1949 and blossomed until it was repealed in 1980 as oil dollars flooded into the state treasury. Liberals have lamented its demise since. One can only wonder at the size and scope of the new bureaucracy needed to implement such a statewide pay cut, er, tax.

The House legislation is rapacious government doing what rapacious governments do. The measure boils down to handing you money, taking it back if you are a productive, employed citizen and then laundering it back through government. It is little more than a scheme to redistribute wealth while the state is sinking into a recession, a time when increased taxes of any kind should be anathema.

To reach this point, the Democrat-led House caucus had to cut off debate from the budget-cutting GOP minority which found umpteen places to trim, prohibit words such as "bureaucrat" or "slush fund" because they might hurt somebody's feelings — and decide the state is more important than you. (Surprise!)

The upper chamber is taking a different tack. Its Senate Bill 26 sets an unrestricted general fund appropriation limit of $4.1 billion annually that cannot grow "by more than the cumulative change in inflation since July 1, 2016. …" It would make available for distribution 5 percent of the Permanent Fund's average market value, based on a rolling average. Twenty-five percent would go to dividends.

The Senate measure, it should be noted, contains no income tax.

Count me among those who believe — know — state government should be cut further before taxing Alaskans twice by taking half or more of their Permanent Fund dividends and levying an income tax. The House income tax, by all accounts, and thankfully, likely is dead on arrival in the Senate.

That leaves the Permanent Fund as the only real answer. That's good for state government and those who profit from it.

Maybe not so good for you.

Paul Jenkins is editor of the AnchorageDailyPlanet.com, a division of Porcaro Communications.

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary@alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@alaskadispatch.com. 

Buying a house that may have been flipped? Here's how to avoid costly mistakes

2 hours 56 min ago

Television dramas have replaced foreclosures and short sales as the main motivator for amateur investors to try their hand at "flipping" a home. TV shows chronicle real-life decisions and ordeals as flippers learn costly lessons before finally selling the property and recouping their costs — plus, hopefully, a tidy profit.

A recent report from RealtyTrac and ATTOM Data Solutions indicated that flipped homes made up 5.7 percent of the nation's home and condo sales, with units sold in 2016 up 3.1 percent from 2015, the highest level since 2006. (A flipped home is defined as one purchased, repaired and upgraded, then sold to another buyer in less than 12 months.)

However, what happens after the cameras call it a wrap and leave?

A recent CNBC real estate report showcased a segment on flipping — from the perspective of a couple of unfortunate buyers. The nightmare started when a Washington, D.C., inspector called to see the home six months after the buyers purchased it. Even though the buyers had a home inspection done, the result of the visit was a list of permit, code and zoning violations estimated at more than $100,000 to fix.

While you might think that situation couldn't happen here, Anchorage's aging housing inventory creates potentials for flipping. As a buyer what can you do to avoid purchasing a "flop"? Here are a few questions to ask the owner/flipper of that newly renovated home:

  • Was a home inspection done when the flipper purchased the property? Any before photos?
  • What work was done? Are there receipts? Is any of the work under warranty?
  • Did a licensed contractor perform the work?
  • Were permits obtained? Were inspections conducted and the permits closed out?

If you structurally change a home, a building permit is needed. This sets the expectation that the flipper/contractor adheres to structural building code standards for such things as: footing/foundation, structural framing, plumbing, mechanical, electrical, well and septic systems, fire code compliance, zoning, drainage and flood hazards, and more.

A municipal inspector, as the unbiased professional, verifies that the work meets building code standards during certain set points of work. For example, before the Sheetrock is put up, the plumbing and electrical are inspected. Any code violations are noted for the contractor to complete. Once items are corrected, a final inspection is done; then the permit is approved and closed out. This protects the new homeowner by ensuring the contractor does not overlook building codes or health safety issues.

Permits are not required for the following examples of common remodeling work:

  • Fences under 8 feet;
  • Painting, tiling, carpet, cabinets, countertops or similar interior items;
  • Window and door replacement of the same size as the original.

Open or expired permits can cause problems when the new homeowner does work that requires a permit. Beside concerns the original work may not have been done to code, or that critical items have not been completed, the potential exists for: fines, the additional cost to complete unfinished work, and the cost to have an inspection to verify work was completed properly.

Some information may be provided on the state-required property disclosure statement. However photos, receipts, a previous home inspection and work description can help clarify if the work was cosmetic or structural. Understanding warranty limits (if any) gives you an idea of your exposure.

For more information and frequently asked questions about permits, checking if a contractor is licensed, and zoning requirements, go to the Anchorage municipality's website (www.muni.org/bsd).

If you want to check permits for a specific property, look at the lower right side of the page under "Quick Links" and click on "Permit Status." Scroll down, key in the property address to search for any permits for a particular property. To talk to a live body about specific questions regarding the above topics, contact Building Safety at 907-343-8211.

Alaska fisherman lobby Navy to delay training exercises scheduled for May

3 hours 1 min ago

 

The required permits are not yet in hand, but the U.S. Navy is moving ahead on plans to conduct war training exercises in the Gulf of Alaska for two weeks in early May.

Meanwhile, nine coastal communities have signed resolutions asking the Navy to instead conduct its training between September and mid-March, less-sensitive times for migrating salmon, birds and marine mammals.

"It's not that we don't want the Navy to do their training — it's the time and locations," said Emily Stolarcyk, program director for the Eyak Preservation Council of Cordova.

"The community resolutions say that we are the people who depend on commercial, subsistence and recreational fishing," she added. "The Navy exercises are planned during the most important breeding and migratory periods for salmon, birds, whales and marine mammals. About 90 percent of the training area is designated as essential fish habitat for all five species of Pacific salmon. May is the worst time to be doing this."

In the 43 years that the Navy has conducted war games in the Gulf, they have occurred only twice in May — 2007 and 2008.

The Northern Edge joint training exercises include nearly 6,000 military participants "on and above central Alaska ranges and the Gulf of Alaska" according to the Alaskan Command Office of Public Affairs at Joint Base Elmendorf Richardson in Anchorage.

The Gulf portion includes an area from 12 miles off the Kenai Peninsula to 140 miles out. Live weapons will be used in and above the water, said Capt. Anastasia Wasem at a Cordova presentation. She could not reveal specifics, but said weapons will include exploding projectiles, sonars, small arms, machine guns and naval gun shells. Three Navy destroyers and a submarine will be on the water. No independent observers will be allowed to participate.

The Navy does not yet have a required letter of authorization from the National Marine Fisheries Service, nor have they published a final record of decision. The paperwork is "forthcoming" according to Navy documents dated July 2016, the most recent updates describing the training exercises.

The Eyak Preservation Council is sending letters to all Alaska fishing permit holders asking them to contact decision makers about moving the time of the Navy training.

"It contains a letter for fishermen to sign and send to U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) with an option to send a courtesy copy to the NMFS and Pacific Command," Stolarcyk said.

Last September, Murkowski wrote a strongly worded letter to the Secretary of the Navy saying the Navy needed to do a better job of involving local communities and "listening to stakeholders."

Sen. Dan Sullivan also has encouraged more direct engagement with Alaskans to "clear up some of the confusion and misinformation."

"As an Alaskan, Sen. Sullivan understands the importance of our fisheries and our coastal communities, and would never support an exercise that he believed would adversely affect Alaska's fish stocks or prevent fishermen from doing their jobs," Sullivan's office said in an email message. "The senator will continue to encourage productive and science-based dialogue between the U.S. military and Alaska's coastal communities."

Stolarcyk remains hopeful the congressional delegation and the Navy will respond to the concerns of coastal Alaskans.

"This is the water that we depend upon at the time we depend on it most," she said. "I am hopeful they can understand that it's not just about what they need — it's about including the needs of communities that depend on these waters for sustenance."

Learn more about the Northern Edge exercises here and here.

High halibut prices

Catches of Alaska halibut have picked up after wild weather got the fishery that opened March 11 off to a slow start. Catches by Friday topped 800,000 pounds from 137 landings with Sitka leading all ports, followed by Seward, Kodiak and Homer.

The prized flatfish was fetching big prices, up 30 cents a pound on average, compared to the early weeks of the fishery last year.

Halibut prices usually are broken into three weight categories. Kodiak prices were said to be fluctuating quite a bit with reports at $6.45 a pound for 10 to 20 pounders; $6.75 for 20 to 40's and $7.00 a pound for "40 ups."

Juneau and Homer were reporting a straight $7 per pound, and halibut deliveries in Southeast were paying fishermen $6.70, $6.90 and $7 per pound.

Buyers weren't beating down the doors, said several major buyers, and there are reports of halibut holdovers in cold storage. It remains to be seen if the prices will remain this high throughout the eight-month season.

The best fish story comes from Southeast where halibut fishing is said to be "fantastic" and the fish are robust and big. One major buyer said nearly half of their halibut landings were in the most popular 20 to 40-pound weight class and just 31 percent were smaller sizes.

Nearly 2,000 hook-and-line fishermen hold quota shares of Alaska halibut. Alaska's share of the coast wide catch this year is just over 18 million pounds. The Pacific halibut fishery remains open through Nov. 7.

Herring hauls

Sitka Sound traditionally kicks off Alaska's roe herring circuit and this year's harvest may be a good one.

Some fishermen maintain this is the most herring they had ever seen. A three-hour and 20-minute opener March 19 followed by a 15-minute opener March 22, brought the total catch to about half of the 14,647 ton quota. Fishermen were awaiting word of another opener while processors were hustling to handle the herring hauls.

Female herring are valued by Asian buyers for their roe as a percentage of body weight, and the Sitka fish were averaging good roe counts of 11 to 12 percent. Fishermen averaged $250 a ton last year and market reports suggest a good chance of higher prices this season.

A herring pound fishery near Craig and Klawock could be next.  Fishermen there can catch 349 tons this year and place them in enclosures that contain blades of kelp that hold the sticky herring spawn, prized by buyers.

Kodiak's herring season begins in mid-April, with the harvest set at a conservative 1,645 tons.

"We expect an increase in the herring biomass but it will be mostly younger 3-5 year old fish. Thus, the smaller quota," said area manager James Jackson at the local Alaska Department of Fish and Game office.

Alaska's biggest herring fishery occurs in May at Togiak in Bristol Bay. The harvest this year is pegged at about 30,000 tons, based on estimates by state managers.

Money for herring management for all areas but Sitka Sound was zeroed out in the state budget two seasons ago. That has eliminated the sampling necessary to accurately gauge herring stock abundance and age classes.

"For us the bigger impact is that we can't produce a good forecast for Togiak herring because we didn't do the sampling," said regional manager Tim Sands at Dillingham. "The data gap will cycle through our whole population estimate. Togiak herring live more than 12 years, so even if we were to start sampling again this year, we'll have that data gap for at least eight years."

Togiak fishermen in 2016 received just $100 per ton for roe herring.

Laine Welch is based in Kodiak and writes a commercial fishing opinion column published by several Alaska newspapers. Reach her at msfish@alaskan.com.

Theoretical budget cuts and standoff on taxes threaten Permanent Fund

3 hours 58 min ago

Any fiscal plan for Alaska that relies on implausible future events is not likely to succeed.

Legislators in Juneau say they've come up with miracle plans that solve the state budget challenge without the need for taxes, but let's look at the unlikely things they are counting on.

Leading that list are the pledges from Republicans in the House and Senate that they will discover hundreds of millions more in unidentified budget cuts after we begin drawing billions  from Permanent Fund earnings to pay nearly half the cost of government services.

Forget for a moment the hundreds of millions a year we will need to keep buildings from falling into disrepair, the annual fixed-cost increases that bedevil simplistic analysis and the demands of Alaskans for a system that works.

Choose the right assumptions and anything will pencil out.

It's one thing to declare, as 10 Republicans have done in House Bill 192,  that the Legislature intends to "reduce the state operating budget by $600,000,000 over the next four fiscal years." Or for the Senate to announce that it can cut $750 million in three years, while skipping over the elimination of 10,000 jobs and the severe economic fallout across the state.

[Alaska spends far less on government than it did two years ago. But is it 'right-sized' yet?]

The three Fairbanks senators — Pete Kelly, Click Bishop and John Coghill — are planning a "Budget & Burgers" session Friday at noon in Fairbanks on the Permanent Fund bill, Senate Bill 26, which is being promoted as the "complete solution" to the budget problem.

"The Senate believes that government should be restricted and that people should be free, as evidenced by the fact that we don't want an income tax," Kelly said in his latest Facebook posting.

"The House believes that we should do that, that we should actually tax people's work, put a cost on having a job here, so that we can give more money to government," Kelly said.

Of course it's far more complicated than that.  Most people realize that what would be the fourth lowest income tax in the U.S. is not the dividing line between people who love freedom and those who hate freedom.

The Senate plan is incomplete.

Alaskans want a state with good schools, functioning public facilities, maintained roads and airports,  public safety and the other blessings of freedom. The budget has been cut by billions and more reductions are coming.

Experts on the Alaska economy who understand the stakes realize that a variety of steps are needed.

"While we also believe that broad-based taxes, tax discipline and spending discipline are necessary components of a fully sustainable fiscal plan, we absolutely agree that this is the largest, most effective and efficient action available to significantly close our fiscal gap," wrote Joe Beedle, chairman of Northrim Bank, and Joe Schierhorn, president and CEO of Northrim, about SB 26.

SB 26 would use nearly $2 billion in Permanent Fund earnings to help pay for government, set the dividend at $1,000 and leave us with an annual deficit that could easily reach $1 billion, given future expenses facing the state.

The senators say not to worry about deficits because they will cut the budget in ways they have not identified with consequences for Alaska that they have not described after Permanent Fund earnings are part of regular revenue.

For 35 years, the unwritten law about treating Permanent Fund earnings as suitable only for reinvesting in the fund and paying dividends has been as much a part of Alaska as eight stars of gold on a field of blue. But we have a deficit that is nearly incomprehensible and requires a drastic change.

If the state decides this year to use the Permanent Fund to cover a big chunk of the deficit, we will see a shift in the political psychology of Alaska.

Let's recognize this. After that tradition ends, don't expect enormous budget cuts or tax fights. Rather than face the wrath of angry constituents, the tendency will be to put a few lines in the budget to transfer money from Permanent Fund earnings as needed.

Disconnected from the "hands off" Permanent Fund policy, it will be relatively easy to put language in the budget taking $100 million or $300 million more for this or that unexpected event.

Cutting the budget or establishing new taxes would be much harder.

It's easy to promise now that budgetary discipline will rule the future and that hundreds of millions will be cut some day, but when the moment of truth arrives for Alaskans and their elected leaders, the path of least resistance will lead right to the Permanent Fund.

Broad-based taxes could serve as a partial check on withdrawals from the Permanent Fund, but once new habits about spending the earnings take hold, the push for a balanced fiscal plan and new taxes will lose momentum. And separating the size of the dividend from the performance of the fund will encourage a rate of withdrawal that can't be sustained for generations.

The House Finance Committee is considering the revised version of an income tax that would generate about $680 million a year. It would have an effective tax rate of 1.66 percent,  the fourth lowest in the U.S., behind North Dakota, Arizona and Louisiana, according to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy.

Many legislators are saying otherwise, but without an income tax and spending restraint over the long term, there's a good chance the Permanent Fund and the dividend are doomed.

Columnist Dermot Cole can be reached at dermot@alaskadispatch.com. 

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary@alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

New study maps out Alaska potential for critical minerals

4 hours 15 min ago

A new look at Alaska's geology has produced an up-to-date inventory of known and potential mineral deposits around the state.

The inventory, in a new study issued by the U.S. Geological Survey, identifies areas likely to hold minerals ranging from gold — the glittering metal that famously drew thousands of fortune-seekers in early territorial days — to obscure rare-earth elements that are used in ultramodern, high-technology devices.

The study, a collaboration of the USGS and the Alaska Division of Geological and Geophysical Surveys, uses a new geospatial tool that can analyze publicly available mineral records.

The result, expected to help guide future policies, provides a new perspective on areas that might have been overlooked in the past, the study's lead author said.

"Some of the areas that showed high potential were already known, but many of these areas had not previously been recognized. Areas identified by this method that have high resource potential based on limited data indicate both understudied and underexplored areas that are important targets for future data collection, research investigations and exploration," Susan Karl, a USGS research geologist, said in a statement released by the agency.

The study maps resource potential for critical minerals in six deposit groups — rare-earth elements in alkaline granitic rocks, gold and other commodity metals found in placer deposits, platinum in volcanic and intrusive rocks, copper-cobalt-silver-germanium-gallium in carbonate rocks, uranium in sandstone, and tin-tungsten-molybdenum-tantalum-indium in siliceous granitic rock.

Trump's path forward only gets tougher after health-care fiasco

4 hours 38 min ago

The stunning collapse of the Republican health-care bill now imperils the rest of President Trump's ambitious congressional agenda, with few prospects for quick victory on tax reform, construction projects or a host of other issues in the months ahead despite complete GOP control of government.

While Republicans broadly share the goal of Trump's promised "big tax cuts," the president will have to bridge many of the same divides within his own party that sunk the attempted overhaul of the Affordable Care Act. And without savings anticipated from the health-care bill, paying for the "massive" cuts Trump has promised for corporations and middle-class families becomes considerably more complicated.

Meanwhile, other marquee agenda items, including a $1 trillion investment in roads and other infrastructure and proposed crackdowns on both legal and illegal immigration, will require the support of Democrats, many of whom have been alienated by the highly partisan start to Trump's tenure.

The lone exception for near-term victory could come with the confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch – but even that faces the prospect of a threatened filibuster by Democrats.

Trump and Republican leaders continued Saturday in their attempts to put a brave face on the health-care debacle. "ObamaCare will explode and we will all get together and piece together a great healthcare plan for THE PEOPLE," Trump wrote in a morning tweet. "Do not worry!"

But others in the party acknowledged the political damage sustained by pulling the House bill, particularly for a president who had touted his own dealmaking prowess.

"It's a momentum issue," said Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colorado. "The fact is that, you know, you came out of the gate and you stumbled."

Doug Heye, a GOP consultant and former congressional staffer, said Republicans, having achieved control of both chambers of Congress and the White House, were left with a lot to prove.

"It sends a troubling sign to a lot of folks about the broader issue of whether Republicans will be able to govern," he said.

Trump has said he would have preferred to start his term by cutting "the hell out of taxes." Even before the health-care bill was pulled Friday, the president was already starting to turn the page.

Determined to highlight other priorities, Trump staged two announcements in the White House meant to underscore his commitment to creating jobs: granting a construction permit for the Keystone XL pipeline and appearing with executives of a telecom giant as they pledged to hire thousands of new employees, although the company's plans had already been announced in October.

Separately, Trump's treasury secretary, Steve Mnuchin, said at an event Friday that he will push Congress to enact comprehensive tax reform by its August recess, though he acknowledged the timetable might slip.

The White House signaled Saturday it was eager to move on. Trump's weekly address made no mention of the health-care fight, instead focusing on his signing of legislation authorizing funding for NASA and his commitment to space exploration.

"We're going to roll our sleeves up, and we're going to cut taxes across the board for working families, small businesses and family farms," Vice President Mike Pence said Saturday at an appearance in Scott Depot, W. Va.

A senior White House official, however, said it was unlikely that Trump would ramp up a major sales effort on tax reform immediately, given his team had been planning on using the coming days to push for Senate action on the health-care bill.

Trump's top advisers had envisioned a three-step legislative agenda this year, starting with scaling back health-care law scaling back former president Barack Obama's signature domestic initiative. After that was complete, they wanted to move to a comprehensive overhaul of the tax code, followed by the creation of a $1 trillion infrastructure package.

The implosion of the health-care effort complicates the tax overhaul both logistically and politically.

Reworking the health-care law as House envisioned would have also cut roughly $1 trillion in revenues. That would make it simpler for Republicans to pass a future overhaul of the tax code because they wouldn't have to find additional revenue to offset new tax cuts.

Americans for Tax Reform President Grover Norquist said the bloc of hardline Republicans who helped stymie the health care overhaul were guilty of "ripping the lungs out of tax reform." If they don't revisit the health care bill immediately, Norquist said, they will soon realize that "they didn't shoot and wound health-care reform, they shot and killed permanent tax reform."

House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, R-Wisconsin, acknowledged Friday that the health-care defeat "does make tax reform more difficult, but it does not make it impossible."

"We are going to proceed with tax reform," Ryan said.

Hours before the health bill was pulled, Mnuchin said a "comprehensive" overhaul of the tax code should prove less complex. "Health care is a very, very complicated issue," he said at a Friday event hosted by Axios. "In a way, [tax reform is] a lot simpler. It really is."

Trump has proposed cutting the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 15 percent, though many Republicans on Capitol Hill have been aiming for a 20 percent rate. Trump has also proposed consolidating the existing seven individual income tax brackets into three brackets of 10 percent, 20 percent and 25 percent.

Trump's advisers have argued these changes would trigger a big expansion of economic growth, but some budget analysts have said the changes would widen the deficit by anywhere from $2.6 trillion to $7 trillion over 10 years, depending on how it is measured.

Many Republicans have long vowed that an overhaul of the tax code must be "revenue neutral," which means they need to find new revenues to offset the reduction in rates. Trump's advisers have not identified specific tax breaks they would eliminate in order to raise new revenue, and Trump himself often waved away debt concerns during the campaign.

Meanwhile, House and Senate Republicans are at odds over the wisdom of a key proponent of tax reform.

Ryan has proposed a border-adjustment tax that would essentially create new taxes on items imported into the United States as a way to raise close to $1 trillion in new revenue while also providing incentives for companies to move operations to the United States.

Many other Republicans oppose this idea, though, and the fight will likely only intensify now. Some Republicans, including Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, argue that the scheme would drive up prices on consumer goods and many large retailers are strongly opposed.

Given such divides, as well as the mechanics of the budget process, it's highly unlikely lawmakers will produce a comprehensive tax bill by the August recess, if at all, said Jim Manley, a former longtime aide to former Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid, D-Nevada.

"It's clearly not realistic, and it's not going to happen, on policy and political grounds," Manley said, adding that the Republican agenda is also undercut by "a president who's out of his league and doesn't know how to legislate."

Republicans had planned to use a budget procedure called "reconciliation" for both the health-care overhaul and for the tax changes, as that would allow them to pass their plans with a simple majority in the Senate and make it impossible for Democrats to block or the changes through a filibuster. That's still the plan with tax reform.

Barry Bennett, an adviser to Trump during the general election, said he thought it was a "tactical mistake" for Trump not to have started his term by pushing for tax changes.

"Now you're going to have to carry these battle scars into the tax debate."

Former House speaker Newt Gingrich, who was a close adviser to Trump during the campaign, said the White House should postpone what is expected to be a messy battle over the tax code and instead pivot toward trying to build a large infrastructure package. Proceeding with infrastructure could attract bipartisan support, he said.

Some Democrats and labor unions have said they could support a big infrastructure package, though the White House hasn't specified how they plan to finance a package that includes roads, bridges, airports and broadband capability, among other things.

Mnuchin said Friday that the package would likely include several hundred billion dollars in public money but the rest would be financed by the private sector, with public support as incentives. Democrats are wary of that approach and prefer more direct government spending.

Many Democrats and Republicans have tried – but failed – to pull off tax reform in recent years. A principal reason why changing the tax code is so difficult is because interest groups flood Washington looking for tax cuts but fight vigorously against any measure that would increase their bills.

"It's very, very hard to get done," said Doug Holtz-Eakin, a former director of the Congressional Budget Office who served as economic adviser to Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, when he ran for president in 2008. "There are tons of different interests involved, and there are very different views within the Republican Party. Now you are going to enter into a second exercise of that type where you have clear evidence that holdouts can kill it. That empowers the holdouts."

Gingrich said the White House could learn some lessons from the failed House health-care effort and change its approach going forward.

"I hope [Trump is] going to decide that he has to have a much more hands-on approach to drafting these things and can't just assume that it's going to show up," Gingrich said.

Despite contentions by White House press secretary Sean Spicer that Trump "left everything on the field" while lobbying for the health-care bill, other Republicans suggested he could have played a more assertive role starting earlier in the process.

"If Trump is going to be best advocate, he needs to be more aggressive," Heye said. "I'd try to do some sort of autopsy and figure out how to do this better."

Democratic leaders said Republicans would be doomed to failure in future debates if they didn't seek to build more consensus.

"We don't know what they'll do with tax reform," said Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-New York, who warned, "if it's huge tax cuts for the wealthy. . .it won't fly."

Looming on the Senate calendar is a confirmation vote for Gorsuch for the Supreme Court. Senate Democrats have said they plan to force Gorsuch to clear a 60-vote procedural hurdle, forcing Republicans to try to find eight Democrats to cross over and vote to advance the nomination.

Republicans have raised the prospect of turning to the "nuclear" option to force through Gorsuch's nomination, a rule change that could further strain relations beyond the parties and undermine prospects for cooperation on other matters.

Beyond Gorsuch, Congress is facing a late-April deadline to pass a stopgap spending bill to keep the federal government running. That could also spark a partisan clash that could risk a government shutdown.

Senate Democrats have warned that they are willing to risk a shutdown fight if Republicans include funding in that package to construct a U.S.-Mexico border wall, another marquee campaign promise from Trump.

Budget analysts fear Congress must also reach an agreement to raise or suspend the debt ceiling by August or September or the Treasury Department could run out of flexibility to continue paying the government's bills.

Trump, on Friday and in the days leading up to the vote, seemed undaunted by the challenges ahead.

"I hope that it's going to all work out," he told a House Republican dinner before the collapse of the health-care bill. "Then we immediately start on the tax cuts, and they're going to be really fantastic, and I am looking forward to that one. That one's going to be fun."

If only the president knew about gardening

5 hours 38 min ago

What a world. I spend an evening looking at a friend's video he shot in Uganda, impoverished people dancing with hands over their heads, overjoyed that a well has been dug and they can drink good water without having to hike for miles. The next day I read about a foundation grant to create storytelling programs in small towns to create radical reimagining of narratives that lead to healing. And then the Boy President on TV with Angela Merkel looking at him and thinking, "Who is that old game-show host standing at the podium? What movie am I in?"

The Ugandans are firmly in touch with reality: Good water is a beautiful thing. Drink it and praise the Lord.

For the storytelling program people, I say: Good luck with that and don't forget to serve a good lunch.

[Trump diplomacy: Smile at your allies, then burn them]

As for the man at the podium, you wish that he maybe leveled with her in private ("I have no idea what I am doing most of the time and it scares me to death.") and she said, "Call me whenever you like. Remember, 3 a.m. is 8 a.m. my time. I'm up, I'm happy to take your call."

Reading the news, I think of Solomon, who said, "The thing that has been is the thing that shall be; and the thing that is done is that which shall be done: there is nothing new under the sun." That sounds like a joke to me, one that must have been a hoot among the children of Israel but now is lost in translation. Same with "the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all." That's the essence of comedy right there.

So … a guy walks by the Oval Office and hears the president screaming, "Twenty-one! Twenty-one!" It sounds urgent so the guy sticks his head in the door and the president kicks him in the shin and yells, "Twenty-two! Twenty-two!"

Reams have been written about the Democrats' losses in 2016 and here is my analysis, in fewer than 50 words:

The Democrat ran out of gas and walked to the gas station to buy some, and the station attendant had no gas can, only a chamber pot, so he filled that up for her and the Democrat took it back to the car and poured it into the gas tank and people driving by thought, "She is nobody I'd care to ride with, that's for sure."

Okay, 66 words. So I lied.

[10 things Alaska senators discussed in meeting with Trump and Zinke]

The nothing-new-under-the-sun view of things is not the view that the speakers at our graduation ceremonies put forth: they seemed to believe we were the vanguard of a new era of enlightenment and progress and now here we are with this wildly ignorant man who would be more believable as the leader of Aruba or Barbados, who would get in the news once in a while for his belief that he is descended from dolphins and that cashews are a cure for cancer.

My feeling about Trumpism is that it demonstrates the value of hoeing and weeding in human development. Lawn-mowing, vacuuming, laundry — very important, too, but digging in dirt is basic to civilization, and the children of privilege who missed out on that chore are incomplete human beings. I remember the long row of corn extending over the hill and beyond, the sun above, the dust in my mouth, as I chopped at the weeds, a job that seemed endless so you found thoughts to occupy your mind. Reciting poetry helped, Bible verses, song lyrics, limericks, and when you ran out, you invented your own.

The Ugandans know about this and so do you and I.

Barefoot in the warm earth, hoeing up milkweed, thistles, and quackgrass in favor of onions, peas and sweet corn, you learn about steadiness and humility and attention to the facts of the matter.

And now, years later, you realize that writing a column of 750 words is not so different from hoeing. Is this president able to put a pencil to paper and write a succession of thoughts? It would seem not. He has impressions but there is not much thinking going on. He hears things that please him and repeats them, like a magpie making a nest. He has no idea how to grow vegetables. We are all in danger.

Garrison Keillor is an author and radio personality and regular contributor to The Washington Post.

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary@alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@alaskadispatch.com. 

Following talks with governor about Cook Inlet gas leak, Hilcorp agrees to temporarily shut down oil production

5 hours 56 min ago

Following discussions with Gov. Bill Walker, Hilcorp Alaska said Saturday morning it has agreed to temporarily shut down oil production at two platforms in Cook Inlet to fight a leaking natural gas fuel line that has generated concerns for weeks about threats to wildlife and other hazards.

The leaking, undersea 8-inch line delivers natural gas used as fuel to four aging offshore production platforms in the Cook Inlet basin. Only two of the platforms produce oil, in small amounts, but the other two still need electricity for such things as navigation lights.

"I appreciate that the company officials are implementing a prudent plan of action," Walker said in a statement released by his office. "Alaskans want peace of mind that our waters are protected."

Natural gas will still flow through the line, though at greatly reduced pressure once the oil production is stopped, a procedure that will take place starting this weekend, Hilcorp Alaska said in a statement issued Saturday morning.

"After recent discussions with Governor Walker and meetings with the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, the parties have agreed to reduce the pressure in the gas pipeline to approximately 65 (pounds per square inch). This will necessitate shutting in oil production from Middle Ground Shoal platforms A & C," Hilcorp's statement said.

The governor's office said Hilcorp will reduce the gas line pressure by half, from 145 pounds per square inch.

The statements do not address whether the leak will still occur once pressure in the gas line is reduced.

Kristin Ryan, director of DEC's Division of Spill Prevention and Response, said methane would still leak from the pipe once oil production is temporarily stopped, but it would occur "at a much reduced rate."

She said Saturday that "there are very good environmental reasons" for the decision to keep some gas in the line "rather than completely shutting the pipeline down."

One important consideration is that seawater must be pumped through the separate pipeline that carries the produced crude oil to a facility on shore. That 8-inch oil line parallels the leaking gas line that runs about five miles to Platform A.

Pumping seawater through the crude oil pipeline is needed to prevent that line from freezing and cracking once oil stops flowing through it, said Ryan. Some residual oil will remain in that crude oil pipeline, and it would have "high potential" of escaping into the inlet if that line cracked.

"We need to keep the integrity of that pipeline intact," Ryan said.

"From an oil spill response perspective, we think this is a good outcome that minimizes a lot of risks," she said.

 

The statement from the governor's office said, "Hilcorp executives committed to Governor Walker that they will not be starting up production at the platforms again until federal and state regulators are satisfied the oil and gas lines can be operated safely and in accordance with all applicable laws."

Walker's office said the reduction in pressure is the minimum amount needed so water cannot enter the fuel-gas line. The fuel-gas line was also once an oil pipeline. The company has expressed fears that old crude oil remaining in that fuel line could also potentially leak into the inlet if water entered the line and washed the oil out.

The minimum flow also allows the platforms to continue operating essential equipment and safety systems, Hilcorp Alaska said.

"The reduced pressure will allow Hilcorp to operate equipment to prevent freezing or breaking of other oil lines, which could lead to more spills," said the statement from the governor's office.

The leak in the water about 3.5 miles off the coast, northwest of Nikiski, was discovered by Hilcorp Alaska on Feb. 7. Federal pipeline regulators have indicated it has been occurring since December.  The U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration has pressed the company to stop the leak or shut down the pipeline by May 1. They have also expressed concerns about risks that the old crude oil pipeline could also be damaged.

In recent weeks, Hilcorp Alaska has reduced gas flow in the fuel-gas line by reducing activity at the oil production platforms, in turn reducing the rate of leaking gas that consists almost entirely of methane. But the company has said it would wait until sea ice cleared from the water because of dangers the ice posed to repair divers and boats. That has led to several weeks of delay, with repairs now not expected until April.

The midrange leak rate is currently estimated to be about 200,000 cubic feet of gas a day, based on information from state environmental regulators. At that rate, the leak would have provided natural gas for about 290 homes in Southcentral Alaska in the cold month of December, based on average household consumption rates made public by utility Enstar Natural Gas Co.

Hilcorp said warmer temperatures recently help make the shutdown possible.

"Previous weather conditions have prevented Hilcorp from shutting in oil production at an earlier date," the company said in a statement, sent by Lori Nelson, external affairs manager at Hilcorp Alaska. "Shutting in wells and idling lines and equipment in very cold temperatures create a known risk of freeze-up and potential rupture. Warmer ambient temperatures now permit a safer shut in process of the wells along with the associated lines and equipment."

Federal agencies have expressed concern about the methane's potential threats to fish and wildlife by replacing oxygen in the water. Animals considered to be at risk include the endangered Cook Inlet beluga whale. Adding to the concerns are that more wildlife should soon be migrating through the area, including salmon smelt that support important fisheries in the inlet.

Working with regulators, planning and preparation for the shut-in of oil production has begun, Hilcorp Alaska's statement said. Procedures will begin this weekend, it said.

The line is expected to repaired soon, as well, Hilcorp said.

"Hilcorp's response team and the necessary equipment are ready to immediately commence repair operations as soon as it can be done safely. Based on current weather forecasts Hilcorp anticipates repair operations to occur in the next two weeks," the company said.

The company has created a web site providing information about the leak at www.hilcorpresponse.com.

That night in 1974 when Chuck Berry played Anchorage

6 hours 49 min ago

Editor's note: In 1974, Chuck Berry performed at West High School Auditorium in Anchorage, and local musician Mr. Whitekeys played in the backup band. He later wrote a column for the Anchorage Daily News about the experience. With the news of Berry's death on March 18, we asked Whitekeys to revisit the experience in a new column.

Chuck Berry rode into town like a lone gunslinger. That was the way my buddy Ezmo described it from his backstage vantage point.

Chuck got off the plane with a guitar case, a bodyguard and a briefcase. The understanding of the way things would go was simple: The money goes in the briefcase and the show goes on. If the cash is not put in the briefcase, there would be no show.

He arrived at the Anchorage International Airport at 6:10 p.m. The first show was at 7!! Friday night it had been Madison Square Garden in New York, Saturday night it was Bozeman, Montana, and Sunday night — Spenard.

First on the list was to rent a car: this time, a Mustang. Chuck "Strictly Business" Berry did things his way, and he did not ride with anyone else.

His bodyguard was not an imposing bar bouncer gorilla with fists the size of watermelons. He was more like a secret service agent in a tailored suit. A small guy who was strictly business — this guy was ice and you knew you didn't want to mess with him under any circumstances. Ezmo said "Hello" with a nod and a smile and he was ignored. You were irrelevant unless you did anything to cause a ripple of any kind to Chuck Berry. If that came to pass, the removal of your face would not be out of the question.

Chuck Berry was famous for traveling alone and using local musicians, so the promoter hired a bass player and drummer from one band, and I was proud to be chosen to join them…. even if it was only because there were no other piano players in town.

The first sign of trouble was when I suggested we get together and jam in preparation for an appearance in front of 2,000 fans with one of the greatest fathers of rock 'n' roll. Their reply was: "We don't need to rehearse — it's Chuck Berry. His music is as simple as can be." The Whitekeys Terror Alert System began to kick in.

[Chuck Berry, who helped define rock 'n' roll, dies at 90]

Berry's music was always described as "simple," but any serious listening shows incredible subtlety and nuance that is nothing less than elegant. It's why he was the traveling gunslinger and every other guitar player in the world playing his songs in every bar in the world is just watering the horses at the stable.

Milo de Venus was a beautiful lass;
She had the world in the palm of her hand;
But she lost both her arms in a wrestling match;
To get a Brown Eyed Handsome Man.

It's a simple word play. Your English professor would expound about the juxtaposition of words and literary tension, but I'm saying, "Hot Damn! This is the coolest guy on earth, and I want to have his baby!"

Backstage, I asked, "I know you don't have charts, but do you have a list of songs you're gonna do? Or the keys they songs might be in?"

He'd heard it all before. "It'll be alright, kid." I'll talk to ya before the show." The overriding impression was that Chuck Berry was cool. He always has been cool. And he always will be cool.

Nobody else was quite so cool. Especially promoter Steve London when he appeared during the opening act (the Davis Family) during their LAST number. "Do you want to know where the star of the show is? I'll tell ya where the star of the show is. He went to the hotel to discuss a matter of some urgency with one of his female fans. He said he'd be right back."

And indeed, he was… Just as the stage was readied behind the curtain. Nobody knew until later just how close that call was.

It seems that on the way back from downtown to West High, the Berrymobile became slightly disoriented, turned off the Minnesota Bypass onto 15th, somehow drove onto the bike path toward the Lagoon, and passed through THREE tunnels before retracing it's tracks. The King of Rock 'n' Roll said, "I turned off my lights so the cops wouldn't see me right after I drove through the first of those little tunnels!"

Then, behind the curtain, the professional went to work. "No, No. My amp goes on THIS side. Move everything up to the front. In tighter. We all wanna be close together."

In 30 seconds he had undone four hours of precision placement and adjustments by the musicians, the sound crew, and the lighting company. The traveling rock 'n' roll trouble-shooter had only been in town 30 minutes, but he knew exactly what had to be done and he got it. There was no dispute as to who was in charge.

It was now "before the show" and time to "talk to the band." He told the bass player, "I want you to play bass like this: Da Dum…Da Dum. Do that — Da Dum…da Dum. You do that and don't do anything else."

Then he turned to the drummer as well as the bass player. The gunslinger had a very cool move where he lifted his perfectly straight leg 90 degrees up to the side and then snapped it down again. Entire yoga classes are now built on that pose. He demonstrated and said, "When I move my leg like this, you STOP."

He didn't say anything to the piano player who was now experiencing cold sweats and mild nausea. He had "talked to the band." The curtain went up and he had told no one the key to even the first song!!!!

There wasn't time to sweat. From the first note, he was in total control. The immense energy from the Chuck Berry guitar overpowered everything else in the building. He didn't even need a band behind him — it was his show and he could do it all himself.

Well, sorta. How were any of us to know that the bass player liked to emote? He closed his eyes, made tortured faces, and of course never saw ANY of the leg movements. Three people stopped on a dime, but the bass man was playing to a different drummer than the one who was only 3 deafening feet away. It was now time for dizziness, shortness of breath, and mild heart palpitations.

Somewhere around 40 minutes into the show, Chuck Berry instructed the bass player and drummer to Leave The Stage. Holy crap! I thought, What do I do now? I figured I'd do what he said, or the bodyguard would be eating my liver with onions for his midnight snack.

The duet lasted around 15 minutes. At one point, Chuck Berry stalked over to the piano and joined in a four-handed version of one of his songs. Then, he launched into an extended version of his only number-one single, "My Ding-a-Ling," which happened to be my least favorite Chuck Berry song of all time. My terror level had now reached kidney failure and internal bleeding. The audience was going to kill me before I reached the parking lot. The gin-soaked nightly brawling at my regular Chilkoot Charlie's gig was starting to look like a supreme sanctuary of safety and serenity.

Eventually, he called the rest of the band back on to the stage, and the first show mercifully ended. My blood pressure went down to 390/285 and the rest of the band heralded the set as the highlight of their musical careers, because: "We're in great company — I heard he once threw Keith Richards off the stage in the middle of a show!"

Immediately after the curtain went down, Chuck Berry left the building and once again headed to the Hotel Captain Cook in his rented Mustang "to discuss a matter of some urgency with one of his young female fans." The second show, of course, started very late because the star of the show was:

Rounding third, he was headed for home
He was a brown eyed handsome man.

I think the second show went better than the first, but it's hard to make judgements when all of your major internal organs have liquefied. It was a Clint Eastwood movie where the gunslinger saves the town even though he leaves it in smoking ruins.

And now, 40 years later, someone occasionally asks, "What was it like to play with Chuck Berry?"

The answer is pretty simple. "It was the worst night ever in my entire musical career, but damn it was cool."

Chuck Berry left Anchorage Monday morning at 7:30 a.m. He did not pay his hotel bill!

Mr. Whitekeys is an Alaska musician, recording artist, writer, ornithologist and creator of "The Whale Fat Follies" and "Christmas on Spenard." Read more at mrwhitekeys.com

Trump’s choice on Obamacare: Sabotage or co-opt?

9 hours 44 min ago

President Donald Trump and a Republican-led Congress tried and failed to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Now, they have to decide whether they want to work with it or sabotage it.

Both Trump and congressional leaders acknowledged Friday that they would not bring their repeal bill back for a vote any time soon. That means that, as Speaker Paul Ryan said, "we're going to be living with Obamacare for the foreseeable future."

Ryan and Trump reiterated their criticisms of the law and set the stage for watching it collapse and blaming the Democrats for the aftermath. "I've been saying for the last year and a half that the best thing we can do politically speaking is let Obamacare explode," Trump said from the Oval Office. "It is exploding now."

Ryan said that the ACA's architects would be sad that the bill was allowed to live on, given what he described as its inevitable failure.

In fact, the ACA is not on the verge of "explosion." Enrollment in its insurance marketplaces is steady, and several independent analyses suggest that insurance prices have stabilized after a sharp market correction this year. But the structures it set up to provide health insurance to middle-income Americans are vulnerable. Insurance companies have struggled to make money in the early years of the new markets, and many have backed out. Others remain tentatively committed and skittish.

Trump will need to decide, quickly, whether his goal is to knock over the still-functioning markets, or help prop them up. If he decides to topple them, next year could be very messy.

Insurers are making their decisions right now about whether to enter the markets for next year and about how much to charge their customers. Signals from the administration in the next few weeks about whether he will help or hurt them will almost certainly guide insurers' choices.

The biggest immediate decision concerns a court dispute between the House and the administration over subsidies to help low-income insurance buyers pay their deductibles and copayments. The House has argued that the money for those subsidies was not properly authorized. The Obama White House fought the case. It is not clear whether Trump's lawyers will do the same. The availability of those subsidies, used by a majority of ACA customers, is critical for insurers in the markets.

Without the subsidies, all the insurers will lose some money, and many smaller carriers will face bankruptcy. If Trump does not fight the court case, the ACA markets in most states will unravel quickly, leaving millions without insurance options on his watch. Many of the beneficiaries are Trump voters.

There are smaller decisions ahead, too, about how to administer programs and whether to recruit insurers to participate in markets where competition is thin. So far, Trump's secretary for health and human services, Tom Price, has taken every opportunity to gloat about the health law's setbacks, even as he is administering its programs.

Price, perhaps more than Trump, has long been committed to the Affordable Care Act's demise. But now he will have to manage the law's many programs. Obama administration officials called insurers, cajoling and reassuring them. If Trump wants the markets to be vigorous, he could use his self-described deal-making skills to woo insurance companies into the stabilizing markets.

If Trump and Price can make peace with the health law, there are opportunities to steer it in a more conservative direction. The law gives broad authority to the executive branch to shape health care policy. So far, the health law has been driven by Obama administration priorities, but that could change.

A few early regulatory changes have begun that process. The Trump administration plans to make it harder for people to sign up for plans midyear. It has given insurers more wiggle room to raise their deductibles. It may be able to make alterations that loosen up benefit requirements — though it won't be able to completely eliminate them, as Republicans sought to do at the last minute in the failed bill.

The administration will also have enormous power to allow states to reshape their Medicaid programs — and even their local insurance markets — through waivers to existing law. Seema Verma, the just-confirmed administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, was a consultant who helped states write pathbreaking conservative proposals for their Medicaid programs. She is ideally positioned to approve many more such waivers from Republican-led states, allowing them to impose premiums, cost-sharing and even work requirements for Medicaid beneficiaries.

A new ACA waiver program has just gone into effect: It would allow states to overhaul their entire health insurance markets if they can show that their revised plans would cover as many people. That process could allow Verma and Price to approve state plans that hew more closely to the Republican vision for health care.

New powers granted under the Affordable Care Act allow the Department of Health and Human Services to make major changes to the Medicare program, through demonstration projects meant to lower costs and improve patient care. The Obama administration set a precedent of imposing "mandatory" projects on large portions of the country to test policy ideas. So far, Price has looked askance at such efforts. But the provision could give him power to reshape what Medicare pays for and how seniors receive their care.

Nicholas Bagley, a law professor at the University of Michigan, has criticized the Obama administration for stretching its legal authority with some of its ACA choices. But those choices have created a precedent for the Trump administration to stretch the health law in its own direction. "If you think Congress is done, and you don't want to provoke a reaction anymore, then you own this," he said. "You will be judged as an executive on the performance of Obamacare."

For years, opposing the Affordable Care Act has been a rallying cry for Republicans. But if Republicans can't repeal the ACA, they could instead co-opt it. There are opportunities for Trumpcare yet.

Future of ACA now in hands of Trump. His plan: 'Let Obamacare explode.'

10 hours 11 min ago

WASHINGTON – Although House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., acknowledged Friday that "Obamacare is the law of the land," its survival or collapse in practical terms now rests with decisions that are in President Donald Trump's hands.

In the coming weeks and months, the White House and a highly conservative health and human services secretary will be faced with a series of choices over whether to shore up insurance marketplaces created under the Affordable Care Act – or let them atrophy. These marketplaces are currently a conduit to health coverage for 10 million Americans, but they have been financially fragile, prompting spiking rates and defections of major insurers.

In an interview on Friday with The Washington Post, Trump made his inclinations clear: "The best thing politically is to let Obamacare explode."

The president said that the law remains "totally the property of the Democrats" and that "when people get a 200 percent increase next year or a 100 percent or 70 percent, that's their fault." Former Obama administration officials countered that Trump and congressional Republicans are responsible for what happens next.

In the seven years since a Democratic Congress passed the law, public sentiment over it has been closely divided. Support has grown slightly in recent months as Republicans tried to begin dismantling it.

[Don Young: Canceling the health care vote was a 'victory for Alaska']

There are many levers within the ACA that the administration could use to undermine the law or, instead, try to stabilize its marketplaces. In addition, federal rules could be redefined, giving the government's health policies a more conservative twist even with the law still in effect.

According to health-care experts from across the ideological spectrum, an imminent question is whether the political tumult surrounding the ACA's fate and the president's talk of explosion could further shake the confidence of consumers and insurers alike. Doing so could prompt exits from the marketplaces.

Trump's threat could become "a self-fulfilling prophecy," said Andy Slavitt, the acting administrator of the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services for the last two years of the Obama administration. " That's like inheriting an overseas war, and deciding you let your own soldiers get killed because you didn't elect to enter that war."

Mario Molina, chief executive of Molina Healthcare, a small company covering about a million Americans through the ACA's insurance exchanges, said he is unsure whether it will lessen its participation. Its decision this spring will hinge on actions by the White House and GOP lawmakers, he said. "The ball's sort of in their court. The choices they make are going to determine what happens to the marketplace."

The decisions facing the administration are, in essence, a sequel to an executive order the president issued his first night in office, when he directed federal agencies to ease the regulatory burden that the ACA has placed on consumers, the health-care industry and health-care providers. So far, the main action stemming from that directive is a move by the Internal Revenue Service to process Americans' tax refunds even if they fail to submit proof that they are insured, as the ACA requires.

But there are other steps the administration could take. A major one would be to end cost-sharing subsidies the law provides to lower- and middle-income people with marketplace plans to help pay their deductibles and copays. Those subsidies, which would have been erased by the House Republicans' bill, are the subject of a federal lawsuit.

Another question is how the administration will handle the next enrollment season for ACA health plans, which will begin in November. The end of the most recent season coincided with Trump's first days in office, and the new administration yanked some advertising meant to encourage sign-ups – resulting in a small dip in enrollment by the final deadline.

And while a set of federal essential health benefits, required of health plans sold to individuals and small businesses, will now remain in law, federal health officials could narrow what they require, limiting prescription drugs, for instance, or the number of visits allowed for mental health treatment or physical therapy.

[The inside story of how Trump tried – and failed – to make a deal on health care]

The administration also could take advantage of a part of the ACA that, starting this year, lets health officials give states broad latitude to carry out the law's goals – including more free-market approaches that conservatives favor. Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price and other top agency officials already have signaled they would allow states to impose work requirements on able-bodied adults to qualify for Medicaid – something Obama officials steadfastly rejected.

"The administration could do everything from actively undermining the law to trying to reshape it to moving it in a more conservative direction," said Larry Levitt, senior vice president of the Kaiser Family Foundation.

The question of whether the ACA's marketplaces can or should be strengthened is a matter of considerable debate. In comparing the House GOP bill with the ACA, congressional budget analysts concluded this month that the insurance market for people who buy coverage on their own "would probably be stable in most areas" either way.

During an afternoon news conference shortly after withdrawing the Republican legislation, Ryan reiterated his oft-stated contention that the marketplaces are beyond repair. He briefly suggested, however, that perhaps the Trump administration could improve their stability.

Chip Kahn, president and CEO of the Federation of American Hospitals, said that policymakers must find a way to shore up the marketplaces because a broad swath of Americans rely on them. "There always has been an individual market made up of entrepreneurs who own small businesses, and farmers and ranchers, and it's sort of mandatory that there be policies available to them," Kahn said.

House Republicans were notably silent on Friday about the prospects of further work on health policy. A few senators sounded more hopeful that efforts to improve the law would continue.

Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., said in an interview that he disagreed with Trump's assertion that letting the markets explode was the best course of action. "I hope that doesn't have to happen," said Cassidy, co-sponsor of a separate bill that would preserve the ACA but tip more latitude to the states.

Harvard University economics professor David Cutler, who helped advise the Obama White House on health care, countered Trump's argument that the ACA will always be associated with Democrats. "He owns it now," Cutler said in an email, "because he could take many steps to stabilize things."

Carolyn Y. Johnson contributed to this report.

 

 

 

U.S. investigates as Iraqis claim strikes killed up to 200 civilians

10 hours 21 min ago

BAGHDAD — The U.S.-led military coalition in Iraq said Friday that it was investigating reports that scores of civilians — perhaps as many as 200, residents said — had been killed in recent U.S. airstrikes in Mosul, the northern Iraqi city at the center of an offensive to drive out the Islamic State.

If confirmed, the series of airstrikes would rank among the highest civilian death tolls in a U.S. air mission since the United States went to war in Iraq in 2003. And the reports of civilian deaths in Mosul came immediately after two recent incidents in Syria, where the coalition is also battling the Islamic State from the air, in which activists and local residents said dozens of civilians had been killed.

Taken together, the surge of reported civilian deaths raised questions about whether once-strict rules of engagement meant to minimize civilian casualties were being relaxed under the Trump administration, which has vowed to fight the Islamic State more aggressively.

U.S. military officials insisted Friday that the rules of engagement had not changed. They acknowledged, however, that U.S. airstrikes in Syria and Iraq had been heavier in an effort to press the Islamic State on multiple fronts.

Col. John J. Thomas, a spokesman for the U.S. Central Command, said that the military was seeking to determine whether the explosion in Mosul might have been prompted by a U.S. or coalition airstrike, or was a bomb or booby trap placed by the Islamic State.

"It's a complicated question, and we've literally had people working nonstop throughout the night to understand it," Thomas said in an interview. He said the explosion and the reasons behind it had "gotten attention at the highest level."

As to who was responsible, he said, "at the moment, the answer is: We don't know."

Iraqi officers, though, say they know exactly what happened: Maj. Gen. Maan al-Saadi, a commander of the Iraqi special forces, said that the civilian deaths were a result of a coalition airstrike that his men had called in, to take out snipers on the roofs of three houses in a neighborhood called Mosul Jidideh. Saadi said the special forces were unaware that the houses' basements were filled with civilians.

"After the bombing we were surprised by the civilian victims," the general said, "and I think it was a trap by ISIS to stop the bombing operations and turn public opinion against us."

Saadi said he had demanded that the coalition pause its air campaign to assess what happened and to take stricter measures to prevent more civilian victims. Another Iraqi special forces officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject, said that there had been a noticeable relaxing of the coalition's rules of engagement since President Donald Trump took office.

Before, Iraqi officers were highly critical of the Obama administration's rules, saying that many requests for airstrikes were denied because of the risk that civilians would be hurt. Now, the officer said, it has become much easier to call in airstrikes.

Some U.S. military officials had also chafed at what they viewed as long and onerous White House procedures for approving strikes under the Obama administration. Trump has indicated that he is more inclined to delegate authority for launching strikes to the Pentagon and commanders in the field.

This is the second time this week that the military has opened an investigation into civilian deaths reported to have been caused by U.S. airstrikes. On Tuesday, Central Command said it was investigating a U.S. airstrike in Syria on March 16 that officials said killed dozens of Qaida operatives at a meeting place that activists and local residents maintain was part of a religious complex.

While Defense Department officials acknowledged that the building was near a mosque, they called it an "al-Qaida meeting site" in Jina, in Aleppo province.

Pentagon officials said that intelligence had indicated that al-Qaida used the partly constructed community meeting hall as a gathering place and as a place to educate and indoctrinate fighters.

But the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that 49 people had been killed in what the group described as a massacre of civilians who were undergoing religious instruction in an assembly hall and dining area for worshippers. The group has produced photos taken at the site after the strike that show a black sign outside a still-standing adjoining structure that identified it as part of the Omar ibn al-Khatab mosque.

Chris Woods, director of the observatory, a nonprofit group that monitors civilian deaths from coalition airstrikes in Syria and Iraq, said that in March alone the number of reported civilian fatalities has shot up to 1,058, from 465 in December, the last full month of the Obama administration.

"We don't know whether that's a reflection of the increased tempo of the campaign or whether it reflects changes in the rules of engagement," he said. But, he added, the recent spike in numbers "does suggest something has shifted."

U.S. military officials said that what has shifted is that the Iraqi military, backed by the U.S.-led coalition, is in the middle of its biggest fight so far — the battle to retake Mosul from the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.

In particular, the campaign for West Mosul has involved block-by-block fighting in an urban environment.

"There's been no loosening of the rules of engagement," said Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman. "There are three major offensives going on right now, at the same time," he said, citing the battle for West Mosul; the encirclement of Raqqa, Syria, the Islamic State's de facto capital; and the fight for the Tabqa Dam in Syria.

Davis said that the investigation was looking into whether Islamic State fighters were responsible for the explosion in Mosul, or if an airstrike set something off.

"There are other people on the battlefield, too," he said. "It's close quarters."

U.S. officials said that even the timing of the strike was still in question. Col. Joseph E. Scrocca, a spokesman for the U.S.-led command in Baghdad, said in a statement Friday that the strike under investigation happened between March 17 and Thursday.

The civilian death toll in Mosul was already widely described as heavy on account of Islamic State snipers and bombs, and intensified urban fighting in which artillery has been used. But there have been numerous reports from witnesses, including rescue workers and residents fleeing the fighting, about bodies being buried under rubble after heavy air bombardment.
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Many of the reports centered on the Mosul Jidideh neighborhood, where residents said airstrikes hit several houses in recent days, killing dozens, including many children.

Capt. Ahmed Nuri, a soldier with Iraq's elite counterterrorism forces, who work closely with the U.S. military and call in airstrikes, said Thursday that his men, facing heavy sniper fire, helped collect five bodies from the rubble of a destroyed home. He said four of them were brothers — named Ali, Omar, Khalid and Saad — whose bodies were delivered to their grieving mother.

The mother, Nuri said, identified the fifth dead body as that of an Islamic State sniper who had been firing at advancing Iraqi forces from the roof of their house.

Local officials have reacted with outrage at the latest civilian deaths, warning that they will make it more difficult to fully take the city, and will alienate civilians still in Mosul, whom the Iraqi government is counting on for assistance.

"The repeated mistakes will make the mission to liberate Mosul from Daesh harder, and will push civilians still living under Daesh to be uncooperative with the security forces," said Abdulsattar Alhabu, the mayor of Mosul, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State.

Alhabu estimated that at least 200 civilians had been killed in airstrikes in recent days in Mosul.

North Dakota governor approves concealed guns without a permit

10 hours 45 min ago

North Dakotans will no longer need a permit to carry a concealed weapon after Republican Governor Doug Burgum signed legislation lifting restrictions, a victory for gun rights advocates that came a week after South Dakota's governor vetoed a similar bill.

The law, which takes effect on Aug. 1, mandates that gun owners only need a North Dakota driver's license or state identification card for at least a year before they can carry a concealed firearm in public.

Under current regulations, applicants must take a test to obtain a permit which entails fees of more than $100.

The measure, signed late on Thursday, was approved by the

Republican-controlled legislature despite concerns over public safety if the state made it easier to carry hidden weapons. Advocates framed the issue in terms of the constitutional right to bear arms.

"North Dakota has a rich heritage of hunting and a culture of deep respect for firearm safety," Burgum said. "As a hunter and gun owner myself, I strongly support gun rights for law-abiding citizens."

The legislation makes North Dakota the 12th state to allow gun owners to carry their weapons without a concealed-carry permit, according to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, which opposes the practice.

"There's kind of a mythology around this idea that if you're going armed in public, you're going to be able to save the day, but actually it's more likely you will get yourself hurt or hurt an innocent person," said Laura Cutilletta, a managing attorney with the center.

Burgum said his state's bill would not make it easier for criminals to obtain guns. Firearms dealers still must comply with federal background checks to ensure purchasers are not convicted felons, he said.

Last week, South Dakota Governor Dennis Daugaard, a Republican, vetoed a measure to allow carrying a concealed weapon without a permit. He defended existing rules as reasonable, saying lawful gun owners have easily obtained concealed carry permits.

Last year, the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found the U.S. Constitution does not grant any fundamental right to carry a concealed firearm in public.

The ruling upheld the authority of officials to grant permits to those facing a specific danger but only applied to states in the western United States.

The U.S. Supreme Court in 2013 declined to accept a case that involved the issue of whether firearm owners have a constitutional right to carry concealed guns.

Thirty-one states have "open carry" laws, allowing handgun owners to carry weapons in full view without a license, according to the center.

State hoops notebook: Some teams prevail with youth, others with steals

Fri, 03/24/2017 - 23:43

It's a rarity for a varsity basketball team to be without a single senior, let alone make a run at the state tournament. Yet two of them will play for championships on Saturday.

The Dimond girls and Anchorage Christian girls are showing that young teams can still be among the best.

On Friday, Dimond advanced to the Class 4A state championship with a narrow 61-58 semifinal victory over Colony and ACS upset defending champion Barrow 53-50 in the Class 3A semifinals.

The Lions are one of the youngest teams in the tournament with only juniors and six freshmen on their 11-player squad. They're led by freshman Destiny Reimers, who earned second-team all-state honors this season.

Dimond has seven juniors on its 10-player roster, and its best player is sophomore Alissa Pili, the Class 4A Player of the Year.

"I just lead by example," Pili said. "I can talk all I want, but it's not gonna do anything if I'm not doing it on the court. So I just lead by example and keep my teammates up and encourage them."

Dimond coach Jim Young said he told his players at the beginning of the season that he expected them all to lead in different ways, no matter their year or position.

"I basically told them, 'we're gonna have speaking captains for games, but all 10 of you guys are leaders throughout the season,' " Young said. "I think a lot of it is the chemistry of this team is phenomenal and it showed all season.

"Games are getting a little tighter, we're having to fight some adversity, but they're pulling through and I think a lot of it is the closeness of this team."

Sealing with a steal

With time winding down, the Valdez Buccaneers needed two points to tie the game or a 3-pointer to take the lead in its 3A semifinal game against Monroe Catholic.

Monroe senior Divon Davis made sure they didn't get either.

Davis nabbed a steal in the closing seconds and dribbled the length of the court until time expired to seal a 42-40 win for the Rams. Once the final buzzer sounded, the 5-foot-9 junior guard shouted and gave a double fist-pump before being swarmed by teammates.

"I knew they were gonna try to shoot the ball, so I just wanted to get a steal and run the clock," Davis said. "I watched his eyes — I saw (it) coming."

Davis finished with 10 points and five steals, but none were more important than the one that earned the win for the Rams.

"That was amazing," Davis said. "That was the best feeling ever. I can't even describe it."

In Dimond's 53-51 overtime victory over East in the Friday's final game, Eric Jenkins did the same for the Lynx.

With Dimond up by one, he picked off an East pass. Then he drew a foul, and hit one of two free throws to make it a two-point game. East's shot at the buzzer was off-target, putting the Lynx in the championship game.

"It was a blur," Jenkins said. "We went down and got a shot and then they came down on the other end and we were just gonna play hard defense, but they just threw it to us. We were in the right place at the right time."

Aces' funk continues and their playoff positioning tightens in 2-1 loss to Rush

Fri, 03/24/2017 - 23:25

The Alaska Aces still control their ECHL playoff fate.

If they keep playing like they have lately, that won't be the case for long.

Rapid City's 2-1 win over the Aces at Sullivan Arena on Friday night pushed Alaska's winless streak to five games (0-3-2) and also extended its franchise-worst winless streak on home ice to nine games (0-7-2).

Friday's result, coupled with wins by the Missouri Mavericks and Utah Grizzlies, cut into the Aces' lead for the fourth and final playoff spot in the Mountain Division. The Aces lead the Mavericks by two points and the Grizzlies by three. The Aces and Mavericks have eight games left — Alaska entertains Rapid City on Saturday and Sunday — and the Grizzlies have seven games remaining.

Rapid City goaltender Adam Morrison delivered 49 saves, his career high in the ECHL, to backstop the Rush victory, and rookie Sam Rothstein, fresh out of Colorado College, bagged the first two goals of his pro career.

Alaska's only goal came from defenseman Mackenze Stewart, with helpers from Tim Coffman and Charlie Sampair.

Despite outshooting the Rush 50-22, the Aces (30-24-10) didn't get many second- or third-chance opportunities against Morrison, who swallowed ample shots and didn't leave many juicy rebounds. While the Aces also failed on all three of their power plays and gave up Rothstein's two goals on odd-man rushes — a 2-on-1 and a breakaway — coach Rob Murray was more concerned with the bottom line.

"We just have to win,'' he said.

Rapid City (24-33-8) avoided elimination from the race for the final playoff spot in the division. The next point the Rush surrenders will eliminate them.

"We don't have anything to lose,'' said Rush rookie winger Hunter Fejes of Anchorage, who assisted on Rothstein's first goal. "We want to win, and they need to win.''

Aces goalie Kevin Carr (20 saves), who with Michael Garteig still up in the American Hockey League made his 12th straight start, said he has "to find a way to make more saves.''

Carr said the Aces are frustrated, particularly by their slump on home ice.

"That's terrible for our fans,'' he said. "And, selfishly, we want to make the playoffs. (Recent performances) aren't good enough right now.''

Fejes, who grew up watching the Anchorage Aces of the West Coast Hockey League and then the Alaska Aces, said he's bummed financial losses have prompted the Aces to fold at season's end after 14 seasons in the ECHL.

"You just try to take it all in,'' he said. "You look in the rafters and see the championship banners and all the first-place banners. You remember it growing up.

"I had season tickets. Players like Dean Larson, Steve MacSwain, Keith Street — they made me have a passion for hockey. This was the NHL when I was growing up. This was the real deal.''

Shuffling the deck

The Aces have signed forward Jory Mullin, who with 26-18—44 totals in 25 games for Neumann College, led Division III goal scorers this season. Murray indicated Mullin is likely to make his pro debut Saturday.

With Stephen Perfetto (27 goals) and Tim Wallace (18 goals) up in the American Hockey League, the Aces' lineup was missing 22 percent of its goals this season.

In the combined nine weeks Garteig has been with the AHL's Utica Comets, he has made a mere four starts and had five appearances.

Alaska is 4-4-0 against Rapid City this season.

Rapid City 1  1  0  — 2

Aces 1  0  0  — 1

First Period — 1, Rapid City, Rothstein 1 (Cooper, Fejes), 11:45; 2, Aces, Stewart 5 (Coffman, Sampair), 14:59. Penalties — Monfredo, Rapid City (interference), 7:23; Fejes, Rapid City (slashing), 18:57.

Second Period — 3, Rapid City, Rothstein 2 (Cooper, Fortman), 16:37. Penalties — Lake, Aces (slashing), 7:26; Monfredo, Rapid City (interference), 12:35; Tarasuk, Aces (diving), 12:35.

Third Period — None. Penalties — Fortman, Rapid City (tripping), 7:43.

Shots on goal — Rapid City 7-11-4—22. Aces 23-9-18—50.

Power-play Opportunities — Rapid City 0 of 1. Aces 0 of 3.

Goalies — Rapid City, Morrison, 15-15-4 (50 shots-49 saves). Aces, Carr, 16-18-5 (22-20).

A — 4,097 (6,399). T — 2:29.

Referee — Chris Pontes. Linesmen — Scott Sivulich, Josh Ellis.

It's Dimond vs. Wasilla, times two, in Class 4A title games

Fri, 03/24/2017 - 23:21

Class 4A basketball fans will be seeing double Saturday night at the Alaska Airlines Center, where both title games will pit Dimond against Wasilla.

All four teams survived close calls in Friday's semifinal round.

In boys action, Dimond held off East 53-51 in overtime and Wasilla used a strong second half to get past Ketchikan 50-43.

In the girls games, Dimond edged Colony 61-58, and Wasilla rallied past East 46-38.

Fun fact: In 2007, the Warriors swept the state titles. No Class 4A team has pulled off a sweep since then.

Boys

Dimond's Eric Jenkins racked up 18 point and eight rebounds, but his biggest contribution may have been a steal in the final seconds that sealed the win for the Lynx.

With Dimond up by one point and the clocking winding down in overtime, Jenkins stole the ball and drew a foul. He hit one of two free throws to give his team a two-point lead.

Moses Miller, the Class 4A Player of the Year, launched a 3-point shot at the buzzer, but the potential game-winning attempt by the East sharpshooter didn't draw iron.

"It was a blur," Jenkins said of the final moments. "We went down and got a shot and then they came down on the other end and we were just gonna play hard defense, but they just threw it to us. We were in the right place at the right time.

"… At the end of the game, we played smart defense and didn't let them get a good shot off."

Anthony Parker made up for eight turnovers by contributing 13 points and eight rebounds for Dimond.

The Lynx survived 17 turnovers to East's 11 in the battle between Cook Inlet Conference rivals, but they grabbed a 32-19 rebounding advantage. They also outscored the T-birds 14-7 from the foul line.

Miller finished with 10 points, eight assists, four rebounds and three steals, and Trey Huckabay provided 15 points and six steals.

Dimond will face a Wasilla team that rallied from a seven-point halftime deficit to beat Ketchikan.

The Warriors outscored Ketchikan 13-5 in the third quarter to take a one-point lead into the fourth quarter. They sealed the win by outscoring the Kings 21-15 in the fourth quarter.

Wasilla's Reilly Devine crashed the boards for 15 rebounds to go with 10 points. Kobe Brown and Daniel Headdings each netted 14 points.

Ketchikan's Marcus Lee sank four 3-pointers for a team-high 13 points. Chris Lee added 11 points and seven rebounds.

In consolation games, Juneau edged West Valley 41-40 and Bartlett pounded Kodiak 80-53.

Girls

Free throws powered Dimond and Wasilla to victories.

Dimond outscored Colony 20-8 from the foul line in its three-point win, and Wasilla outscored East 18-7 from the line in its eight-point win.

Alissa Pili hit 12 of 16 free throws and Jahnna Hajdukovich hit all seven of hers to spark Dimond.

Pili finished with impressive totals of 26 points, 14 rebounds and four assists. Hajdukovich added 19 points and five rebounds.

Colony, which led 49-47 going into the fourth quarter, got 16 points and five rebounds from Amanda Smith. Kali Bull supplied 11 points and four rebounds.

In Wasilla's win, Olivia Davies hit 7 of 12 free throws, McKenna Dinkel hit 5 of 6 and Azlynn Brandenburg hit 5 of 8.

Davies finished with 14 points to go with four steals, Dinkel had 11 points and eight rebounds and Brandenburg scored nine points.

East led 32-30 after three quarters but was outscored 16-6 in the final quarter.

Azaria Robinson led the T-birds with 14 points. Tennae Voliva grabbed nine rebounds and Daisy Page added nine points and six rebounds.

In loser-out games, Chugiak downed Ketchikan 57-43 and Lathrop ousted Juneau 58-43.

Friday's scores

Boys

Wasilla 50, Ketchikan 43 (semifinal)
Dimond 53, East 51 OT (semifinal)
Juneau 41, West Valley 40 (loser out)
Bartlett 80, Kodiak 53 (loser out)

Girls

Dimond 61, Colony 58 (semifinal)
Wasilla 46, East 38 (semifinal)
Lathrop 58, Juneau 43 (loser out)
Chugiak 57, Ketchikan 43 (loser out)

Saturday's games

Boys
10 a.m. — East vs. Ketchikan, 3rd place (Alaska Airlines Center)
12:30 p.m. — Juneau vs. Bartlett, 4th place (Wells Fargo Sports Complex)
7:45 p.m. — Dimond vs. Wasilla, championship (Alaska Airlines Center)

Girls

8:30 a.m. — East vs. Colony, 3rd place (Alaska Airlines Center)
11 a.m. — Chugiak vs. Lathrop, 4th place (Wells Fargo Sports Complex)
5:45 p.m. — Dimond vs. Wasilla, championship (Alaska Airlines Center)

I told my friend her constant wedding talk was boring. Now she's kicking me out of the bridal party.

Fri, 03/24/2017 - 22:42

Dear Wayne and Wanda,

My best friend recently got engaged and now all she talks about is her wedding. It's seriously like aliens have taken her over. Every post on Facebook is about her wedding — what kind of veil she should have, or photos from trying on dresses, or links to her fundraising page for her honeymoon. Every Pinterest post has to do with DIY wedding stuff. Centerpieces. Bridal gifts. Playlists. I'm so over it already, and the wedding is not until summer 2018 — as in, more than a year away!!

The guy she is marrying is honestly great, but it's really the first real relationship she has had in years. She has struggled with her self-image and I think for a long time didn't even think she would get married. She had to work through some things and now is in a much healthier and happier place, but part of me also worries she has rushed into this marriage because she has wanted the ideal of marriage so badly that she said yes without even thinking about whether he was right.

Whether he is or isn't, only she knows. But the other night — admittedly after several glasses of wine — I basically told her that her constant wedding prattle was boring (I wish I could say I said it nicer than that but I really didn't) and I told her I was worried she said yes only because he asked and she's eager to get married.

Now she's angry at me for being "unsupportive" and says maybe I shouldn't be a bridesmaid, or even attend. I feel horrible for upsetting her but stand by my feelings. What should I do?

Wanda says: 

You nailed it. When so many of our girlfriends get engaged, it's truly as though some alternative life form takes over their body — one capable only of conversations about venues, honeymoons, florists, cakes, caterers and gowns. And all the while, we look on in disbelief and amazement and wonder if our intelligent friend with whom we had such wide-ranging and fascinating experiences will ever return; or, conversely, if we are doomed to an eternal conversation about mermaid versus ballgowns, and whether to toss rice or quinoa.

Let me break it down: Your friend as you knew her is temporarily gone, at least until after the wedding. And you've got to cut her some slack. She is certainly on cloud nine and elated at this romantic turn of events. This should be one of the most memorable and amazing times of her life and especially if she never foresaw finding someone, she is surely overwhelmed with intense, joyous emotions, and all the planning and details that must occur to deploy an awesome wedding.

[Advice: When wedding proposals prove problematic]

Here's the truth: This isn't about you. You might be bored, or feeling left out, or questioning her motives, but that's what's happens when our besties marry their partners. This is about her happiness, her future, and her transplanting all of her long-rooted wishes and dreams for her wedding day into one grand show of lifetime commitment and adoration.

The marital train has left the station and rather than question her motives, get off the tracks, come aboard, and ask her what she needs to make the transition smooth and wonderful. Because that's what friends do.

Is she making decisions emotionally because she's overwhelmed that someone "chose her?" Maybe. But your role isn't to intercede, dissuade or persuade; it's to be there for your friend, who is barreling through one of the most formative and fascinating times of her life and needs support from those who love her.

Wayne says:

Wow — supportive much? Your bestie who has struggled emotionally and romantically over the years has had her fairy tale come true. She's riding a high: happy, energetic and looking forward to the biggest day of her life and a future with her partner. Of course she wants to share it with her best friend! And you tell her she's boring you? I'll echo her: Maybe you shouldn't be a bridesmaid.

Look, I dislike wedding commitments as much as anyone. Tux fittings, event prepping, forced conversations and awkward partying random strangers? Yeah, I'd rather be skiing or hiking. But at least there's free beer, food and music. Oh, and at least I'm there for my friend. Friends make sacrifices. Friends go above and beyond when they are needed. Friends stand outside for two hours in a starchy suit on a ridiculously humid, 90-degree day getting photos taken and watching their besties get married. Friends are there for the planning, prepping, kissing, reception and sometimes even the post-reception cleanup.

You are not that kind of friend. You think this is all about you, your feelings and your perspective on her decisions. Newsflash: This is her special day. Yes, she wants and needs your friendship and backing on the decision-making and logistics — that's what bridesmaids, good friends, moms and sisters are for.

If providing this level of support is so annoying and exhausting for you, tell her you don't want to be a part of it. Stop armchair quarterbacking and player hating — be true to yourself and honest with her and tell her you want out. And then stay the heck out of her way. Don't expect to be in any of the awesome wedding photos or part of the epic bachelorette party retellings. And don't expect to be her best friend anymore.

Want to respond to a recent column, point out a dating trend, or ask Wanda and Wayne for wisdom regarding your love life? Give them a shout at wanda@alaskadispatch.com.

Grace Christian boys, ACS girls grab spots in 3A championship games

Fri, 03/24/2017 - 22:39

The Grace Christian boys and the Anchorage Christian girls will play for state basketball championships Saturday after each knocked off the defending champions from Barrow in Friday's Class 3A semifinals at the Alaska Airlines Center.

Grace Christian beat two-time defending champion Barrow boys 42-36 and will play for the title at 3:15 p.m. against Monroe, a 42-40 winner over Valdez.

ACS upset the Barrow girls 53-50 and will take on Sitka, a 35-15 winner over Nikiski, in the 1:15 p.m. title match.

Boys

Grace Christian will play in the boys championship game for the third time in four seasons.

And while the Grizzlies have made frequent championship game appearances in the last four seasons, they haven't won a state title since they captured back-to-back crowns in 2000 and 2001.

Grace Christian's Tobin Karlberg hit 9 of 10 free throws on his way to a game-high 19 points. The Grizzlies outscored Barrow 14-7 in the fourth quarter to secure the win.

"It just all came down to free throws and just being mentally tough," Karlberg said. "Despite anything that was going on in the crowd, we just had to stay focused, remain confident, because we've played these guys three other times already this season. We knew that we had beat them before, we knew that we could beat them, so it just came down to getting it done down the stretch."

During the regular season, Barrow was 2-1 against Grace. The Grizzlies took a neutral-court win at the Dimond Lynx Prep Shootout, and the Whalers beat Grace in Barrow and at Grace Christian. In their homecourt loss, the Grizzlies squandered a 13-point lead, Karlberg said.

"So we kinda had a bad taste in our mouths," he said. "Coming into this game we really wanted to get them back."

Brogan Nieder chipped in 15 points for Grace, and both he and Karlberg had three steals.

Barrow was led by freshman Anthony Fruean's 15 points. Travis Adam dished four assists but was limited to seven points.

The semifinal game was a rematch of last year's state championship game, where Barrow claimed a narrow 33-31 win. Saturday's title game will be a rematch of the 2014 title game, which Monroe won 58-47.

In its win over Valdez on Friday, Monroe didn't surrender a point in the first quarter. Valdez trailed 31-22 after three quarters but made things close by outscoring the Rams 18-11 in the final eight minutes.

Divon Davis led Monroe with 10 points, six rebounds and five steals. Ryan Brandley added 11 points and Isaac Garcia hit three triples for nine points.

Seth Auble of Valdez topped all scorers with 18 points on 7 of 13 shooting. Bennet Hinkle collected eight rebounds for the Buccaneers.

In Friday's earlier boys action, ACS stayed alive with a 69-45 rout of Sitka and Bethel survived with a 57-44 win over Delta.

Girls

The championship game will feature two recent champions — 2015 champ Sitka and 2014 champ ACS.

ACS surprised Barrow thanks to 20 points, five assists and five steals from Destiny Reimers and a double-double from Jordan Todd.

Todd supplied 10 points and 10 rebounds and Chaunice Carr added 13 points and six rebounds for the Lions.

ACS took advantage of 25 Barrow turnovers and owned a 15-8 edge at the foul line.

Barrow's Milya Wright totaled 12 points, five rebounds and five steals and Alaina Wolgemuth drained three triples on her way to 11 points.

Sitka survived a low-scoring affair with Nikiski thanks to Tatum Bayne's 19 points and 13 rebounds. Zoe Krupa added 10 points.

The Wolves jumped to a 19-3 lead in the first quarter but managed 16 points the rest of the way. Nikiski was held to five first-half points and five points in each of the final two quarters.

In loser-out game on Friday, Grace Christian tripped Valdez 43-23 and Bethel stopped Galena 58-34.

Friday’s scores

Boys

Grace Christian 42, Barrow 36 (semifinal)
Monroe 42, Valdez 40 (semifinal)
ACS 69, Sitka 45 (loser out)
Bethel 57, Delta 44 (loser out)

Girls

ACS 53, Barrow 50 (semifinal)

Sitka 35, Nikiski 15 (semifinal)

Grace Christian 43, Valdez 23 (loser out)

Bethel 58, Galena 34 (loser out)

Saturday's games

Boys

8:30 a.m. — Valdez vs. Barrow, 3rd place (Alaska Airlines Center)
9:30 a.m. — ACS vs. bethel, 4th place (Wells Fargo Sports Complex)
3:15 p.m. — Grace Christian vs. Monroe, championship (Alaska Airlines Center)

Girls

8 a.m. — Grace vs. Bethel, 4th place (Wells Fargo Sports Complex)

10 a.m. — Barrow vs. Nikiski, 3rd place (Alaska Airlines Center)

1:15 p.m. — ACS vs. Sitka, championship (Alaska Airlines Center)

Here's what it's like to be a stand-up comedian in Anchorage

Fri, 03/24/2017 - 22:27

"That's depressing," Anchorage stand-up comic Matt Burgoon said after I told him Alaska Dispatch News was interested in running a story about Anchorage's stand-up scene.

Burgoon, who during a set said he "looks like Macaulay Culkin if he let himself go," is a member of a small, but dedicated group of comics who perform nearly every Wednesday and Sunday during open-mic night at Chilkoot Charlie's. In the winter between 10 to 15 audience members typically filled the barroom. Despite the small crowds, Burgoon structures his life around stand-up. He schedules his college classes around open mics and annoys his girlfriend late at night asking her opinion about jokes that pop into his head.

Matt Collins is a KWHL DJ by day and Koot's open mic host by night. He's been telling jokes on Anchorage stages for seven years. In 2015, he performed more than 100 times in venues across the city, mostly at Koot's.

"It can get really demoralizing, sometimes, doing open mics," Collins said. "We'll have weeks, months where no one shows up and it will just be the comics, and then you're just telling a joke to an empty room. Nothing is more isolating than that kind of feeling."

Still, about a dozen comedians show up night after night. When people do come, they're laughing. The comics perform for each other as much as their audience. They view open mic as a way to cut their teeth on new material and test it out on one another. Even if no one's there, they still go at it.

Editor's note: The audio clips below include mature content.

"We've been doing it together for a while," Burgoon said. "There's a core group. We go to everyone's birthday parties and stuff like that. We're pretty incestuous."

Money doesn't drive these comics, who are mostly men in their late 20s and early 30s. There's no way to make a living, or even supplement an income, performing comedy in Anchorage. Passion for the craft drives them, which makes the shows fun to watch, because they're having a hell of a good time.

"The reason I still do it here (in Anchorage) is because I love getting on stage and doing it," Burgoon said. "I love telling jokes, that feeling you get after you tell a joke and then everyone starts laughing, it's like, 'Hell yeah. I did that to you.' I made everyone have a reaction and laugh. It's a really good feeling."

The comedians also organize comedy showcases at venues like Tap Root Public House and Hard Rock Cafe. Unlike an open mic, where anybody can get onstage and talk for five minutes, showcases are by invitation only. They occur every few months and are more highly attended.

Between biweekly open mics and showcases, the comics' material is surprisingly varied. If a joke didn't hit, they recalibrate and deliver the material in a different, mostly better way another night.

Collins tries to perform new material as often as possible. He views stand-up comedy philosophically, as a way to live an examined life, and to connect with others through humor. He carries a notebook, his daily observations and thoughts stuffed in the pages that will ultimately become a story to tell.

"The great thing about stand-up and storytelling is that you get to share that kind of (unique) life experience," Collins said. "I get to hear people talk about their lives that I would never have met unless I was doing this."

Like many comedians interviewed, Collins credited former Koot's events manager Greg Chaille, who at one time managed Mitch Hedberg, with regularly bringing in larger crowds. Tapping his industry contacts, he'd bring headliners to town, sometimes twice a month, and the best local talent would open the set. Chaille's since moved on, and it's left an organizational hole the locals are trying to fill, along with trying to recruit new talent into the fold.

Many of the newer Anchorage comics started as audience members. The more seasoned locals, especially Collins, encourage newbies to try it out.

"At this level it's so accessible to everyone," Collins said. "If you come to enough open mics you will wind up trying stand-up comedy. You will see so many people fail at a joke or have a joke hit that you think, 'Oh my God, I've had that same thought. I can do that.' If that person can do it, then I sure can as well."

Katelynn Sortino is one such person. The 27-year-old social worker, who once accidentally dated a convicted murderer on Tinder, first stepped onstage about five months ago, three months after she saw an open mic advertised on a flier and began attending. The comedians found out Sortino started writing her own jokes and pushed her to perform.

"It was nerve-wracking and I was shaking," Sortino said of her first time on the Koot's stage.

"I've done public speaking before but I've never done a vulnerable thing like this. I thought, 'This is my sense of humor, and I'm putting it on display and you might not like it and it might be super embarrassing but I'm going to try it anyway.' "

She got some laughs and ended up enjoying the experience. The second time around things fell flat, she didn't get as many laughs, but she said the other comedians picked her up and dusted her off.

"They're super supportive," Sortino said. "A lot of the comedians who participate in open mic here do it because the community is so welcoming and encouraging."

At the time of our interview Sortino had performed at six open mics and one showcase. Despite her success in the local scene, and similar to several other comics interviewed, she said performing professional stand-up is not on her agenda.

"I think it's more of a hobby," Sortino said. "I don't plan on ever going pro. For me it's just something I enjoy doing. It makes me think of the world differently."

Perhaps local comic Rudy Ascott summed it up best after a Koot's audience member heckled him and the evening's entertainment as "amateur hour."

It'd only be insulting, he said, if he "aspired to be anything other than amateur."

It was the best joke of the night.

Get the politics out of health care -- or settle for Band-Aids

Fri, 03/24/2017 - 22:00

Health care policy is one of the most complicated and contentious issues facing our country today. For the past several years, we have been living under the Affordable Care Act, the Democrats' best effort to provide a solution to the American health care system. With the recent release of the Republicans' American Health Care Act, we see an attempt at a plan from the other side of the aisle. Though there are significant differences between the two pieces of legislation, the summation of their efforts is piecemeal policy that attempts to find ways to pay for an overpriced and misdirected health care system without introducing structurally significant changes to drive down costs or to improve the overall health of Americans.

Health is a multifaceted condition in which medicine plays a surprisingly limited role. According to a report from the Minnesota Department of Health, clinical care accounts for just 10 percent of Americans' overall health. Much more important (about 50 percent) are issues that in our current system fall under the umbrella of "social services:" stable housing, sufficient and nutritious food, job and income stability, and personal safety. But when discussing health care policy, we tend to ignore this larger picture of health and to focus only on its medical aspects. The government's role in delivering what we think of as "social services" is an even more politicized topic than the government's role in health care.

[Republicans pull health care plan in setback for Trump]

When we look closely at the facts and the costs of treating disease, we find that health care and social services cannot be cleanly separated. The less we spend providing access to healthy foods, the more we spend on hospitalizations related to cardiovascular disease, poorly-controlled diabetes, and obesity. The less we spend on quality low-income housing, the more we spend on a child's recurrent emergency room visits to treat preventable asthma attacks, and the more surgeries need to be performed because a homeless man didn't have the resources to keep his feet dry. These high-cost, late-stage interventions need to be paid for, and it's your money that is being spent on the inefficiencies of a health care system that doesn't put health first.

In theory, we consider health to be a standard everyone should be able to access: this is why we have laws that allow anyone to be seen in an ER, regardless of their ability to pay. But hospitals and emergency departments are some of the most expensive pieces of our health care system, and they are currently our catch-all for patients whose ailments might have been treated, controlled or prevented at a much-reduced cost if they had access to basic health and community services. Health in its true, holistic form will never be achievable as a nation as long as our health care policy proposals continue to ignore the social factors that are the largest contributor to Americans' health.

As Alaskans, we have unique health care needs and a responsibility to make sure people all across our vast and diverse state have proper access to health care and to health. It is imperative that we demand better. Health care should not be at the whim of political party infighting. It should not be treated as a bargaining chip, and it should not be designed based on corporate lobbyists or campaign funding. We must embrace solutions that would both decrease the real cost of health care and decrease the demand for health care services by keeping people from getting sick in the first place.

[House health bill must be fair for Alaskans, congressional delegation says]

Medical research and innovation in this country often focus on the development of new medical techniques, cures and treatments. We should continue these advancements and take pride in them. But we should also take pride in developing innovative ways to prevent illness, keep people healthy, and develop strong and healthy communities. It will save money, and it will save lives.

We need to continue to demand intelligent conversations, demand courage for real and radical change, and demand that our leaders take action to truly improve health, not just to find financial workarounds that keep people breathing. Health is not just a talking point of the established political machine. It is people's lives. It is your life.

Kate Simeon is a medical student at the University of Washington School of Medicine, WWAMI Alaska Campus. Graduates of Alaska's WWAMI (Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho) program comprise 14 percent of working physicians in Alaska, and the goal is to have nearly all of the annual 20-student class return to practice in Alaska after finishing their education.

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary@alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@alaskadispatch.com.

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