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Updated: 2 hours 53 min ago

Man found dead 50 yards from his home in Alakanuk

3 hours 59 min ago

An Alakanuk man's body was discovered near his home last week after his snowmachine got stuck and he died of exposure, troopers said.

No foul play is suspected in the death of 40-year-old Paul Ayunerak, Alaska State Troopers said in a Wednesday dispatch. Troopers were informed Feb. 16 that Ayunerak had been found dead in Alakanuk, a Yukon River community of 700 people.

"Investigation shows that (Ayunerak) got his snowmachine stuck in deep snow approximately 50 yards from his house," troopers wrote. "Ayunerak took off most of his clothing and laid down in the snow near the machine. It appears he succumbed to exposure."

Removing clothing, also referred to as "paradoxical undressing," can be a warning sign of severe hypothermia, according to a 2012 study published in the International Journal of Circumpolar Health. In that study, about 30 percent of 207 studied cases of fatal hypothermia exhibited some degree of paradoxical undressing.

Troopers spokeswoman Megan Peters said investigators received reports that Ayunerak had been drinking alcohol prior to his death. She didn't have word on when his body was discovered or whether anybody else was at Ayunerak's home at the time.

Craig Eckert, the observing program leader at the National Weather Service office in Fairbanks, said the closest weather readouts available for the time of Ayunerak's death were from Bethel, about 160 miles southeast of Alakanuk. On Feb. 15, Bethel's high temperature was 18 degrees with a low of 2 degrees.

Winds were moderate in Bethel at the time, Eckert said.

"It wasn't brutal, but you can't be exposed for very long," Eckert said.

Ayunerak's body was taken to the State Medical Examiner Office in Anchorage for an autopsy.

Murkowski tells Legislature she’ll consult Alaska leaders before voting on repeal of Medicaid expansion

4 hours 41 min ago

JUNEAU — U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski moved Wednesday to ease Alaskans' concerns about congressional Republicans' plans for the Affordable Care Act, telling an audience of lawmakers in Juneau that she "will not support a reckless repeal process" for the health law.

Murkowski, in her annual address to the Alaska Legislature, told lawmakers that she would not vote to repeal the expanded Medicaid health care program — a key component of the health law — as long as the Legislature wants to keep it.

The expanded Medicaid program began in Alaska under an executive order by Gov. Bill Walker in 2015, and it now covers some 29,000 low-income residents. The federal government paid the full costs through the end of 2016, and will scale back to 90 percent support by 2020. The Legislature has neither voted to support expanded Medicaid, nor voted to kill it.

Total payments made under the expanded program are $350 million through the end of last month, according to state data.

Murkowski said she was concerned about the long-term cost of the expanded Medicaid program. But she said it had also strengthened Alaska's Native health care system and reduced the number of uninsured people visiting emergency rooms.

"So as long as this Legislature wants to keep the expansion, Alaska should have that option," Murkowski said. "So I will not vote to repeal it."

Murkowski, in a follow-up news conference, said she was trying to make clear her position that Congress' plans for the Medicaid expansion should be directed by state leaders, including governors.

"We should be looking to what our state wants to do with the Medicaid expansion," she told reporters. "And that's why we're looking to the governors for advice."

Murkowski, at her speech Wednesday, also reiterated her position that some pieces of the Affordable Care Act should be preserved if congressional Republicans repeal the law.

She said people under 26 years old should be allowed to remain on their parents' health plans; mental health coverage should still be provided at the same level as coverage for physical illness; and insurers should remain barred from declining to cover people with pre-existing conditions.

She also said federal money should not be used to pay for abortions, though she made clear that she wouldn't support GOP efforts to strip federal money from Planned Parenthood.

"I, for one, do not believe that Planned Parenthood has any place in our deliberations on the Affordable Care Act. Taxpayer dollars should never be used to pay for abortions, but I will not vote to deny Alaskans access to the health services that Planned Parenthood provides," she said.

Deaths of 2 found in burned SUV in Soldotna ruled accidental

5 hours 35 min ago

The deaths of two Soldotna residents found in a burned SUV in November have been ruled accidental, after a monthslong investigation by state and federal authorities.

Alaska State Troopers announced the findings in the deaths of Daniel Duck, 39, and Joni Pearcy, 52, in an online dispatch Wednesday. Their bodies were found inside a Ford Bronco "in a wooded area off a trail" on Nov. 27, troopers said previously.

"Toxicology results show impairment and carbon monoxide inhalation were factors," troopers wrote.

The two had last been seen alive at a Soldotna home on the night of Nov. 14. They were reported as missing persons on Nov. 20, and the Bronco was found not far from that home a week later.

Duck and Pearcy's remains were separately identified in December, based on dental and medical records, but troopers wouldn't comment further on the investigation at that time.

Troopers spokeswoman Megan Peters said the Bronco apparently hadn't crashed prior to the fire.

"It doesn't sound like they were driving – they were essentially staying in it," Peters said.

The State Medical Examiner Office focused on determining Duck and Pearcy's causes of death, Peters said, while the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives helped examine the fire and its cause.

Peters said investigators were only able to offer conjecture about how the fatal blaze may have ignited, however, due to how little of the vehicle remained after it burned.

"It sounds like it was potentially from not extinguishing smoking materials," Peters said. "When you have fires and they burn a lot, it eliminates some of the evidence."

Former Guantanamo Bay detainee said to have turned suicide bomber

6 hours 19 min ago

LONDON — A British suicide bomber who blew himself up in Iraq was identified as a former Guantanamo Bay detainee, prompting questions about how his case was handled after lawmakers and the media lobbied hard for his release.

Jamal al-Harith is said to have detonated a bomb this week at an army base near Mosul.

The Islamic State identified the 50-year-old bomber as Abu Zakariya al-Britani, a Muslim convert from Manchester. He was born Ronald Fiddler and was known more widely in Britain as Jamal al-Harith.

In March 2004, after a massive campaign by politicians and the media, Harith was released from the U.S. base at Guantanamo Bay along with four others who had been held for two years without trial.

He received a reported 1 million pounds in compensation after the British government settled a lawsuit alleging that British agents were complicit in his torture. The payout was arranged in 2010, when the Conservative Party's David Cameron was prime minister.

Born in Manchester, Harith worked for a time as a Web designer and later converted to Islam. Shortly after 9/11, he was kidnapped when crossing the Pakistan-Afghanistan border and a few months later was handed over to the Americans and transferred to Guantanamo.

A decade after his return to the United Kingdom, he traveled to Syria to join the Islamic State.

Questions have been raised about how he slipped through the surveillance net and whether it was right for the British government to campaign for his release and then pay him compensation.

Arthur Snell, the former head of Prevent, the government's flagship counterextremism program, said that British authorities had failed to keep tabs on Harith.

Speaking to the BBC, he said: "It's obvious that collectively the authorities – and obviously I have some personal responsibility there – we failed to be aware of what Fiddler was up to."

He said that there was a "whole range of monitoring activities," from close surveillance to programs to identify those at risk of radicalization.

"More often, the services are in the mental health space rather than law enforcement. It's impossible to say what was happening in that 10-year period, but what is very clear is that there was a problem and it wasn't adequately dealt with."

The Daily Mail, a British tabloid, took a swipe at Tony Blair, who was prime minister when Harith was released from the prison camp in Cuba.

"Still Think He Wasn't A Danger, Mr Blair? Fury at Labour government's £1m compensation for innocent Brit," a headline read.

In a strongly worded statement, Blair called the Mail's coverage "utter hypocrisy."

"It is correct that Jamal al-Harith was released from Guantanamo Bay at the request of the British Government in 2004," he wrote. "This followed a Parliamentary and massive media campaign, led by the Daily Mail, the very paper that is now supposedly so outraged at his release and strongly supported by the then Conservative Opposition. The Mail headline shortly after he was released after months of their campaigning was 'Freedom At Last for Guantanamo Britons.' "

Jack Straw, a Labour politician who served as foreign secretary under Blair, told the BBC that he did not think the Blair administration had made a mistake.

"I don't think I did get it wrong," Straw said. "It's got to be acceptable, we have to be grown-up about this, that if you are asking ministers to release people. . . sometimes they may carry on with criminal activities."

A girl named Ehlena and a dog named Wonder win at U.S. Supreme Court

6 hours 34 min ago

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday sided with a disabled Michigan girl whose school refused to let her bring her service dog to class, making it easier for students like her to seek redress for discrimination in federal court.

The justices ruled 8-0 that Ehlena Fry, 13, and her parents may not be obligated to go through time-consuming administrative appeals with the local school board before suing for damages for the emotional distress she said she suffered by being denied the assistance of her dog, a goldendoodle named Wonder.

Ehlena was born with cerebral palsy, a neurological condition that severely limited her mobility. Wonder was trained to help her balance, retrieve dropped items, open and close doors, turn on lights, take off her coat and other tasks.

"I saw with my own eyes how Wonder helped my daughter grow more self-reliant and confident," Stacy Fry, Ehlena's mother, said in a statement. "We are thankful that the Supreme Court has clarified that schools cannot treat children with disabilities differently or stand in the way of their desired independence."

The justices sent the case back to a lower appeals court to determine whether Ehlena's complaint involves the impermissible denial of a proper special education.

The dispute arose in 2009 when Ehlena's elementary school in Napoleon, Michigan refused to allow her to attend school with Wonder. The school said she already had a one-on-one human aide, as part of her individualized special education program.

The family eventually moved to a different school district where Wonder was welcomed. They filed suit in 2012 in federal court, claiming discrimination under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, which permits service dogs in public institutions.

The American Civil Liberties Union, which represented the family, said the ruling will remove unfair legal hurdles for victims of discrimination that prevent students from seeking justice guaranteed by the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Napoleon Community Schools Superintendent Jim Graham said he had no comment.

Ehlena and her parents sued the school district seeking money damages for emotional harm, claiming the school deprived Ehlena of her independence, including in intimate settings such as the bathroom.

Wednesday's ruling overturned a 2015 decision by the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati, Ohio upholding a dismissal of the lawsuit. The appeals court had said that under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), a federal law governing special education, the family had to exhaust all of the administrative hearings in its service dog dispute with local and state officials before filing suit.

Writing for the court on Wednesday, Justice Elena Kagan said that if the substance of a lawsuit does not claim the denial of a proper special education under IDEA, then exhausting the administrative remedies is not required.

Muslims raise $78,000-plus for vandalized Jewish cemetery in Missouri

7 hours 29 min ago

NEW YORK – Muslim Americans have helped raise more than $78,000 to repair vandalized headstones at a Jewish cemetery in St. Louis, Missouri, according to an online fundraising page, amid attacks and threats against Jewish institutions.

About 170 headstones were toppled or damaged at the century-old Chesed Shel Emeth Society cemetery over the weekend, according to cemetery staff.

Some Jewish groups described the vandalism and threats as the latest evidence that anti-Semitic groups have been emboldened by the election of Donald Trump as U.S. president. His campaign last year drew the support of white nationalists and right-wing groups, despite his disavowals of them.

"Muslim Americans stand in solidarity with the Jewish-American community to condemn this horrific act of desecration," the fundraisers said on their website. More than 2,700 people had donated $78,546 as of Wednesday afternoon.

Jewish community centers across the United States have reported a surge in bomb threats, all of which have so far proved to be hoaxes. On Wednesday afternoon, the Anti-Defamation League, one of the country's most prominent Jewish advocacy groups, said its national headquarters in New York City received an anonymous bomb threat but was later given the all clear.

Trump condemned the threats as anti-Semitism for the first time on Tuesday after repeatedly declining to do so when asked by journalists last week. Some Jewish organizations have criticized his approach, saying they fear that the groups that supported Trump had become more active.

The fundraising effort was launched by Linda Sarsour, a liberal political activist, and Tarek El-Messidi, the founding director of Celebrate Mercy, a non-profit organization that teaches the public about Mohammad, the founder of Islam.

On Tuesday night, Sarsour posted on Twitter that she was raising the funds "in solidarity with our Jewish sisters and brothers."

Sarsour was a supporter of U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders in his bid to become the Democratic Party's presidential candidate, and went on to become one of the organizers of the Women's March on Washington, which drew record crowds to the capital on Jan. 21, the day after Trump's inauguration.

Cemetery staff, who did not respond to a request for comment, were still calculating the cost of repairing the damaged tombstones as of Tuesday. The organizers of the fundraising campaign said they would donate any excess funds to repair "any other vandalized Jewish centers."

7 newly discovered planets could be the best places in the galaxy to search for life

7 hours 48 min ago

A newfound solar system just 39 light years away contains seven warm, rocky, Earthlike planets, scientists say.

The discovery, reported Wednesday in the journal Nature, represents the first time astronomers have ever detected so many terrestrial planets orbiting a single star. Researchers say the system is an ideal laboratory for studying alien worlds and could be the best place in the galaxy to search for life beyond Earth.

"Before this, if you wanted to study terrestrial planets, we had only four of them and they were all in our solar system," said lead author Michaël Gillon, an exoplanet researcher at the University of Liège in Belgium. "Now we have seven Earth-sized planets to expand our understanding. Yes, we have the possibility to find water and life. But even if we don't, whatever we find will be super interesting."

The newly discovered solar system resembles a scaled-down version of our own. The star at its center, an ultracool dwarf called TRAPPIST-1, is less than a tenth the size of the sun and about a quarter as warm. Its planets circle tightly around it; the closest takes just a day and a half to complete an orbit, the most distant takes about 20 days. If these planets orbited a larger, brighter star they'd be fried to a crisp. But TRAPPIST-1 is so cool that all seven of the bodies are bathed in just the right amount of warmth to hold liquid water. And three of them receive the same amount of heat as Venus, Earth and Mars, putting them in "the habitable zone," that Goldilocks region where it's thought life can thrive.

Still, "Earthlike" is a generous term to describe these worlds. Though the planets of the TRAPPIST-1 system resemble Earth in terms of size, mass, and the energy they receive from their star, there's a lot that makes our planet livable beside being a warm rock. Further observation is required to figure out what the TRAPPIST-1 planets are made of, if they have atmospheres, and whether they hold water, methane, oxygen and carbon dioxide – the molecules that scientists consider "biosignatures," or signs of life.

"You can bet people will be rushing to take those measurements," said Elisabeth Adams, an exoplanet researcher at the Planetary Science Institute who was not involved in the study. "That's going to be fascinating to see."

Whatever secrets it may harbor, the TRAPPIST-1 system will surely be a sight to behold. Though the star is small, its nearness to the planets means that, from their perspective, it appears about three times as large as our sun. The outermost planets enjoy the daily spectacle of their neighbors passing across the sky and in front of their shared sun, each world a large dark spot silhouetted against the salmon-colored star. Its dim glow, which skews toward the red and infrared end of the light spectrum, bathes the planets in warmth and paints their skies with the crimson hues of a perpetual sunset.

Gillon and his colleagues have been interested in TRAPPIST-1 since late 2015. Using the European Southern Observatory's Transiting Planets and Planetesimals Small Telescope (TRAPPIST) in Chile, they sensed small dips in the star's brightness at regular intervals. These dips were caused by planets transiting – crossing between the star and Earth – and blocking some of its light. Last May, the scientists published their discovery in Nature: three rocky bodies, dubbed TRAPPIST-1b, -1c and -1d, orbited the small star, they said.

But right around the time the study was published, Gillon noticed that TRAPPIST-1d was behaving oddly. When he went to get a closer look with the Very Large Telescope, ESO's gigantic observatory in the Atacama Desert, he realized that the dip in brightness he thought came from 1d was actually caused by three planets, all transiting at the same time.

This happens only once every three years, said Julien de Wit, a planetary scientist at MIT and a co-author on the study. "The chance of catching it is less than one in a thousand," he explained. "It's funny because it's such a huge paper with amazing results, and we got it from sheer luck."

Next the team hurried to request time at the Spitzer Space Telescope, whose Earth-trailing orbit around the Sun offered an uninterrupted view of TRAPPIST-1 and its companions. During 20 days with the Spitzer telescope, the team witnessed 34 transits.

These observations "lifted the veil on the architecture of the system," as de Wit put it. Instead of three, TRAPPIST-1 had seven planets, which were renamed TRAPPIST-1b through -h in order of their distance from the star.

The scientists determined that the six inner planets are locked in an orbital resonance, meaning that lengths of their orbits are related by a ratio of whole numbers. Because of this, the bodies exert regular gravitational influences on one another. By measuring those influences, the astronomers could determine the mass of the planets, something that is impossible to figure out from transiting data alone. That in turn allowed them to loosely calculate their densities – giving a sense of how much iron, rock, water and gas the bodies contain.

The fact the planets are in orbital resonance also suggests that they formed farther out from their sun and then migrated inward, Gillon said. This makes it more likely that they will contain water in some form, since water and other volatile compounds (molecules that readily turn to gas) tend to concentrate on the outer edges of solar systems.

Coincidentally, TRAPPIST-1 is located in the constellation Aquarius – the water bearer.

For years, evidence has accumulated that the Milky Way galaxy is full of Earthlike planets. The discovery of seven such worlds around a single, faint star suggests that they may be even more common than originally thought.

Gillon and his colleagues plan to seek out similar solar systems with a new project, Search for Habitable Planets Eclipsing Ultracool Stars, or SPECULOOS. (Like Trappist beer, speculoos cookies are a Belgian delicacy. His next effort will have to be called WAFFLES.)

Meanwhile, scientists are scrambling to get a better look at the Proxima b, a rocky world that was discovered orbiting the sun's nearest neighbor, Proxima Centauri, last August.

But the TRAPPIST-1 researchers, along with several astronomers not involved with the study, say this system is our best target yet to search for extraterrestrial life. Though exoplanet scientists often focus on worlds orbiting sun-like stars, the brightness of those stars makes it difficult to spot small rocky planets. TRAPPIST-1's planets are easy to find amid its dim, cool glow. And the closeness of the system puts it within the reach of the James Webb Space Telescope, which will be able to detect atmospheric components and thermal emissions from the planets after it launches in 2018.

In the meantime, telescopes on several continents have been trained on the system to search for signs of life. Last summer, the scientists published an early analysis of the atmospheres of planets b and c using data from the Hubble Space Telescope.

"This is direct exploration of another solar system that is happening right now," said Gillon.

Planets e, f and g are the most intriguing targets for astrobiologists because of their position in TRAPPIST-1's habitable zone. But even if they turn out to be warm and wet, these worlds might not be great places to live. The planets' proximity to the star and one another means that they are probably tidally locked, like Earth's moon. One side of each planet always faces the sun, the other is stuck in constant darkness. This would make for a dramatic temperature gradient that could generate powerful winds – not exactly an Earthling's idea of a cozy home.

And Adams of the Planetary Science Institute cautioned that it's very hard to tell whether a planet is habitable from a distance. An observer outside our solar system might look at Venus, Earth and Mars and reason that the sun hosts three habitable worlds. The alien would need to travel here in person to discover that Venus is a cloudy hellscape with a runaway greenhouse effect, while Mars is a barren, frozen desert with a defunct internal dynamo.

"There are a lot of ways in which a planet could be like Earth, but not enough," Adams said.

Another major caveat, she added, is that the very idea of a "habitable world" is purely theoretical. Scientists have only one source of data on habitable planets, and that's Earth. "We don't actually know the parameters that are needed for life on another world," Adams said, "h ow much it has to look exactly like Earth, and how different life could be elsewhere."

Still, even if no life is discovered on them, the TRAPPIST-1 planets present an unprecedented new window on how solar systems work. Though each planet is more or less Earth-sized, their varying densities and distances allow for detailed comparisons of the worlds. It's almost as if someone designed an experiment in planet formation, controlling for the bodies' size.

De Wit compared the new planets to seven new languages, each offering a new vocabulary for describing their corner of the universe.

"They all have a slightly different perspective on the same story," he said, "the story of this solar system."

Rejecting 'noxious' prejudice, Supreme Court backs death row inmate

8 hours 32 min ago

WASHINGTON – The U.S. Supreme Court gave a Texas death row inmate a chance to avoid execution on Wednesday, with Chief Justice John Roberts denouncing the "noxious strain of racial prejudice" that infected the case when a defense witness testified the man was more likely to commit future crimes because he is black.

The 6-2 ruling handed a victory to convicted murderer Duane Buck, 53, who had challenged his death sentence in a state that long has led the nation in executions, citing the racially biased testimony by a psychologist called by his own trial lawyer.

Buck's lawyers said the ruling, authored by the conservative Roberts, paved the way for either for a life sentence or a new sentencing hearing.

"Today's decision sends a powerful message that no court can turn a blind eye to racial bias in the administration of criminal justice," said Christina Swarns of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, one of Buck's lawyers.

"Given the persistence of racialized fears, stereotypes, and discrimination, this decision is as important to the country as it is to Duane Buck," Swarns added.

Buck was convicted of fatally shooting his former girlfriend while her young children watched, as well as another man, during a 1995 argument in Houston. A police officer testified that after being detained Buck laughed and said, "The bitch got what she deserved."

Clinical psychologist Walter Quijano testified as a defense witness during the sentencing phase of the trial on the key issue of Buck's likelihood of committing future offenses. Quijano said race was among the "statistical factors" he weighed in deciding whether a person posed an ongoing danger because it is "a sad commentary that minorities, Hispanics and black people, are over-represented in the criminal justice system."

A prosecutor then asked Quijano if he had determined that "the race factor, black, increases the future dangerousness for various complicated reasons." Quijano replied: "Yes."

Roberts wrote that Quijano's testimony was clearly prejudicial to Buck, even if it was only a small part of the proceeding.

"Some toxins are deadly in small doses," Roberts wrote, adding that the expert testimony "appealed to a powerful racial stereotype" of black men as violent predators.

"Dr. Quijano's opinion coincided precisely with a particularly noxious strain of racial prejudice," Roberts added.

Roberts said a lower court's refusal to allow Buck to challenge his sentence was "a disturbing departure from a basic premise of our criminal justice system: Our law punishes people for what they do, not who they are."

"Dispensing punishment on the basis of an immutable characteristic flatly contravenes this guiding principle," Roberts added.

The court found Buck's trial lawyer violated Buck's right under the U.S. Constitution to be represented by competent counsel. Buck's current lawyers said the supposed link between race and future dangerousness has been proven false.

Death penalty opponents have pointed to statistics showing black defendants to be far more likely than white defendants to be sentenced to die, and argue that racial bias endures in the American criminal justice system and in death penalty cases in particular.

Texas has executed more people than any other state since capital punishment was reinstated in the United States four decades ago, including two already this year.

"We are disappointed with the court's ruling, but await further proceedings," said Marc Rylander, a spokesman for Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, a Republican.

Liberal justices in previous cases have said the death penalty may constitute unconstitutional cruel and unusual punishment but the high court has shown little appetite to tackle the issue of the constitutionality of capital punishment.

The chief justice's language on racial injustice was notable, in part because Roberts has a history of ruling against civil rights groups on issues such as racial preferences in university admissions and voting rights. But in individual cases, Roberts has called out racial injustice in criminal cases.

In May 2016, he wrote the opinion when the court threw out a black Georgia inmate's conviction for murdering a white woman, saying prosecutors unlawfully excluded black potential jurors in picking an all-white jury that condemned him to death.

In Wednesday's case, conservative justices Clarence Thomas, the court's only black member, and Samuel Alito dissented. In his dissent, Thomas said the ruling was limited to the facts in Buck's case and would have narrow implications.

"Having settled on a desired outcome, the court bulldozes procedural obstacles and misapplies settled law to justify it," Thomas wrote.

Texas in 2002 allowed six other death row inmates convicted in trials in which Quijano gave similar testimony to get new sentencing hearings but objected in Buck's case.

All six of those prisoners were again sentenced to death. Three have been executed.

Emails show EPA chief Pruitt’s close ties to energy industry

9 hours 51 min ago

Oklahoma has turned over about 7,500 pages of emails between former Attorney General Scott Pruitt's office and the energy industry, meeting a deadline set by a judge who ordered the documents' release following more than two years of effort by an advocacy organization.

The Center for Media and Democracy, which went to court to compel the state to release the emails under public records laws, said Wednesday that they offer more details about the close ties that Pruitt, now administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, has long had with the oil and gas industry.

"The newly released emails reveal a close and friendly relationship between Scott Pruitt's office and the fossil fuel industry, with frequent meetings, calls, dinners and other events," Nick Surgey, the center's research director, said in a statement.

Specifically, the organization noted an effort by one lobbying group to coordinate opposition in 2013 to a federal program requiring that transportation fuel sold in the United States contain a certain amount of renewable fuels. Its rationale was that arguments against the measure would be "more credible coming from a state."

Some of the emails show a close relationship with Devon Energy, a major oil and gas exploration and production company based in Oklahoma City. Much of the correspondence revolves around arranging speaking engagements, obtaining contact information for people at the Office of Management and Budget, and coordinating letter-writing efforts.

At one point, Pruitt's chief of staff, Melissa Houston. wrote in a Jan. 9, 2013 email to William Whitsitt, Devon's vice president for public affairs, "You are so amazingly helpful!!! Thank you so much!!!"

[Pruitt to EPA employees: 'We don't have to choose' between jobs and the environment]

In another email chain on March 21, 2013, Whitsitt writes to Pruitt's office offering a draft of a letter that state attorneys general might sign and send to the then-acting EPA administrator regarding limits on methane emissions. Devon, which has substantial shale gas and shale oil drilling operations, would have been affected by the rule.

"Attached is a potential first-cut draft of a letter a (bipartisan if possible?) group of AGs might send to the acting EPA administrator and some others in the Administration in response to the NE states' notice of intent to sue for more E&P; emission regulation," Whitsitt wrote. "It would be a shot across the bow, warning EPA not to not go down a negotiated-rulemaking or wink-at-a sue-and-settle tee-up process."

Whitsitt also offered strategic advice. "If sent, I'd suggest that it be made public, at least to the Hill and to policy community publications," he wrote. "It seems to me this would also be a logical outgrowth of the fossil energy AGs meeting and could be powerful with a number of signers. It is also the kind of thing that in the future could be run through the clearinghouse we discussed. Please let me know what you and General Pruitt think, or if we can help further."

Pruitt's close ties to Devon Energy were first highlighted by The New York Times in 2014, which reported that a letter ostensibly written by the attorney general alleging that the EPA overestimated air pollution from natural gas drilling was actually written by the company's lawyers. "That's actually called representative government in my view of the world," Pruitt later said of the letter.

The emails' release comes just days after Pruitt was confirmed as the EPA's new leader. Senate Democrats and environmental groups made a last-minute push to delay his confirmation vote last week, contending that lawmakers – and the public – ought to be able to review his correspondence with industry officials before putting him in charge of safeguarding the nation's environment. Republicans forged ahead anyway, and Pruitt was confirmed by a 52-46 vote.

In a statement Tuesday, the Oklahoma attorney general's office said it "went above and beyond what is required under the Open Records Act and produced thousands of additional documents that, but for the Court's order, would typically be considered records" outside the scope of the act. "This broad disclosure should provide affirmation that, despite politically motivated allegations, the Office of the Attorney General remains fully committed to the letter and spirit of the Open Records Act," spokesman Lincoln Ferguson said.

The attorney general's office withheld some documents as exempted or privileged and has asked Judge Aletia Haynes Timmons to review whether they should be released, according to the Center for Media and Democracy. Timmons also ordered Pruitt's former office to hand over records related to five outstanding records requests by early next week.

After unsuccessfully seeking the release of Pruitt's correspondence with fossil-fuel representatives under public records laws, the center filed suit over his refusal to turn over the documents and requested the expedited hearing that led to Timmons's order last Thursday. In her ruling, the judge said there had been "an abject failure to provide prompt and reasonable access to documents requested."

Pruitt sued the EPA more than a dozen times during the Obama administration, challenging the agency's authority to regulate toxic mercury pollution, smog, carbon emissions from power plants and the quality of wetlands and other waters. During his tenure in Oklahoma, he dismantled a specialized environmental protection unit that had existed under his Democratic predecessor and established a "federalism unit" to combat what he called "unwarranted regulation and systematic overreach" by Washington.

These moves won him widespread opposition from environmental activists but praise from fellow Republicans and industry representatives, who saw him as a friend to businesses and a staunch opponent of federal regulations they called unnecessary and burdensome.

On Tuesday, Pruitt addressed EPA employees for the first time as their new boss. He spoke of stepping back from the aggressive regulations of recent years and said that there needn't be a contradiction between environmental protection and energy production or job creation.

"We as an agency and we as a nation can be both pro-energy and jobs and pro-environment," he said. "We don't have to choose between the two."

How an interoffice spat at NOAA erupted into a climate-change furor

10 hours 34 min ago

A few weeks ago, on an obscure climate-change blog, a retired government scientist named John Bates blasted his former boss on an esoteric point about archiving temperature data.

It was little more than lingering workplace bad blood, said Bates' former co-workers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Bates had felt he deserved his boss' job at NOAA, they said, not the demotion he received.

"He's retaliating. It's like grade school," said Glenn Rutledge, a former physical scientist at NOAA who worked with Bates.

But in what seems like a remarkable example of office politics gone horribly wrong, within days the accusations were amplified and sensationalized — in the pages of the British tabloid The Mail on Sunday — inciting a global furor among climate-change deniers.

The Mail claimed that Bates had revealed fraud in important research by NOAA that supports the widely held belief that climate change is real. "How world leaders were duped into investing billions over manipulated global warming data," the article's headline said.

The scientific community swiftly shot down the accusations, and affirmed the accuracy of the research. And Bates later stated in an interview with a business news site that he had not meant to suggest that his former boss had played fast and loose with temperature data. "The issue here is not an issue of tampering with data," Bates said.

Still, Bates has emerged as a hero to some conservative media outlets and politicians, and among climate-change deniers on Facebook and Twitter.

Texas congressman and longtime climate skeptic Lamar Smith posted a link to a summary of the claims multiple times on Twitter. The House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, which Smith heads, took up the controversy at a hearing.

NOAA is bringing in independent investigators to review Bates' claims. "NOAA takes seriously any accusations that its policies and procedures have not been followed," a spokesman, Scott Smullen, said in a statement.

Bates did not respond to repeated requests for comment nor to detailed questions about the incident and his former co-workers' characterizations.

Interviews with six of his former colleagues at NOAA's National Centers for Environmental Information, including two former bosses, painted a picture of a room filled with brilliant scientists, and — like many workplaces — its fair share of mundane professional spats and jealousies.

Bates was demoted from a managerial role in 2012 under Thomas Karl — lead author of the study Bates has questioned — after complaints over Bates' professional conduct, according to the former colleagues and supervisors. He also became frustrated that his efforts to enforce strict procedures in the archiving of climate data were not getting as much attention as he had hoped.

"He was often heard saying that he, not Karl, should be running the center," said Marjorie McGuirk, former chief of staff at the data center.

At the heart of the furor is a study led by Karl, former director of NOAA's data center. The NOAA center handles the nation's trove of climate and weather data. Karl's study had refuted earlier work suggesting that global warming had slowed earlier in this century.

According to the article in The Mail, Bates claimed that the study relied on problematic data. The researchers threw out good data on sea temperatures recorded on buoys, and "corrected" it with what he said was bad data from ships, Bates said, according to The Mail.

"You never change good data to agree with bad, but that's what they did — so as to make it look as if the sea was warmer," he was quoted in The Mail as saying. The Mail on Sunday article also argued that the study had been rushed into the journal Science to influence the 2015 Paris climate deal, in which world leaders agreed to curb planet-warming emissions.

David Rose, the author of The Mail on Sunday article, said in a Twitter correspondence that he stood by his reporting.

The Mail on Sunday, together with its sister tabloid, The Daily Mail, in the past has been accused of publishing work that disputed the widely held scientific belief that warming is the result of human activity.

The outcry over Bates' claims points to a push by some in the right-wing media to cast doubt on established climate science, and to dispel public support for emissions regulations. Breitbart, the right-wing website formerly run by Stephen Bannon, President Donald Trump's chief strategist, repeatedly played up Bates' claims. "John Bates has provided the smoking gun," it reported. Fox News called the accusations "explosive."

Breitbart and Fox News did not respond to a request for comment.

"I think there's already been enormous damage," said Bob Ward, a researcher at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics. "What they're trying to do is to slow the pace of action on climate change."

In his interview with the business news site Energy and Environment this month, Bates stated that the issue wasn't with data tampering. Rather, he said, his issue was that some of the processed data used in the report wasn't subsequently archived in accordance with strict protocols that Bates had developed. In other words, it was a filing problem, not a science problem.

The paper's authors disputed that strict archiving of the calculations was necessary, because all of the original data used in the report was properly archived. And the data was subsequently made available to other researchers, said Tom Peterson, a research meteorologist who is a co-author of the study with Karl.

Former colleagues said that, in aiming at his former boss, Bates was motivated by more than scientific zeal.

McGuirk said that one of her responsibilities had been to manage what she described as frequent complaints about Bates' behavior in the workplace. Those complaints led to his demotion in 2012 from his post as head of the data center's satellite and remote sensing division, where he supervised a dozen or so employees, to a position as principal scientist, which involved no managerial duties, she said.

"This episode is consistent with his history of outbursts," she said.

McGuirk said that she had filed a complaint against Bates, based on his conduct at a staff meeting in 2009. At that meeting, Dr. Bates shouted that McGuirk was not trustworthy and belonged in jail, according to an internal log detailing complaints against the scientist that was viewed by The New York Times.

Karl, lead author of the report that Bates criticized, said he was "flabbergasted" by Bates' accusations. "But the science has been validated and verified. I leave it to others to figure out what motivated him," he said in an interview.

Peterson said that he had last seen Bates on Saturday — the day before The Mail article appeared — at a play in Asheville, North Carolina, where the NOAA center is headquartered, and where many of these scientists still live. "I asked him how retirement was going," Peterson said.

"He said, 'It's going to get interesting,'" Peterson said. And when he asked Bates what he meant, "He smiled and gave me a thumbs up," Peterson said.

Then the two men turned to the evening's play, Peterson said. It was a performance of Shakespeare's "Much Ado About Nothing."

Here are the major elements of Trump's new immigration policies

11 hours 23 min ago

With an executive order last month and a pair of Department of Homeland Security memos Tuesday, the Trump administration has significantly hardened the country's policies regarding illegal immigration. Here are some of the most significant elements of the new approach:

Who will be deported

In 2014, the Obama administration issued guidelines for deporting unauthorized immigrants that placed the highest priority on gang members, and those who posed security threats. A goal was to concentrate limited resources on the most serious cases, but many Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents complained that the priorities tied their hands, taking away their discretion as to whom to pursue.

Under the new directives, the government "no longer will exempt classes or categories of removable aliens from potential enforcement." Immigration agents can now focus on picking up and removing anyone charged with or convicted of any criminal offense, even minor ones, as well as anyone already ordered deported, regardless of whether they have a criminal record.

One unauthorized immigrant in California, Kristina, who did not want her last name used because of fear of deportation, said she was alarmed to learn on Tuesday that she would now be considered a prime target. Kristina has been in the country for 25 years and has been ordered deported, but her removal had been postponed for the last four years by the Obama administration.

"We have our whole lives here; our children are citizens," she said. "Now I don't know if I can go out, if I should drive."

But the Obama guidelines "translated into de facto protections" for people with no legal right to live in the United States, said Dan Stein, president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which opposes legalization for unauthorized immigrants. Unless they fell into one of the high-priority categories, Stein said, "the chance of being deported was virtually zero."

‘Catch and release’

Under the Obama administration, people caught crossing the border without permission were often released into the United States while their requests for asylum wound through the immigration system, a process that can take years. Most requests are denied, but by then, the immigrant has been living in the United States all that time and may not be easy to find.

The Trump administration has declared an end to the so-called catch and release policy, though it may take a while to see any significant change. "Catch and release" came about in part because the government had nowhere to hold detainees waiting for immigration decisions. One of the memos released Tuesday directs officials to expand detention facilities, but it will take time to build centers big enough, or find enough room in jails, to hold the thousands of Mexican and Central American asylum seekers expected to cross the border this year.

The document also raises another alternative: sending migrants back to Mexico to wait out the immigration process, even those who are not originally from Mexico. That proposal comes with its own problems. Though U.S. law appears to allow it, Mexico's laws do not, if the immigrant is not a Mexican citizen.

No judge required

Two decades ago, Congress passed a law allowing the government to quickly deport unauthorized immigrants who have not been in the United States very long, without allowing them go before a judge.

In practice, the government has used this process, called "expedited removal," relatively narrowly because of concerns about whether it violates constitutional rights of due process that are granted to anyone in the United States, regardless of immigration status. Since 2002, expedited removal has been applied only to immigrants who have been in the country less than two weeks and were caught within 100 miles of the border. That is because the Supreme Court has held that such immigrants can still be considered "in transit" and not here long enough to qualify for due process protections.

The Trump administration is now planning to use expedited removal as extensively as the original law allows, saying that limits on its use had contributed to a backlog of more than half a million cases in immigration court.

Immigration advocates vowed to challenge the change.

"Someone could be living in Chicago for a year and a half and then be swept off the street by an ICE agent," said Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the ACLU's Immigrants' Rights Project, referring to Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents. "He is going to be detained and removed right away without ever seeing a judge."

Children traveling alone

One of the memos Tuesday acknowledges that children who arrive at the border alone — "unaccompanied alien children," in government parlance — are entitled to special protections: Unlike other border crossers, whom border patrol agents may deport without a legal hearing, these children must appear before an immigration judge and be interviewed by an asylum officer. Children have surged across the border in recent years, many fleeing violence and destitution in Central America.

But the memo turns a sterner face to their parents, who, under the new policy, may be subject to deportation or even prosecution for enabling their children to come into the country.

The memo notes that parents and relatives often pay smugglers several thousand dollars to bring their children from Central America, an act that the memo says amounts to facilitating illegal smuggling or trafficking.

Immigration advocates are predicting that the policy will drive parents of migrant children further underground. With parents fearful of prosecution, advocates say, navigating the immigration process — or even showing up to court — could become much harder for these children.


Some 750,000 people who were brought into the country as children were issued work permits and temporary protection from deportation under an Obama program known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. Even President Donald Trump said last week that the subject "is very, very difficult" for him and that he promised to "deal with DACA with heart."

So far, the Trump administration has left the program alone. But chills went through the community of "Dreamers," as DACA recipients are known, with the recent arrest of a 23-year-old Mexican immigrant in Washington state, Daniel Ramirez. Immigration agents arrested him when they went to his house to detain his father, a convicted drug trafficker. They said Ramirez admitted to having gang affiliations, which cancels the protection offered under DACA. But Ramirez denies having made the admission, and his lawyers are fighting his deportation.

Role of local police

A program known as 287(g), named for its section of the Immigration and Nationality Act, allows the Department of Homeland Security to train local and state law enforcement officers to work as de facto federal immigration officers, identifying undocumented immigrants in their communities and jails and turning them over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

From 2006 to 2013, the program led to 175,000 deportations, according to federal statistics. But investigations and court rulings revealed an ugly side effect: In some jurisdictions, local officers were using their authority to racially profile Latinos. One of the most egregious cases was in Maricopa County, Arizona's most populous, during the tenure of Sheriff Joseph Arpaio, who a federal judge ruled had discriminated against Latinos in patrols and other enforcement efforts.

The Obama administration curtailed the use of the program, which currently involves 32 agencies in 16 states. The Trump administration wants more agencies to take part, and some have already expressed a desire to do so.

Statistics and sanctuaries

The administration is trying to significantly expand the amount of information available on the enforcement of immigration laws and, in particular, unauthorized immigrants who commit crimes. Immigration and Customs Enforcement will establish a new office to work with the victims of crimes committed by undocumented immigrants, some of whom appeared with Trump on the campaign trail.

The office, known as Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement, or VOICE, will provide victims with information about defendants' immigration status and whether they are in jail. Significantly, funding for the office comes from reallocating "any and all resources that are currently used to advocate on behalf of illegal aliens" by Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

ICE will now have to provide monthly public reports on its apprehensions and releases. The agency also has to publish a weekly report about state and local authorities that release unauthorized immigrants from jails. That is a clear shot across the bow at so-called sanctuary cities that limit their cooperation with federal immigration authorities, contending that turning in unauthorized immigrants would destroy the fragile relationship that police have with immigrant communities.

"We are going to continue our policy that has been in place because we think that it helps us have a safer, stronger, better community," Mayor Stephanie A. Miner of Syracuse, New York, said Tuesday.

The Trump administration is already pondering ways to punish those cities by denying them some federal aid.

"Now everyone is going to be able to see how many criminal aliens are being released as a result of the sanctuary policies," said Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies, which supports tighter controls on immigration.

No privacy

In January 2009, the departing Bush administration extended some Privacy Act rights, which U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents already had, to unauthorized immigrants. That meant that information obtained by one agency, like the Internal Revenue Service or Citizenship and Immigration Services, could not generally be shared with other agencies, like Immigration and Customs Enforcement. One rationale for the move was to protect the personal information of immigrants who might one day become citizens covered by the Privacy Act.

The Trump administration has now rescinded those privacy protections. One of the memos released Tuesday said that those protections had been detrimental to the families of the victims of crimes committed by undocumented immigrants, because those families could not get information about such defendants' legal status, or whether they had been deported, leaving victims "feeling marginalized and without a voice."

The Department of Homeland Security said it would develop new rules on the sharing of unauthorized immigrants' private information. But advocates for immigrants said they feared that those who had applied for legal status — in the process divulging they were not here legally — were now in danger of having that information used to deport them.

"The constitution doesn't traditionally allow bait and switches," said Thomas A. Saenz, the president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, an organization that advocates for immigrants. "These are folks who submitted their information attempting to play by the rules, with part of the rules being that the government would protect their privacy."

Beefed-up force

The memos released Tuesday repeat Trump's demand in his executive order for a larger enforcement force that can speed up the removal of millions of immigrants illegally in the United States.

In practice, that may play out more slowly than the president might prefer. The source of this caution is none other than John F. Kelly, the homeland security secretary, who told lawmakers this month that he did not believe it would be possible to hire the desired 15,000 ICE and border patrol agents in the next couple of years.

"I'd rather have fewer and make sure that they're high-quality people," Kelly told lawmakers. "I will not skimp on the training and the standards."

On top of the stringent hiring standards and training, Border Patrol applicants are required to take a polygraph test, which nearly 60 percent fail. A previous surge in hiring under President George W. Bush resulted in dozens of corruption cases, with Border Patrol and other agents accused of taking bribes and providing information to Mexican drug cartels.

Facing orders to leave camp, Dakota Access stalwarts brace for police crackdown

12 hours 1 min ago

For months now, the population has dwindled at the Oceti Sakowin camp, the hub of the movement to stop the Dakota Access oil pipeline. At its peak last year, the 80-acre swath of prairie was home to 10,000 or more Native Americans and environmental activists who transformed the federally-owned land in North Dakota into a sort of communal village, complete with shelters, mess halls and community centers.

But the harsh Midwestern winter and a series of legal defeats in the fight over the pipeline took a toll on the activists' numbers. By mid-February, only a couple hundred stalwarts remained.

By the end of the day Wednesday, the last of them are expected to clear out, as well – either voluntarily or by force. One of the largest demonstrations of its kind will come to an end.

A mandatory evacuation order from the North Dakota governor and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is set to take effect at 2 p.m. local time. Anyone who stays behind will face arrest and trespassing charges.

Activists say they're bracing for the worst. Tribal leaders and camp organizers have urged anyone who decides to defy the evacuation order to remain "peaceful and prayerful." But some worry that Wednesday could bring a repeat of the mass arrests and violent clashes that took place between police and protesters in the fall.

"A massive, militarized police force will be moving through camp, going through structures and arresting people," John Bigelow, a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe who has lived at the camp for the past six months, told The Washington Post. "I expect there will be a certain number of people who will be in peaceful prayer who are willing to take a stand both against the pipeline and for indigenous rights. My greatest fear is that something may go awry and some people may get hurt."

Officials say Wednesday's evacuation is necessary for safety reasons. Part of the camp sits on a floodplain, they say, which could create dangerous conditions as the weather warms and the snow melts. Floodwaters could also wash trash and debris from the camp into the nearby rivers, according to North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem.

"The threat to the environment is very real and the situation is urgent," Stenehjem said in a statement last week. "This is about protecting the land and the waters of the Missouri River from pollution from tons of garbage, human waste and other hazardous items."

State officials said they have set up a "transition center" in Bismarck to help activists leaving camp. "The ideal situation is zero arrests," North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum told the Associated Press on Sunday.

Dakota Access opponents argue the 1,172-mile pipeline threatens the main water supply for the Standing Rock tribe by passing under a Missouri River reservoir. They also say it violates long-standing treaties and disrupts sacred lands. Legal challenges from the tribe have failed to stop the project from moving forward, although the Obama administration temporarily halted construction in December. The order was recently reversed by the Trump administration, and drilling commenced in early February.

Activists began camping near the drill site over the summer, setting up the Oceti Sakowin camp and several others along the Cannon Ball River. Armed agents from the National Guard, the Morton County Sheriff's Department and other law enforcement agencies have since surrounded the camps, erecting spotlights and razor wire on the hills nearby and barricading one of the main roads into the area.

From the beginning, the tribe and camp organizers have called on activists to protest peacefully and avoid confrontations with law enforcement. But some demonstrations have given way to violence.

In October, authorities used rubber bullets, pepper spray and high pitched warning tones against protesters who tried to start a new encampment closer to the pipeline. Some activists responded by throwing rocks and other objects at police and torching abandoned cars on the road. More than 100 people were arrested, including a protester who allegedly fired a gun at deputies. Tensions erupted again less than a month later, when police turned water cannons on activists in subfreezing temperatures. In total, Morton County law enforcement officials have arrested more than 700 people since the demonstrations began.

Many of the remaining protesters are expected to leave Wednesday on their own accord. Women, children and elders will stage a symbolic march out of camp around noon, activists say. Buses will arrive early in the day to transport people to Bismarck, where the state government will provide food and lodging for the night, and help people arrange travel home, according to the sheriff's department.

Others have vowed to stay and nonviolently resist.

"We'll make it difficult for them to handcuff us," Bryce Peppard told the AP, "but there will be no forceful opposition."

Bigelow, of the Standing Rock Sioux, said he too plans to stay past the 2 p.m. deadline, but only as an observer. He set up the Oceti Sakowin camp media when he arrived last year and built the website that organizers have used to share news and solicit donations for the anti-pipeline movement. His goal, he said, is to document the response from authorities and the last moments in camp.

"I believe that my obligation is to remain as long as the Oceti Sakowin camp exists," Bigelow said. "We are there to document it until the end. That is why we're here."

"Some of us," he added, "feel once again we are being forced off of our land in a way that is reminiscent of historic trauma."

Over the past few weeks, activists have started clearing out the camp, though it has not been an easy task. Melted snow has turned the campgrounds into a mud pit, making it difficult for vehicles to drive in and out, as The Post's Joe Heim has reported. On top of that, few people are left to help out. But trucks arrive regularly to haul trash, and the remaining volunteers have busied themselves dismantling structures, collecting debris and moving leftover supplies out of camp.

"It's very sad that we have to leave here," Sean Kasto, a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux, told the Bismarck Tribune Tuesday. "A lot of us left our daily lives to be here and I tried my hardest to be here every day."

The scene in the camp's final hours Tuesday night was upbeat. Tribe members and activists huddled around campfires until late into the night, singing Lakota prayer songs, beating on hand-drums and shouting "water is life," one of the movement's signature slogans. Some of the festivities were streamed in a Facebook Live video. At one point, one of the performers can be heard joking, "Who's first night is it here? Bad night to come – just kidding, just kidding."

Jen Byers, a photographer from California, was among those who stayed for the last night in camp. She spent three weeks there late last year, working in the camp's media tent, then returned earlier this month. She said activists, concerned about another crackdown by law enforcement, were "hoping for a miracle."

"If there are not people here tomorrow, it will say less about their resilience and so much more about the militarized violence used against them," Byers told The Post. "The planning and dedication in this resistance movement is unshakably, incredibly strong."

Anchorage School Board passes a budget that cuts dozens of teaching positions

Tue, 2017-02-21 22:28

The Anchorage School Board on Tuesday unanimously passed a budget for next school year that cuts dozens of classroom teaching positions to partially close a $15.3 million budget gap.

The seven-member board voted on the budget after about 30 minutes of discussion at its evening meeting, leaving the document crafted by the district administration largely unchanged.

Assuming the state Legislature doesn't decrease or increase per-pupil state funding, the $563.6 million general fund budget for the 2017-18 school year results in the net loss of about 123 "full-time equivalent" positions, including 99 teachers, to save about $7.2 million total.

"This budget document is not as rosy as I would like it to be, but it's the circumstances that we are in — when you have flat revenue and increasing expenditures," said Anchorage School Board member Kathleen Plunkett. "We're not going to be able to do everything that I know we would all love to do."

Several school board members said during Tuesday's meeting that they anticipated returning to the budget in coming months once the Legislature agreed on a state budget.

The district created the budget passed Tuesday around the assumptions of enrolling 270 fewer students next school year and state funding remaining flat, as suggested in Gov. Bill Walker's budget proposal.

However, Sen. Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel, said in an interview Tuesday that public schools should brace for a 5 percent cut to the $1.3 billion the state spends in unrestricted general funds on education.

Anchorage School Board President Tam Agosti-Gisler said in an interview after the board meeting she was hopeful the flat per-pupil funding would remain in next year's state budget, paired with additional transportation funding.

About the 5 percent reduction, she said, "there will be consequences for those cuts that will be felt by our students for many years to come and there needs to be some deep reflection on what our values are and what are responsibilities are for our children."

Other positions cut in district budget include the equivalent of about 16 full-time classroom and special education teacher assistants, three full-time counselors, 14 full-time safety and security specialists and four full-time assistant principals.

Positions added include about 17 full-time elementary secretaries as well as about 48 full-time elementary school instructional coaches, funded by federal grant money.

The district also plans to close the budget gap by using $4 million in savings to keep 40 additional teaching jobs.

Michael Graham, district chief academic officer, said in an email Tuesday that principals will work with their directors to determine what specific teaching positions to cut. Changes could impact class sizes at the elementary level. In middle and high schools, some classes could increase in size and the number of class offerings could decrease, he said.

Only two people testified at Tuesday's board meeting about the budget.

Sharon Baker, president of Totem Association Educational Support Personnel board of directors, said she had concerns about reducing the number of secretaries at the middle schools and high schools, while Michael Bronson with the Anchorage branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People asked the board to create a plan in the budget to raise the academics of students behind when it comes to state education standards.

Tom Klaameyer, vice president of the Anchorage Education Association, said in an email Tuesday that the teachers union was "definitely concerned about the potential impacts of reducing school staff, both inside and out of the classroom."

"We are all keenly aware that the ASD budget deficit is a byproduct of the state's fiscal crisis," he said. "Years of flat educational funding, in a world of rising costs, equates to reduced educational funding in real terms."

Klaameyer said most of the union's members were taking a "'wait-and-see approach" to the budget given the unknowns about state funding.

The board passed a single budget amendment Tuesday pulling $195,745 from expenses that are no longer expected to occur and putting that money toward teachers to address changes in fall enrollment.

The Anchorage Assembly will have its first reading of the district budget on March 7 and vote on the budget on March 21.

Alaska Dispatch News reporter Nathaniel Herz contributed to this story.

Trump's America will be on vivid display at annual CPAC gathering

Tue, 2017-02-21 21:59

WASHINGTON – The conservative movement in America now belongs to President Donald Trump.

Thousands of activists will arrive in Washington, D.C., this week for an annual gathering that will vividly display how Trump has pushed the Republican Party and the conservative movement toward an "America first" nationalism that has long existed on the fringes.

"Every movement that gets dusty or sclerotic relies on an infusion of energy from the bottom up," said White House counselor Kellyanne Conway. "It also takes a transformative individual to bring about change."

Panels scheduled for the four-day conference include how the left does "not support law enforcement"; why the United States can't have the same security standards as heaven ("a gate, a wall and extreme vetting"); and a discussion of "fair trade" that will put Breitbart editor Joel Pollak and progressive anchor Ed Schultz, who hosts a show on Russian-owned RT, on the same side.

That may sound like a celebration of a young presidency and the ideas that helped him win in November. But the event will also showcase the tension created as these new voices reshape conservative thinking.

The new nationalist energy has already embroiled this year's CPAC gathering in controversy. Organizers invited the inflammatory commentator Milo Yiannopoulos to speak after protesters at the University of California at Berkeley rioted to stop one of his appearances. They disinvited him as controversy swirled over 2016 interviews in which he had criticized the age of sexual consent and joked about statutory rape.

By Tuesday afternoon, Yiannopoulos had resigned from Breitbart News, but the thinking behind his invitation remained. Matt Schlapp, the president of the American Conservative Union, which organizes CPAC, said the gathering this year will be an acknowledgment of the "realignment going on politically in the country" and of the rising import of "American sovereignty" to conservatives nationally.

This year's CPAC schedule represents a marked shift toward Trump's politics and penchant for showmanship. Nigel Farage, the pro-Brexit politician from Britain who spoke to an emptying room in 2015, will speak the same morning as Trump. Reality TV star Dog the Bounty Hunter will appear with a super PAC trying to draft Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke, a regular Trump supporter on the cable news circuit, into Wisconsin's 2018 Senate race.

[Trump supporters see a successful president – and are frustrated with critics who don't]

"There used to be Pat Buchanan's people, the populist revolt-types and the establishment of the anti-establishment, who'd get a third of the vote in the primaries and we'd beat them back," said Mike Murphy, a veteran Republican consultant who led a super PAC that supported former Florida governor Jeb Bush's presidential campaign. "Now they've hijacked the Republican Party."

White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon, who led Breitbart before joining Trump's team and has been a standard-bearer for conservative populism, will speak Thursday alongside his colleague, White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus. Bannon hopes to explain Trump's actions in his first month in office, in particular, policies on immigration and the creation of manufacturing jobs, according to an official familiar with White House discussions.

By sitting with Priebus, the former chairman of the Republican National Committee, Bannon aims to showcase how the party guard and formerly obscure players on the right are in power and working together to enact a new kind of conservative agenda, the official said, one that is directed at reaching working-class voters who are disillusioned with the global economy and elites.

And Breitbart, which has been a sponsor of CPAC for years, has more visibility than ever. As Bannon has pointed out to associates, a site that once organized panels titled "The Uninvited" for guests too controversial for CPAC is now shaping the movement's agenda. The annual Breitbart party, usually held at the outlet's Washington office, has been upgraded to an exclusive cruise along the Potomac River.

Anti-abortion activists will have a presence at CPAC. Hedge fund manager Sean Fieler, a major donor to related groups, will appear, as will filmmakers Ann McElhinney and Phelim McAleer, who have produced a documentary on Kermit Gosnell, the Philadelphia doctor who was convicted of first-degree murder five years ago for killing three infants who were born alive during attempted abortions. He was also found guilty for the wrongful death of a patient.

Meanwhile, the libertarian flavor of the conference during the Obama years has faded. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who won the conference's presidential straw poll three years running, is not coming to CPAC. The immigration debate that once roiled Republicans has largely been settled, in Trump's favor.

"During my tenure we emphasized expanding the conservative base by reaching out to women and minority conservative upcoming leaders as guest speakers and panelists," said Al Cardenas, who ran the ACU from 2011 to 2014. "Yes, to the chagrin of some, we insisted on panels to discuss the various points of view within the conservative movement on the issue of immigration."

Richard Spencer, the white "identitarian" president of the National Policy Institute, suggested that the movement has gained ground with Trump's victory. The decision to book Yiannopoulos, said Spencer, "represented a creeping recognition on the part of CPAC" that the alt-right is a force. The alt-right is known for espousing racist, anti-Semitic and sexist views.

"CPAC recognizes that it's not 1979 or 1984 anymore and that it has to change its ideology and adjust to new circumstances," Spencer said.

Schlapp has denounced the "alt-right" movement, telling MSNBC this week that "we won't endorse it and we won't rationalize it." On Thursday morning, ACU board member Dan Schneider will give a CPAC speech denouncing it.

Schlapp said he invited Yiannopoulos because of the way he represented the need for free speech on college campuses, including at the University of California at Berkeley, where his event prompted riots.

Former Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele said Schlapp and others on the ACU board have to face the reality that connecting the Trump wing and more traditional conservatives will not be easy.

"When Milo admitted on Bill Maher's HBO show the other night that he wasn't a traditional conservative, he sounded like a lot of the young people that come to CPAC. They're libertarian, mostly, and deconstructionist in how they see politics. They're open to working with the LGBT side. So on a political level, you see why he'd be invited," Steele said. "But can everyone coexist?"

[Conservative Supreme Court justices skeptical in cross-border killing by US officer]

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Trump ally who has given a series of speeches recently on "Trumpism," said he is "impressed that CPAC has very intelligently anticipated the direction that Trump is going to take the country and understood that he'll be the dominant voice on the right for the foreseeable future."

"Everyone in the media and some in my party are overreacting to his personality and not paying attention to the depth of the change that Trump is leading," which Gingrich compared to the way Franklin D. Roosevelt reshaped the Democratic Party in the 1930s. "His critics instinctively understand what's happening and want to stop him."

As even his supporters acknowledge, Trump first arrived at CPAC as an interloper. The gay Republican group GOProud, which was sometimes denied a table at the conference, capped off its 2011 CPAC agenda by inviting Trump to give a speech about "making America respected again."

In 2016, when Trump canceled on CPAC at the last minute, his presidential primary rival Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said he had learned "there were conservatives that were going to be here." Trump trailed Cruz and Rubio in the event's presidential straw poll.

Yet Sam Nunberg, a former Trump adviser who worked on the businessman's CPAC arrangements in the years before the 2016 campaign, said the conferences were "pivotal" for Trump because they gave him a tangible sense of how his celebrity could be translated to a career in conservative Republican politics.

"He starts going in 2011 and he's followed around by Republicans like the paparazzi," Nunberg said. "He realized that with that kind of star power, he could really take the air out of everyone else there."

"It's definitely a show," said Jimmy LaSalvia, a co-founder of GOProud who left the Republican Party in 2015. "It's a show that is now designed to perpetuate a fight. Donald Trump lives for the fight. He feeds off the fighting. So does, frankly, the Breitbart organization. It's all about us versus them. It's not about ideas."

U.S. officials: China finishing South China Sea buildings that could house missiles

Tue, 2017-02-21 21:46

WASHINGTON – China, in an early test of U.S. President Donald Trump, is nearly finished building almost two dozen structures on artificial islands in the South China Sea that appear designed to house long-range surface-to-air missiles, two U.S. officials told Reuters.

The development is likely to raise questions about whether and how the United States will respond, given its vows to take a tough line on China in the South China Sea.

China claims almost all the South China Sea, which carries a third of the world's maritime traffic. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also have claims. Trump's administration has called China's island building in the South China Sea illegal.

Building the concrete structures with retractable roofs on Subi, Mischief and Fiery Cross reefs, part of the Spratly Islands chain where China already has built military-length airstrips, could be considered a military escalation, the U.S. officials said in recent days, speaking on condition of anonymity.

"It is not like the Chinese to build anything in the South China Sea just to build it, and these structures resemble others that house SAM batteries, so the logical conclusion is that's what they are for," said a U.S. intelligence official.

Another official said the structures appeared to be 66 feet long and 33 feet high.

[The military thinks bolstering its presence in the Arctic is necessary, but that may not be enough to make it happen]

A Pentagon spokesman said the United States remained committed to "non-militarization in the South China Sea" and urged all claimants to take actions consistent with international law.

The Chinese Embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In his Senate confirmation hearing last month, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson raised China's ire when he said Beijing should be denied access to the islands it is building in the South China Sea.

Tillerson subsequently softened his language, and Trump further reduced tensions by pledging to honor the long-standing U.S. "One China" policy in a Feb. 10 telephone call with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Greg Poling, a South China Sea expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said in a December report that China apparently had installed weapons, including anti-aircraft and anti-missile systems, on all seven of the islands it has built in the South China Sea.

The officials said the new structures were likely to house surface-to-air missiles that would expand China's air defense umbrella over the islands. They did not give a timeline on when they believed China would deploy missiles on the islands.

"It certainly raises the tension," Poling said. "The Chinese have gotten good at these steady increases in their capabilities."

On Tuesday, the Philippines said Southeast Asian countries saw China's installation of weapons in the South China Sea as "very unsettling" and have urged dialogue to stop an escalation of "recent developments."

Philippine Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay did not say what provoked the concern but said the 10-member Association of South East Asian Nations, or ASEAN, hoped China and the United States would ensure peace and stability.

The U.S. intelligence official said the structures did not pose a significant military threat to U.S. forces in the region, given their visibility and vulnerability.

[Bound by war in Iraq, three generals reconvene in the situation room]

Building them appeared to be more of a political test of how the Trump administration would respond, he said.

"The logical response would also be political – something that should not lead to military escalation in a vital strategic area," the official said.

Chas Freeman, a China expert and former assistant secretary of defense, said he was inclined to view such installations as serving a military purpose – bolstering China's claims against those of other nations – rather than a political signal to the United States.

"There is a tendency here in Washington to imagine that it's all about us, but we are not a claimant in the South China Sea," Freeman said. "We are not going to challenge China's possession of any of these land features in my judgment. If that's going to happen, it's going to be done by the Vietnamese, or . . . the Filipinos . . . or the Malaysians, who are the three counter-claimants of note."

He said it was an "unfortunate, but not (an) unpredictable development."

Tillerson told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last month that China's building of islands and putting military assets on them was "akin to Russia's taking Crimea" from Ukraine.

In his written responses to follow-up questions, he softened his language, saying that in the event of an unspecified "contingency," the United States and its allies "must be capable of limiting China's access to and use of" those islands to pose a threat.

(Additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed Arshad, David Brunnstrom and John Walcott)

For songwriter Peter Mulvey, the political is often personal

Tue, 2017-02-21 21:13

Peter Mulvey loves a good quote.

From Mahatma Gandhi to Anton Chekhov, rotating observations and insights are featured prominently on the songwriter's website.

When it comes to the folk singer's place in the maelstrom of modern life, Mulvey has one of his own.

"What I do has never felt more flimsy but never felt more necessary," he said.

It's something storytellers often ponder. Is writing a song about a conversation between two people insignificant under the weight of tumultuous world events, or the perfect elixir in an increasingly partitioned existence?

Whatever the answer, Mulvey said he tries to approach songwriting from a long view.

"I am always and forever trying to find the eternal," Mulvey said. "Our modern little glut of social media platforms still takes place within the mystery of living and having a little glimmer in the universe."

Mulvey has never been shy about advocating for his beliefs, saying "everything I'm about is to stand up to everything our current president presents with his words and actions. We're at our best when we cooperate and come from a perspective of compassion."

In January, he raised $8,500 for nonprofits like the ACLU, Planned Parenthood and Natural Resources Defense Council with a 12-hour marathon in which he performed 100 songs without repeating one.

And while Mulvey's activism has taken precedent in recent months, his upcoming album, "Are You Listening?", is an exhibit of careful craftsmanship, not a collection of protest songs.

Produced by Ani DiFranco on her Righteous Babe Records label, the album brushes every corner of Mulvey's songwriting province.

Backed by DiFranco and her band, Mulvey drives the beat on more rocking tracks like "Sebastian," and weaves in references to Google Maps and lyrics from the folk standard "Wayfaring Stranger" in his song "D.I.A."

"She was a joy to work with," Mulvey said of DiFranco. "She's a fantastic band member and band leader. She's super tribe-oriented. The six of us formed this little troupe that went after it every day. She was just one of the soldiers in the platoon. It was fantastic."

Mulvey's relationship with DiFranco was in many ways cemented by a tragic shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015. Two days after the shooting, Mulvey was opening for DiFranco when he debuted the song "Take Down Your Flag," a tribute to the victims of the shooting carried out by Dylann Roof.

Mulvey asked other songwriters who were interested in covering the song to rewrite the second verse themselves to represent other victims (Mulvey's writing focused on one victim, Susie Jackson).

"Ani was one of the first to write her own verse and was a champion of the tune and got it out there in the world," he said. "That was a bonding experience in that awful, helpless moment."

Mulvey said he sent DiFranco around 20 songs and in many ways, she took the lead on arrangements and other areas of production.

"It's the first record I've ever made that has no electric guitar on it," he said. "All of the ambiance comes from violin and Ani playing piano and toy piano and glockenspiel and her vocals."

Aside from producing it at her New Orleans studio, DiFranco is also releasing it on her label through a more artist-friendly licensing deal.

"It's sort of part in parcel of how Ani works," he said. "She's being utterly supportive. She and the label are the megaphone for getting this out. It's my circus and monkeys and they're being fairy godmother to this."

A native of Milwaukee, Mulvey has toured almost continuously since the 1990s, with over a dozen stops in Alaska.

"This was the thing when I was a teenager," he said. "It's all I ever wanted to do. In the unlikeliest of events I'm doing it and have been doing it for 25 years now."

While Mulvey says his songs may verge into more political territory in the future, he prefers to focus on personal connections.

"It's all personalization and human stories," he said. "I'm just trying to counter the stories of fear and anger and possessiveness. We're not as vulnerable as we think. We should all calm down and enjoy each other."

Peter Mulvey


When: Friday, 7:30 p.m.

Where: Latitude 62

Tickets: $25


When: Saturday, 7:30 p.m.

Where: Tap Root Public House (with Heather Maloney)

Tickets: $27


When: Sunday, 6 p.m.

Where: Vagabond Blues (with Heather Maloney)

Tickets: $31.50

Flooding forces hundreds of Californians from homes in San Jose

Tue, 2017-02-21 21:08

Murky, waist-high floodwaters swamped neighborhoods along a rain-swollen creek in the northern California city of San Jose on Tuesday, prompting authorities to issue evacuation orders or advisories for more than 1,000 homes, city officials said.

The state's third-largest city, a hub of the high-tech Silicon Valley corridor south of San Francisco, has about 1 million residents and declared an emergency as Coyote Creek overflowed its banks from days of heavy showers.

The trash-strewn floodwaters inundated whole city blocks, submerging parked cars and lapping at the walls of apartments and townhouses, as firefighters in inflatable boats ferried stranded residents to dry ground.

About 300 homes were ordered evacuated in low-lying Rock Springs, and city officials urged residents of roughly 200 dwellings in the Williams Street neighborhood downstream to leave their homes, city spokesman David Vossbrink said.

[Oroville isn't alone: California's dams badly need repair]

After dark, fire department crews began going door to door advising residents of three creek-side mobile home parks, consisting of about 600 trailers, to move to higher ground, Vossbrink said, adding that the stream was continuing to rise.

At a news conference earlier in the day, Mayor Sam Liccardo acknowledged that municipal officials should have moved more quickly in evacuating the Rock Springs area.

"As I sit here today and I look out at a neighborhood that's completely inundated with water … there's no question in my mind there was a failure of some kind," he said.

City officials had no reports of injuries, deaths or people missing, said Vossbrink, who estimated at least 300 homes were damaged by flooding.

The San Jose Fire Department advised a decontamination cleansing for those immersed in floodwaters to get rid of hazardous pollutants.

The latest series of downpours that swept northern California on Sunday and Monday weakened on Tuesday, the National Weather Service said. Meteorologists said the storms were spawned by an "atmospheric river" bringing moisture from the Pacific Ocean.

Last week a string of storms triggered a crisis near the Lake Oroville Dam about 100 miles northeast of San Francisco, where damage to two spillways prompted an evacuation of more than 100,000 people downstream.

California is slowly recovering from five years of drought thanks to several months of unusually wet weather.

At least 3 inches of rain fell in many areas, though some received far more, such as the sparsely populated Big Sur region and outside the city of Santa Rosa, which got more than 8 inches, the weather officials said.

The next heavy storm is expected to hit Northern California this weekend, they added.

(Additional reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles)

Alaska's spirit of giving weathers hard times

Tue, 2017-02-21 20:45

Since its inception in 2009, Pick.Click.Give. has distributed more than $17 million to nonprofits statewide. This year, 667 nonprofits across the state are participating in the program. Here are just some of the ways your Pick.Click.Give. contribution will help:

  • Alaska Public Radio Network provides critical news and information on local stations throughout Alaska including communities like Utqiaġvik where KBRW can meet the unique needs of North Slope Borough residents.
  • Best Beginnings in Anchorage can further its mission of ensuring all Alaska children begin school ready to succeed by promoting early childhood literacy and learning.
  • The Ketchikan Volunteer Rescue Squad will purchase equipment and maintain infrastructure, making its members better able to conduct wilderness search and rescue missions.
  • Bean’s Café in Anchorage is working harder than ever to feed the hungry and homeless as unemployment and homeless rates increase.
  • Alaska SPCA protects helpless, abused dogs and cats and helps them find safe, loving homes.
  • Alaska Legal Services Corporation can provide high-quality, no-cost legal assistance in civil matters to low-income Alaskans.

[When it comes to GoFundMe giving, Alaskans are king]

The Pick.Click.Give. website is full of stories that highlight how your donations have helped nonprofits improve and enrich the lives of all Alaskans.

When you apply for this year's PFD, you'll once again be asked if you'd like to donate a portion of your dividend to a nonprofit organization through Pick.Click.Give. But for the first time in nine years, many Alaskans may hesitate at the thought of donating.

It's no secret that Alaska faces a financial crisis. Oil prices remain low, and this year's PFD will once again be lower. Proposals circulating in the Alaska Legislature seek to introduce an income tax and use part of the Permanent Fund's earnings to fund government programs.

In the face of uncertainty, we understand that your initial instinct may be to rein in your charitable giving, whether by decreasing your usual Pick.Click.Give. contribution or giving nothing at all. Rather than succumb to that instinct, we're asking that you ignore it and GIVE. Give just as much, if not more, as you have in the past. Alaskans may be independent, but we have always stepped up to lend a helping hand to those in need. Now is when your donations are needed the most.

As our Legislature begins making the tough decisions on how to balance the state budget, it will fall to nonprofits to fill the gaps in service. They will step forward to provide medical services to those unable to pay, food and clothing for those who have none, and to keep us informed and ready to meet the challenges ahead. Without your Pick.Click.Give. donations, thousands of Alaskans will go without the support they so desperately need. Giving is vital to ensuring the continued health and well-being of our communities.

It won't take much. If every person eligible to receive a PFD donated just $25, together we could raise $16 million — almost surpassing the amount raised over the life of the program. Just imagine the impact that money will have on your friends, family and neighbors.

You have the power to make a difference. Join us by using that power to help improve the lives of those in your community by donating through Pick.Click.Give.

Diane Kaplan is president and CEO of the Rasmuson Foundation. Nina Kemppel is president and CEO of the Alaska Community Foundation. Visit to search the 667 nonprofits participating in this year's program. The deadline to donate a portion of your PFD through Pick.Click.Give. is August 31.

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 Send submissions shorter than 200 words to

Daniels earns regional honor for UAA gymnastics team

Tue, 2017-02-21 20:22

A school-record balance beam routine vaulted UAA junior Kendra Daniels to regional honors in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation.

The federation bestowed Daniels with its Specialist of the Week award for women's gymnastics, marking the first time Daniels has won the award and the first time a UAA athlete has won it this season.

Daniels, of Veneta, Oregon, posted score of 9.9 Sunday to win the balance beam a a dual meet at UC Davis is California. It was the best balance beam score in UAA history and the second best in federation history.

Daniels also scored a career-best in floor exercise while competing at Davis, posting a 9.75 in Friday's meet against the Aggies.

UAA's next competitions are a pair of dual meets against Centenary on March 3 and March 5 at the Alaska Airlines Center.

The Alaska medical board normally licenses doctors, but now it’s in the court fight over abortion

Tue, 2017-02-21 20:22

JUNEAU — A legal battle over Alaska abortion restrictions has moved out of the courts and into the hands of the usually noncontroversial state medical board.

Planned Parenthood sued the state in November, arguing that the restrictions violated the privacy, equal protection and due process rights set out in the Alaska Constitution. The suit challenged a pair of decades-old regulations on second-trimester abortions that, the group argues, has the effect of forcing women to travel Outside for the procedures.

Last month, the two sides agreed to put the lawsuit on hold while the state medical board revised the regulations. One regulation requires doctors to consult with a second physician before performing second-trimester abortions; the other says blood transfusion equipment, along with an operating room ready for "major surgery," must be on hand for the procedure.

The board released its proposed updates Friday for public comment. They would eliminate the physician consultation requirement entirely and replace the operating room regulation with one that says abortions performed "after the point in time when a fetus becomes viable" can be done only in hospitals with a neonatal intensive care unit.

Most medical experts say the "age of viability" is 24 weeks, when half or more of fetuses born survive, while the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services says that the second trimester extends through the 28th week of pregnancy.

Planned Parenthood officials, who are working with attorneys from the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Reproductive Rights, wouldn't say Tuesday if they would withdraw their lawsuit if the proposed revisions were adopted.

But the proposed hospitalization requirement seems to conflict with one of the points in Planned Parenthood's complaint, which says many medical procedures comparable to second-trimester abortions — and even some that are riskier — are legally done in outpatient clinics in Alaska. The complaint cites colonoscopies and vasectomies among its examples.

Members of the eight-person medical board, meanwhile, have been thrust into the charged debate over abortion in a sharp break from their usual work. The board's business typically consists of licensing doctors and policing their conduct, and it has historically tried to stay away from political issues, said Leslie Gallant, the board's former executive administrator.

"I worked for the board for 17 years and we never said the 'A'-word out loud," Gallant said in a phone interview Tuesday, referring to "abortion."

Of six board members contacted Tuesday, just one, Cam Carlson, agreed to a phone interview. She's a Fairbanks Republican activist and abortion opponent who was originally appointed by former GOP Gov. Sean Parnell, and reappointed last year by Gov. Bill Walker, an independent.

Carlson argued that the board approached the new regulations "from a medical perspective."

"I have never felt like there's anything really political," Carlson said, referring to her nearly four years on the board. "Our main purpose is to make sure we don't have any doctors here that are incompetent and are going to kill people."

She added: "I think we've responded to what was considered outdated and outmoded and all of that."

Minutes from the board's meetings show that members — five doctors, a physician assistant and two public members — were initially divided over how far to scale back the existing abortion regulations.

Five of the board members were initially appointed by Parnell, who opposes abortion, while a sixth was first appointed in 2009 by another abortion opponent, Sarah Palin, before being reappointed in 2013 by Parnell. Walker has also said he opposes abortions, but also that he wouldn't impose his view on anyone else.

At a December meeting, after more than two hours of closed-door discussion in an executive session, the board split 4-4 on a proposal from one member, Juneau pediatrician Joy Neyhart, that would have eased the requirements for the operating room and transfusion equipment — allowing them to be available "at a nearby hospital" instead of simply "immediately available."

Neyhart — a Walker appointee who disclosed at the start of the meeting that she'd donated money to Planned Parenthood — expressed concern "with potential harm to public safety by the board not taking action on the abortion regulations," according to minutes from the meeting.

Carlson responded, according to the minutes, that "it is not the board creating a safety issue, but the results of litigation by Planned Parenthood."

The tie vote meant that Neyhart's proposal failed.

The board then decided to issue a public notice saying it was planning on revising the regulations. And at a subsequent meeting this month, after nearly two more hours in executive session, members took a series of votes approving the proposed changes that are now open for public comment.

All the votes passed unanimously or with one member opposed or abstaining.

Planned Parenthood is now reviewing the changes and will almost certainly submit comments, said Hannah Brass Greer, chief legal counsel for the group's Northwest branch.

"There's new language that we'll have to take a very careful look at to see how that plays out in the delivery of the health care," she said in a phone interview.

Anti-abortion advocates are also trying to register their opinions, though there's been a learning curve when it comes to dealing with the medical board, according to Christopher Kurka, executive director of Alaska Right to Life.

"Honestly, I didn't even know who was on the medical board until this issue came up," Kurka said.

He said the group is submitting testimony urging members "to not cave in."

Public testimony is due by March 24. At that point, the board can adopt the proposed regulations without substantive changes, said Debora Stovern, the board's executive administrator. Or, she said, it can propose further changes, though the board would then have to go through another public notice process.