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House and Senate: New Approach to Funding Pensions

The legislature approved a plan Sunday to fund state pensions and lower future payment costs.

After considering a Senate amendment of House Bill 385, the House voted unanimously to approve the measure, which would put $2 billion into the teacher's retirement system, and an additional $1 billion into the public employee's retirement system.

The $3 billion savings deposit into the state's retirement trust funds was praised by Gov. Sean Parnell, who said in a release that the move will lower the annual payment paid by the state. 

“With this legislation, we are strengthening the state’s triple-A bond rating and ensuring future generations are not saddled with this debt," Gov. Parnell said.

The bill is now awaiting transmittal to Gov. Parnell's desk.

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Alaska Unemployment Estimated 6.7 Percent

The Department of Labor issued its report on unemployment  in the state of Alaska for the month of March.

Adjusting for seasonal jobs in the state, an estimated 6.7 percent were unemployed in March, a total of 27,031 people. That is a one-tenth of a one percent increase from February. Without the seasonal adjustment, the unemployment rate was at 7.4 percent, down from 7.7 percent in February.

The national average for March was 6.7 percent, on par with February, which saw a slight decrease from January. The national average has been on the decline since peaking at 10 percent in 2009, when it rose above Alaska's rate of unemployment.

Alaska's unemployment rate has historically been higher than the national average, which saw a few years of higher unemployment during the latest recession. As the national average decreases, many experts believe it will once again come under Alaska's unemployment rate.

Alaska: Blue | National: Gray

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Alaskans Stage Sit-In for Native Languages Bill

As the Senate debates the future of House Bill 216, Alaskan Natives from around the state have gathered in the wings of the state capitol building to show their support of the measure.

Staging a sit-in, a large group of Natives from several tribes in the state crowded the halls awaiting the final decision on the bill that would make 20 Alaska Native languages official languages of the state of Alaska. Several tribal elders, Native group leaders, teens, and even young children with their parents stood together, advocating the bill to reporters and staff members walking by.

The Alaska Native Sisterhood Grand President Freda Westman spoke briefly of the importance of the bill for future generations and the continuance of native culture. Several children came forward with her to speak in their native tongues, and were joined by their elders as Westman led them to sing “When His Wounded Hands Touched Mine” in English and Tlingit.

Just before 3 p.m., Sen. Lesil McGuire (R-District K) spoke to the group, reassuring them that the bill “would be out today, one way or another”. The group applauded her announcement and several shouted “gunalcheesh”, Tlingit for thank you.

“I haven’t heard of anyone not supporting it,” McGuire told the group. “You have a lot of support for this bill.”

House Bill 216, if passed, would allow the state of Alaska to officially recognize the Inupiaq, Siberian Yupik, Central Alaskan Yup'ik, Alutiiq, Unangax, Dena'ina, Deg Xinag, Holikachuk, Koyukon, Upper Kuskokwim, Gwich'in, Tanana, Upper Tanana, Tanacross, Hän, Ahtna, Eyak, Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian languages as the state’s official languages, along with English. An amendment to the bill states that English is the only language required for state and court proceedings.

The bill was passed unanimously by the House earlier this week, and awaits the Senate’s final approval before moving on to Gov. Sean Parnell’s desk for his signature.

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Valley Residents Get Sneak Peek at KGB Road Project

Knik-Goose Bay Road in the Mat-Su Valley sees as many as 18,000 commuters a day, a number that could double by the year 2039. The state Department of Transportation and Public Facilities hopes a reconstruction project will make it safer.

“It’s already way past the time when somebody has done something about it,” said Lois Weir, a Wasilla resident.

Weir, a longtime resident of Wasilla, attended a DOTPF open house to explain the project to Valley residents Wednesday night. She says she’s seen and heard a lot while living near what locals call KGB Road.

“Almost nightly and sometimes several times a night, several times during the day, we hear the ambulance going by on the KGB Road because of another accident, another person injured,” Weir said.

There have been more than 35 fatal accidents since 1977 on the road, and Weir is looking forward to a new reconstruction project DOTPF officials say will address high death and injury crash rates.

The growing population in the Mat-Su Valley is another concern.

“Eighteen thousand cars a day is like approaching 10,000 cars a lane -- that’s the same as (Anchorage's) Tudor Road -- it’s full,” said Scott Thomas, a DOTPF traffic engineer.

By adding medians, more lanes and wider shoulders, DOTPF officials hope the accident rate goes down while traffic picks up.

“When roads are full, there’s not a lot of room for error or judgment -- people have to really be alert," Thomas said. "I would say that the sheer volume of traffic is the main factor.”

Gerry Welsh, the project manager for the road reconstruction, said expanding the road will be safer and more commuter-friendly. It will also be able to handle traffic from possible future projects, such as the proposed Knik Arm Bridge which would connect the Mat-Su Valley to Anchorage.

Either way, Welsh said this road is needed.

“We believe the traffic is going to double with or without the Knik Arm Bridge,” Welsh said.

Construction is expected to begin by the year 2017, after an environmental impact study is complete and the final design is submitted. DOTPF is proposing to construct four lanes at first, but officials predict that an additional two lanes will be needed by 2034.

More information on the Knik-Goose Bay Road reconstruction project is available on its website.

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Providence Drive Reopens After Injury Rollover near UAA

A single-vehicle rollover crash with minor injuries on Providence Drive temporarily closed its westbound lanes Saturday afternoon near the University of Alaska Anchorage, according to local police. APD spokesperson Dani Myren says police received an initial report about the crash, at Providence’s intersection with Spirit Drive, just after 4:30 p.m. One female patient was taken from the vehicle for treatment.

"The driver was transported to the hospital with what appear to be minor injuries," Myren said.

Word wasn't immediately available on the cause of the crash Saturday night.

"As far as the accident itself, that's still under investigation by officers," Myren said. APD reported on Twitter that Providence's westbound lanes were reopened as of about 5:40 p.m.

Channel 2's Phil Walczak contributed information to this story.

This is a developing story. Please check and the Channel 2 newscasts for updates.

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Senate Finance Advances Education Bill

The Senate Finance Committee has advanced a broad-ranging education bill that adds more money to public education and raises the required local contribution for schools. The committee has proposed $100 million in extra funding for districts over the next three years, in addition to support for charter schools, residential schools, correspondence programs and other initiatives. The $100 million would be distributed to districts outside the per-student funding formula known as the base student allocation. Some lawmakers say the formula needs to be examined. The committee, in its rewrite of HB278, proposes a study of how the state funds education. But critics say having the extra funding in the formula ensures it's there and helps districts plan. The bill raises the local mill levy and allows for greater voluntary contributions by municipalities.

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5:00 Report (April 19)

(KTUU-TV, 2014)

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Woman Arrested for DUI in South Anchorage T-Bone Crash

A woman has been arrested on a DUI charge after Anchorage police say she caused a T-bone collision involving her pickup truck and a sedan near the Independence Park area early Saturday morning. According to a Saturday statement from APD spokesperson Dani Myren, police received a call at about 12:45 a.m. about the crash involving 21-year-old Ariel McGrew, at the intersection of Abbott Road and Independence Drive. Myren says a black sedan at the scene had extensive front-end damage, while McGrew’s gray 2011 Chevy Silverado was lying on its passenger side in the intersection. “No major or life-threatening injuries were reported, although (McGrew) was transported by APD to the hospital where she was cleared a short time later.” Myren says that McGrew provided two breath-alcohol content samples during her arrest for a misdemeanor DUI, a 0.183 followed by a 0.175. Both are more than double Alaska’s legal limit for driving of 0.08. It wasn’t immediately clear Saturday afternoon how many people were in the sedan, but Myren emphasizes that the outcome could have been much worse. “It’s just by luck, really, that nobody was seriously injured,” Myren said. “When you drive intoxicated, you’re obviously playing a deadly gamble with people’s lives.” The intersection was briefly closed as police investigated the crash. Channel 2’s Mallory Peebles and Aaron Weaver contributed information to this story.

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Palmer Woman Cited for Texting in Near-Crash with Trooper

A Palmer woman at the wheel of a heavy-duty pickup truck was cited Saturday, after an Alaska State Trooper says she nearly collided with his sport-utility vehicle because she was texting while driving. According to a Saturday AST dispatch, 20-year-old Madison Miller was stopped at about 11:40 a.m. “(Troopers) conducted a traffic stop on a Ford F-350 truck for driving left of center in a no-passing zone causing both the driver and a trooper in the oncoming lane to take evasive action to avoid a collision,” troopers wrote. In an email to Channel 2, AST spokesperson Beth Ipsen says the incident involved Trooper Joel Miner, with the Southcentral Team of the Alaska Bureau of Highway Patrol. The stop occurred at “about 2.5 mile of the Clark-Wolverine Road at the tight S curves.” Miller was cited for texting while driving as well as reckless driving, both misdemeanor offenses. She was released after promising to appear in court.

State lawmakers have made two attempts to ban texting while driving. The first, in 2008, was challenged in court because it didn't mention texting; the second, which bans most data entry or retrieval on cellphones and other devices while driving, has been effective since June 2013.

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Senate Passes New Approach to Pension Obligation

The Alaska Senate unanimously passed legislation setting out a new approach for addressing the state's pension obligation.      The vote came a few hours after the bill advanced from committee.      The Senate rewrite of HB385 calls for putting $2 billion from savings toward the teachers' retirement system and $1 billion toward the public employees' system.      It's an alternative to Gov. Sean Parnell's plan, which called for divvying the $3 billion differently. Parnell's plan, which passed the House, called for $500 million annual payments between the two systems after the cash infusion. The plan endorsed by the Senate starts with lower payments.      Revenue commissioner Angela Rodell told the Senate Finance Committee earlier Saturday that its approach would work well.      The House will have to decide whether to agree to the Senate approach.

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Legislature Passes Updated Synthetic Marijuana Ban

The Alaska Legislature has passed a bill intended to ban the sale of synthetic marijuana statewide, based on new language which targets its packaging rather than its chemical components. According to the office of Sen. Kevin Meyer (R-Anchorage), Senate Bill 173 passed the chamber unanimously on a 20-0 vote Saturday afternoon. Lawmakers had earlier tried to ban the chemicals in synthetic marijuana, sold under names such as “Spice,” “Zombie Killer” and “Twilight Zone.” The 2011 law was rapidly outflanked by manufacturers, however, who simply used different compounds in their products. Earlier this month, the Wasilla City Council also passed a local law aimed at banning the sale of Spice, following pressure from locals who have lost loved ones to the drug. The Legislature’s bill now goes to Gov. Sean Parnell for his signature. Channel 2’s Adam Pinsker contributed information to this story.

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Fairbanks Man Arrested in Assault of Bloodied Woman

A Fairbanks man was arrested on multiple domestic-violence assault charges early Saturday, after Alaska State Troopers say his victim was spotted along an area road Friday. In a Saturday AST dispatch, troopers say 36-year-old Wesley Lord was arrested Saturday morning on one count of second-degree assault, two counts of fourth-degree assault and six counts of violating conditions of his release. The initial assault was reported to Fairbanks troopers at about 3:30 a.m. Friday. “Troopers responded to a report of a female covered in blood on University Avenue,” troopers wrote. “Investigation revealed that (Lord) had assaulted an adult female.” In an email to Channel 2, AST spokesperson Beth Ipsen says the assault occurred at a Hess Avenue residence, near University Avenue. An ambulance was called for the woman, but no further details on her condition were immediately available. It wasn’t clear exactly which conditions of release Lord allegedly violated, but Ipsen says most inmates commonly receive at least one condition. “Usually when you're released from jail on conditions one of them is to not commit any new crimes,” Ipsen wrote. “I'd say he violated that one.” After his arrest in the case, Lord was remanded to the Fairbanks Correctional Center.

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Mat-Su Firefighters Keep Outbuilding Fire from Spreading

Mat-Su Valley firefighters safely extinguished a fire at a Wasilla outbuilding before it had a chance to spread to nearby woods Saturday morning, fire officials say. Dennis Brodigan, director of the Mat-Su Borough’s Department of Emergency Services, says several crews were dispatched to the fire, on the 300 block of South Gastman Court. Initial reports described it as a working fire at 11:20 a.m., but Brodigan says it was quickly brought under control. “The first two units that arrived pretty much had it handled,” Brodigan said. “It caught a little bit of the trees on fire, but they’re already sending units back.” No injuries were reported in the incident.

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Troopers Arrest 4 People After 2-Person Fairbanks Rollover

A Friday single-vehicle rollover of a car with two people in it led Alaska State Troopers to make four arrests including one for DUI, after the vehicle’s occupants allegedly left the crash and walked to a nearby home. According to an email from AST spokesperson Beth Ipsen, troopers had responded to the crash of a 2005 blue Chevrolet Impala on the Mitchell Expressway, near its Airport Way exit. After finding the vehicle unoccupied at about 6 a.m. Friday, they located both of its occupants at a nearby home. “Investigation revealed that 26-year-old Christine Michael was driving intoxicated when the vehicle exited the roadway,” troopers wrote in a dispatch on the incident. “The passenger, Eric Jimmie, was found to be violating his probation, for which he was later arrested.” Two other people at the residence were also arrested, with 55-year-old Thomas Oliver taken into custody for providing false information and violating conditions of his release. Bradley Jimmy, 31, was picked up on an outstanding arrest warrant. As of Saturday afternoon, court records show four charges listed against Michael: DUI, third-degree assault, reckless driving and driving without a valid driver’s license. Ipsen says it’s not clear Saturday whether Michael and Jimmie left the Impala to avoid prosecution, or for some other reason. “(We) can't say for sure, but the driver did call 911 at about 6:23 a.m.,” Ipsen wrote. The Impala’s occupants were briefly taken to Fairbanks Memorial Hospital for treatment of minor injuries sustained in the crash. After troopers’ investigation, all four people arrested were reunited -- at the Fairbanks Correctional Center.

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Alaska Supreme Court: State Has Duty to Protect Inmates

The Alaska Supreme Court says a former prison inmate can move forward with a lawsuit claiming corrections officers failed to protect him from another inmate. The justices said in an opinion Friday that the state has a duty to protect inmates in its custody. The Anchorage Daily News says Richard Mattox was seriously injured by another prisoner in 2007. He said he warned officers of trouble with inmates in his prison block. Mattox sued the state for negligence, but Palmer Superior Court Judge Vanessa White threw the case out in 2011. The judge said Mattox didn't show that the corrections department had been given notice of a specific threat against him. The high court said that bar is too high. State lawyers say they're disappointed with the decision.

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Carnival Cruise Ship Cancels 15 Ketchikan Port Calls

Ketchikan will have about 30,000 fewer cruise ship passengers this summer after technical issues prompted one line to cancel 15 port calls. The Ketchikan Daily News reports Carnival Cruise Lines had 20 port calls scheduled this summer. But the liner Miracle has a technical issue that will lower its top speed from 21 knots to anywhere between 18 to 20 knots. By bypassing Ketchikan, the Miracle will spend more time in Juneau and Sitka. After the ship completes its Alaska and Hawaii schedules this year, it will report to drydock in early 2015 for repairs.

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Alaskans Unharmed in Deadly Mount Everest Avalanche

Friday is being called the "deadliest day" ever on the world's highest peak. Tragedy swept down Mount Everest in its early hours, as an avalanche claimed the lives of at least 12 Sherpa guides.

Two Alaskans were on Mount Everest when it happened. Joyce Mayer says her husband, Douglas Franklin, was trekking Everest for the first time when he heard the snow slide.

"He was on a slope with a view of Everest by base camp when the avalanche happened," Mayer said.

Mayer says her husband, who does computer work for Cycle 360, always wanted to see Mount Everest.

"They were not at an angle where they could see the avalanche, but he definitely heard it," Mayer said. "He heard two really loud cracks, and when they got a view of the mountainside there was a really big scar in it."

Franklin's wife says rugged activity at home helped prepare him for his visit to Everest.

"He's a very active guy, he hikes and climbs all over the Chugach," Mayer said.

According to Mayer, Franklin hiked back to base camp where crews were already moving bodies off the mountain. He was descending as of Saturday morning.

Ty Hardt, the director of communications director for the Arctic Slope Regional Corp., climbed the mountain last year. He says it's not uncommon for avalanches to happen in what's known as the "popcorn field," where Friday's slide happened.

"You have a massive problem with avalanches along the western shoulder," Hardt said.

Hardt says the journey through the area is challenging.

"It's a section on the mountain that you don't spend a lot of time on, you don't take a lot of rest," Hardt said. "It's an area where it's OK to move as fast as you possibly can, because -- again -- the ice that you're moving on is continually moving."

Hardt says he's sure Friday's disaster will affect everyone on the mountain, whether or not they were at the scene of the avalanche.

"I'm sure right now the attitude at base camp is very somber," Hardt said.

Paula Leonard, a Sitka woman who was also on the mountain at the time the avalanche happened, posted on her Facebook page to reassure people back home.

"The avalanche was in the ice fall this morning. My team is good," Leonard wrote. "Thanks for all of the support."

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Chihuahua Abduction Indicative of Hungry Owls

Local bird rescue officials say Great Horned Owls are having a difficult time finding food this spring. That's the theory behind a recent attempted abduction of a Chihuahua dog by an owl near Homer.

The Bird Treatment and Learning Center in Anchorage has received eight injured owls so far this year, with many of them showing signs of hunger. Staff are currently treating an owl with a head injury, and many of the owls that are dropped off for treatment have broken wings after being hit by cars.

In the Homer case, Bird TLC recently received an owl that had attempted to capture a Chihuahua but was hit by a car. The dog reportedly survived the attack.

“Normally they wouldn't go after a Chihuahua. It's not their normal prey, it's not -- obviously there are no wild Chihuahuas for them to practice on," said Heather Merewood, Bird TLC's executive director. "They would have to be pretty desperate to go after (one), no offense to any Chihuahuas.”

Bird TLC staff are looking to train hands-on volunteers in May. The center is always in need of financial donations to care for injured birds.

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Effort Under Way to Redesign Town Square Park

Several organizations are collaborating to address a problem park in Downtown Anchorage and hear possible design ideas from the public on how to make it safer.

Town Square Park has experienced a shift in the population that visits in recent years, according to city officials, Anchorage police and nearby businesses. It has become a place that attracts negative -- and sometimes illegal -- behavior, according to Holly Spoth-Torres, director of the city's Department of Parks and Recreation.

"We're starting to experience a lot of problems in Town Square (Park), whether it's crime or people just don't feel safe," said Spoth-Torres.

Nearby businesses like Kobuk Coffee Co. are fed up with what they see on almost a daily basis. Nina Bonito-Romine, co-owner of the gift shop, has complained to the city numerous times. She has made frequent calls to police to report negative incidents.

On Thursday, a Kobuk staff member called police after a man began throwing knives at the building. She has had to clean up alcohol bottles, drug paraphernalia and human waste.

"It's very ugly, and for such a beautiful space, it's time to look at how to mitigate those issues so it's harder for people to get away with it," Bonito-Romine said.

Complaints from the public and the Downtown business community have  prompted several groups to address possible designs that may better suit Anchorage and make the park safer. Currently, hills and tall trees create a secluded place for people to gather, not easily visible from the street. Spoth-Torres says this helps hide illegal activities.

However, some people believe the park should be left as-is. Scotty Pasco, 21, is homeless and spends a lot of his time at Town Square.

"People that live on the streets are always in the public eye, and it's kind of nice to be able to have fellowship somewhere where people aren't just watching you 24/7," Pasco said.

Multiple organizations have come together to hold what they call a Town Square Park Charrette -- essentially a design effort that the public is invited to participate in.

"People are starting to think differently of what Town Square Park could be, and I don't want anybody to be afraid," Spoth-Torres said. "We're going to respect the past but move into the future, so that it functions better for the Downtown community."

The Town Square Park Design Charrette will take place on Saturday, April 26 from 9:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. at the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts. Individuals are encouraged to register online to participate.

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College Gate Students Motivate Others To Stay Active

Editor's note: This story is the first in Spotlight on Youth, a regular series highlighting the positive effects Alaskan students have on communities across the state.

At College Gate Elementary, home of the Cougars, physical education is not your typical gym class. Using a combination of fitness and fun, these kids won a nationwide competition that brought the current Super Bowl MVP in their building.

From high-stepping in the Super Bowl to figuring out steps at College Gate -- what would bring Seattle Seahawks linebacker Malcolm Smith to the East Anchorage school?

Besides giving NFL players dance lessons, when it comes to fitness College Gate takes it seriously.

Competing in the NFL's "Fuel Up to Play 60" video contest, students beat out hundreds of schools across the country to prove how healthy and active they are.

At any of College Gate students' physical education classes, however, moving is what they do every day. Just ask Derrick "DJ" Glass who has also learned how to eat healthier. 

"I would tell people to eat at least five to six fruit and veggies a day," said the sixth grader. "Sometimes we don't play sports that we play in PE, but we still have fun and stay fit and work with each other."

With activities like Team Pirate Ball, a game similar to Capture the Flag., PE teacher Katie Povolo says she tries to inspire kids to stay in shape.

"The important thing for me is that they are doing it, they are involved, they are making the effort, they're building the habit," Povolo said.

College Gate staff are trying to get students to move -- not just in the gym, but in their everyday lives. That's exactly what sixth grader Roine Faupula is doing.

"One day I told my parents that we should go and walk to East High School and play basketball, so we did before and we still do it," Faupula said. "You can go out and play 60 minutes a day and you can go to a park with your friends and play tag."

Smith's visit to College Gate was only part of the school's prize, alongside a $15,000 donation to the school's PE program. Povolo says she's using the money to buy new cross-country skis and snowshoes for students to use.



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