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Biathletes make national team, Bjornsens collect gold and Alyeska racers shine as ski season wraps up

Tue, 2019-04-16 19:28

From left, Maja Lapkass, Marine Dusser and Helen Wilson share a moment after Lapkass' victory in the mass-start junior girls race at the U.S. Biathlon Championships late last month in Jericho, Vermont. (Photo courtesy of Marine Dusser).

Alaska skiers and biathletes collected national championships and spots on national teams during the waning days of winter.

Travis Cooper of Kenai and Maxime Germain of Anchorage were named to the national biathlon team last week, the Bjornsen siblings of Anchorage each won two national championships in cross-country skiing earlier this month and Maja Lapkass of Anchorage captured a junior national championship in biathlon late last month.

Meanwhile, Alyeska Ski Club racers Daniel Ferucci and Ava Schweiger made the podium at last week’s Whistler Cup, a prestigious international race series for alpine skiers ages 12-15.

Cooper, a National Guard athlete who made his World Cup debut during the 2018-19 season, was one of four men named to U.S. Biathlon’s B team. Germain, a West High senior, is one of five athletes named to the junior national team.

“I’m hoping a lot of kids will realize there are so many opportunities if they try biathlon,” said Marine Dusser, a coach for the Anchorage Biathlon Club.

“I’m hoping it gives an idea to the kids that ‘maybe I can do that too.’ ’’

Cooper, a National Guard athlete, was among several Alaskans who fared well at the U.S. Biathlon championships late last month in Jericho, Vermont. He won a bronze medal in the senior men’s super sprint.

Three other Alaskans claimed medals in the junior races, including Lapkass, a 16-year-old West High student who won a junior national championship in the mass-start race.

Lapkass had top-four results in all three of her races. She collected a silver medal in the pursuit and placed fourth in the sprint.

Helen Wilson, 17, took the silver medal in the sprint and added fourth-place finishes in the pursuit and the mass-start race, and Matt Eggener, 14, won bronze in the junior boys mass-start race, was fourth in the sprint and sixth in the pursuit.

Germain didn’t compete in Vermont. He had a busy season of international competition and needed to catch up with school work, Dusser said.

Dusser said the Alaska juniors adjusted well to rainy and windy conditions in Vermont. The group trains at Kincaid Park, which Dusser said prepared them for challenging conditions.

“It was pretty difficult to shoot well, but it’s always so windy at Kincaid Park, so they had good practice,” she said.

While biathletes were wrapping up their season in Vermont, the nation’s top cross-country skiers were doing the same in Maine.

National champions were crowned in three events — the men’s 50K, the women’s 30K and the mixed relay — and the Bjornsens won gold medals in all of them.

Erik Bjornsen claimed the 50K national title by beating Anchorage’s David Norris by 9.5 seconds. Anchorage’s Scott Patterson finished fourth to give Alaska Pacific University three men in the top four. Bjornsen won in 2 hours, 13 minutes, 23.5 seconds, followed by Norris in 2:13:33.0. Patterson finished in 2:17:42.1.

APU skiers also finished 1-2-4 in the women’s 30K. Sadie Bjornsen led the way in 1:21:29.4, well ahead of teammate and runner-up Rosie Brennan (1:22:03.3). Jessica Yeaton was fourth in 1:23:06.2.

Two days before the 50K and 30K races, APU skiers dominated the mixed relay by landing three teams in the top five.

Both Bjornsens skied legs on the winning team, which also included Brennan and Norris. The team finished the 20K mixed-technique race in 59:27.7, nearly two minutes ahead of the runner-up team from Vermont’s Stratton Mountain School.

Third place went to the APU team of Patterson, Hailey Swirbul, Rosie Frankowski and Logan Hanneman. Fifth place went to APU’s Yeaton, Hannah Halvorsen, Forrest Mahlen and Hunter Wonders.

The alpine racing season concluded last weekend in British Columbia, where Ferucci and Schweiger helped Team USA win the Whistler Cup overall award.

Ferucci won the boys slalom, was fourth in the parallel slalom team event and fifth in the giant slalom. Schweiger grabbed second place in the girls giant slalom and was 10th in the slalom.

Records support Dunleavy appointee’s defense against plagiarism allegations

Tue, 2019-04-16 18:55

Amanda Price, commissioner-designee for the Alaska Department of Public Safety, appears during a press conference April 16, 2019. (James Brooks / ADN)

JUNEAU — In mid-May 2016, Alaska lawmakers had just passed the criminal justice bill known as Senate Bill 91. Then-Gov. Bill Walker was debating whether to sign it, and behind closed doors, one of his senior policy advisers was advocating a veto.

Two years later, that policy adviser, Amanda Price, is Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s choice to lead the Alaska Department of Public Safety, and her record as a Walker adviser is coming under scrutiny ahead of a confirmation vote in the Alaska Legislature.

On Wednesday, Price will be among dozens of cabinet officials and commission members seeking confirmation from a joint session of the Alaska Legislature, and lawmakers believe her vote will be among the closest of the session.

Among the most serious questions levied at Price is whether or not she committed plagiarism while working for Walker.

In a Tuesday hearing of the House Finance Committee, Rep. Zack Fields, D-Anchorage, read an 2016 email from Jordan Shilling, a staffer then working for Sen. John Coghill, R-North Pole and the prime sponsor of SB 91. Shilling now works for the Dunleavy administration.

Shilling had just been forwarded a copy of correspondence purported to be Price’s analysis of problems with the bill.

“Instead, what she really sent was a word-for-word copy of a document ... sent me over a month ago,” Shilling wrote.

“It’s insulting that her plagiarized, misrepresented drivel would even be considered by the governor,” he went on to say.

That message was subsequently forwarded to then-Gov. Bill Walker, accompanied by a warning.

On Tuesday, Price told the committee that the staffer, who now works for the Dunleavy administration, misunderstood the email.

“I in no manner plagiarized,” she said.

Shilling, in an email responding to questions about the incident, said tempers were running high at the time, and he used “aggressive language” without meaning to accuse her of legally plagiarizing.

A public records request by the Daily News, and subsequent documents obtained by the ADN support those statements.

In 2016, Price’s message was first sent to Lacy Wilcox, who was working as deputy legislative affairs director for the governor. (Wilcox is now employed in the marijuana industry, occasionally as a lobbyist.)

Wilcox said she had been assigned to present Walker with the pros and cons of signing SB 91 into law. Price was also working for the governor, but out of Anchorage instead of Juneau.

The pair didn’t interact frequently, but when they did, “It was all very pleasant. … We certainly got along well,” Wilcox said.

Department of Public Safety commissioner-designee Amanda Price (center) prepares to hold a press conference with subordinates from the Department of Public Safety on Tuesday, April 16, 2019. (James Brooks / ADN)

Wilcox heard Price had concerns with SB 91 and repeatedly tried to get Price’s thoughts. As Price explained Tuesday to the House committee, SB 91 wasn’t part of her portfolio, but she had close ties to law enforcement because of other work.

Wilcox found it difficult to get Price’s opinion, she recalled in an interview, and it took multiple messages to get Price to agree to send some thoughts.

When she did, those thoughts came as an email attachment labeled “SB91 Comments 04212016.docx”

There was no name attached to them or identifying marks. Wilcox (and, later, the legislative staffer) took them as Price’s remarks. In Price’s recollection, she didn’t intend to pass them off as her own.

The attachment has the same, unchanged label as an identical document sent April 21, 2016, from the president of the Anchorage Police Department Employees Association.

In an interview, Price was asked if she intended to pass off that work as her own.

“No. That’s just not behavior that’s reflected in my work history or performance,” she said April 9.

Hours after forwarding the legislative staffer’s email to Walker, Wilcox had second thoughts about the plagiarism allegation.

“The more thought i give this, the more I regret sending this email to you,” Wilcox wrote to Walker.

“I may have failed to communicate with Amanda what I was hoping to get from her,” she wrote.

Price and Wilcox each said the matter was never brought up by Walker, and Price stayed a member of Walker’s staff until March 2017, when she was asked to resign by Scott Kendall, then serving as Walker’s chief of staff.

Price’s nomination as commissioner of the Alaska Department of Public Safety is up for confirmation in a joint session of the Alaska Legislature beginning at 1 p.m. Wednesday.

Pink salmon expected to drive Alaska commercial salmon harvest up this season, forecast says

Tue, 2019-04-16 18:30

Great Pacific Seafoods workers move chum salmon to anther tote in Kotzebue, Alaska on Friday, August 8, 2014. The set net fishery is stacking up to be one of the best takes in the 53 year history of the fishery. The skiff fishery takes place in Kotzebue Sound of the Chukchi Sea in northwest Alaska. (Bob Hallinen / ADN) (Alaska Dispatch News/)

Expected increases in pink and chum salmon harvests are forecast to drive Alaska’s overall commercial salmon catch way up for the 2019 season, a state forecast says.

The state is predicted to see an 84% increase in its commercial salmon harvest this year by number of fish, according to the annual forecast from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. The agency projects a harvest of about 213 million salmon, compared to the 2018 harvest of about 116 million. Fishing starts in May.

Last year was a difficult one for some Alaska commercial salmon fisheries. It’s not out of the ordinary for a harvest to oscillate so much from one year to the next, said McDowell Group economist Garrett Evridge. Even by 84%.

“It’s pretty normal for it to be that variable,” he said. “And it really comes down to pink salmon.”

Fish and Game’s forecast calls for 97 million more pink salmon than last year, and 8.7 million more chum salmon. The sockeye harvest is expected to drop by nearly 9 million fish from last year, when Bristol Bay boomed and other regions had dismal returns. If the agency’s projection pans out, the chum harvest would be the largest on record for Alaska.

['No fish and no hope': Poor sockeye salmon run takes a toll on Chignik]

There’s a “great deal of uncertainty” in predicting pink salmon numbers, Fish and Game noted in its forecast. There’s optimism around the expectation for a strong pink harvest this year, said Evridge. The harvest of 138 million pinks projected by the state would be broadly in line with previous odd-numbered years even though it would mark a big increase from about 41 million in 2018.

The 2019 Alaska sockeye harvest forecast of 42 million fish, though projected to be lower than last year’s catch, is in line with historical norms, said Evridge. Though many sockeye fisheries in Alaska suffered poor numbers in 2018, Bristol Bay’s run was so strong that it compensated for those areas in the state’s total sockeye tally.

“So even with everywhere else depressed, it still was a harvest of more than 50 million fish,” Evridge said. “The 10-year average is 45 million fish.”

Excluding Bristol Bay, Alaska’s sockeye harvest in 2018 was about 40% lower than the 10-year average, Evridge said. This year, while Bristol Bay’s sockeye harvest is expected to go down to 26 million fish after a banner year with 42 million sockeyes, some other fisheries are expected to see a bigger sockeye harvest.

The Chignik sockeye salmon fishery was devastatingly bad in 2018. It had the poorest sockeye return on record since statehood for the Chignik Management Area. That season was an “outlier in terms of historical harvests,” Evridge said.

This year, 1 million sockeye salmon are expected to be harvested in that Chignik fishery, according to Fish and Game, and about 2.4 million pink salmon. Those numbers would represent a return to a more typical harvest.

Last year was also a poor year for king salmon harvests statewide. This year is expected to show a slight increase from 2018, Evridge said.

FBI says woman who threatened Columbine was ‘infatuated’ with the shooting. She’s still at large.

Tue, 2019-04-16 18:21

Students leave Columbine High School late Tuesday, April 16, 2019, in Littleton, Colo. Following a lockdown at Columbine High School and other Denver area schools, authorities say they are looking for a woman suspected of making threats. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski) (David Zalubowski/)

Authorities are searching for a woman who they say made a “credible threat” to Columbine High School and more than 20 other schools in Colorado’s Jefferson County, a scare that comes just days before the 20th anniversary of one of the country’s deadliest school shootings.

Police identified the suspect as 18-year-old Sol Pais, who they said traveled to Colorado and threatened the schools. They described her as "armed" and "extremely dangerous" and said she was last seen in the county's foothills, clad in camouflage pants, black boots and a black T-shirt.

Authorities said Pais is "infatuated" with the Columbine shooting, the Denver Post reported, and she apparently tried to purchase a firearm.

The threat, which the FBI said was "not isolated to one school or individual," led county public school officials on Tuesday afternoon to place Columbine and nearby schools on "lockout," which they said means classes would continue as usual inside while entries to and exits from the building would be restricted.

"We are currently investigating what appears to be a credible threat possibly involving the schools," the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office said in a tweet. "Children are safe. Deputies are at the schools. "

Caution spread to other schools in the Denver area, which also issued lockouts or said they were monitoring the situation.

The FBI is leading the investigation, said Mike Taplin, a spokesman for the sheriff's office. The FBI did not respond to a request for comment, but the Colorado Education Department said in a tweet that the threat came from "an individual identified by the FBI. "

This combination of undated photos released by the Jefferson County, Colo., Sheriff's Office on Tuesday, April 16, 2019 shows Sol Pais. On Tuesday authorities said they are looking pais, suspected of making threats on Columbine High School, just days before the 20th anniversary of a mass shooting that killed 13 people. (Jefferson County Sheriff's Office via AP)

Two hours after announcing the lockouts, the school system reported that all students and staff were safe, adding that students would be released from the schools and buses would run on their normal schedule, though some may be slightly delayed. Officials said extra security would be present on the affected campuses.

After-school activities and sports practices would also continue as scheduled - except at Columbine, where they were canceled for the day, the school said.

Since April 20, 1999, when two gunmen stormed Columbine, killing 13 people and wounding 24, threats of violence have become a painful fact of everyday life for the high school and the highly trained security team tasked with keeping it safe.

"Getting threats is not out of the normal for Columbine High School," Taplin said.

The 20th anniversary of the shooting at Columbine is Saturday. As the district prepares for the day's memorial events, it is fending off an onslaught of curious strangers who trespass in the school's parking lot - sometimes more than 30 people in a day. Some say they just want to pay their respects, but others claim they are in love with the shooters - or sometimes that they have been reincarnated with the shooters' souls.

The district has also seen an increase in threats and concerning messages, which often come in the form of emails to the school or phone calls to the 24-hour dispatch center run by the district's security team.

The frequency of threats means the 1,700 students at Columbine are accustomed to lockouts, when the exterior doors of the building are locked, and lockdowns, when the interior classroom doors are secured.

The safety unit run by Jefferson County Public Schools is considered one of the most sophisticated school security systems in the country. Officials emphasize taking every threat - no matter how vague - seriously.

That system was tested in December, when Columbine High School went into lockout for hours on a Thursday. Two threats were made to the school: One call said there was a bomb inside the building, and another said there was a person with a gun outside. The threats were quickly investigated and found to be not credible.

The Washington Post’s Mark Berman contributed to this report.

Sullivan restates concern that Pebble comment period may be too short

Tue, 2019-04-16 18:05

As a series of public hearings on the controversial Pebble mine came to a close in Anchorage on Tuesday, Sen. Dan Sullivan reiterated support for extending the period during which Alaskans can comment on the federal government’s draft report of the mine’s impacts.

Sullivan met with senior officials with the U.S. Army Corps recently, his staff said Tuesday.

“At that meeting, Senator Sullivan reiterated his view that the Corps should extend the comment period if necessary to ensure that the viewpoints of all Alaskans are taken into consideration on a project of this size and complexity. This is a general legal requirement of the federal permitting process," Michael Soukup, an aide, said in a statement.

Sullivan raised the same concern in February, telling reporters the agency’s 90-day comment period is inadequate.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, at the time, made similar statements, and suggested that her office would likely be part of a formal request for an extension to the comment period. On Tuesday, Murkowski’s staff said she was still reviewing the draft environmental report. The document is 1,400 pages, not including a large section of supporting information.

“She is reviewing the draft (environmental impact statement) and will be formally weighing in with the Corps when she completes her review,” said Karina Borger, a spokeswoman for the senator.

Nine hearings have been held in Alaska since March 25, largely in Bristol Bay, the region where the copper and gold mine would be built if it’s approved.

The Corps’ comment period is scheduled to last until May 30. The agency is expected to release a final environmental review leading to a final decision next year. The Corps may deny a permit, or select a development alternative.

There’s still time to sign up for Saturday’s Heart Run

Tue, 2019-04-16 17:27

Matthew Waliszek photographs heart disease survivors before the start of last year's Heart Run. (Loren Holmes / ADN) (Loren Holmes/)

People can beat the race-day crowd by picking up their Alaska Heart Run race bibs Wednesday or Friday at King Tech High School.

Race registration will also be available each day at the school (2650 East Northern Lights) from 4:30-7 p.m.

The Heart Run, one of Alaska’s biggest footraces, raises awareness for heart-related diseases. The competitive race begins at 9:30 a.m. Saturday at the Alaska Airlines Center, followed by an untimed, noncompetitive 5-kilometer and 3K at 10 a.m.

Entry in the timed 5K costs $35 for adults and $20 for people under 18. Entry in the untimed event is $30 for adults and $15 for people under 18.

Race-day registration and bib pickup is Saturday from 7:30-9 a.m. at the Alaska Airlines Center parking lot.

This year will mark the 41st running of the popular event.

State senators propose quarterly PFD payments as part of constitutional guarantee

Tue, 2019-04-16 16:24

JUNEAU — The five members of the Alaska Senate Judiciary Committee have voted unanimously to turn Alaska’s annual Permanent Fund dividend payment into a quarterly check for state residents.

The vote, cast Monday evening, came as the committee considered alterations to Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s proposal to constitutionally guarantee a dividend paid along the traditional formula in state law. Members made several significant alterations before voting to forward the idea to the Senate Finance Committee for further review.

Speaking before the vote on the four-payment-a-year concept, Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, said the idea came from former state lawmaker Clem Tillion of Halibut Cove, one of the leaders of the group Permanent Fund Defenders.

Micciche said the idea behind quarterly payments is to encourage more of the dividend to be spent in Alaska.

“We believe the smaller quarterly payments will be much more likely to end up in the economy at a higher proportion,” he said.

He referred to a presentation by the University of Alaska Anchorage’s Institute for Social and Economic Research to the Senate Finance Committee earlier this year. That presentation found the dividend creates a small, temporary bump in the state economy each year, in part because some of the dividend is spent out of state.

“You see a big hump in October and November and it goes away,” said Sen. Mike Shower, R-Wasilla, summarizing the presentation.

Micciche also referred to a rise in crime that accompanies the autumn payment.

“It will reduce some of the more negative behavior that occurs from a very small subset of the residents of the state of Alaska when they get a really big check in one place,” Micciche said of the quarterly payment concept.

Mike Barnhill, policy director for the Office of Management and Budget, asked Micciche if he would be willing to allow the possibility of monthly payments.

Micciche said no; that would be closer to the idea of universal basic income, “which is an extremely leftist model and one I have a very difficult time supporting.”

The quarterly payment structure wasn’t the only major change made by the judiciary committee. In a 4-1 vote, the committee also chose to merge the constitutional dividend with a separate spending cap amendment also proposed by the governor.

The merger was proposed by Sen. Shelley Hughes, R-Palmer and chairwoman of the committee. Speaking Monday night, she said she worries whether a rising guaranteed dividend could force the imposition of taxes if oil prices were to suddenly drop.

If the constitution guarantees a dividend, the state would be required to pay it whether or not the treasury has sufficient money. By folding a spending cap into the guaranteed dividend, the Legislature would be unable to raise taxes to pay that dividend — it would be forced to slash spending instead, if revenue abruptly declines.

Sen. Jesse Kiehl, D-Juneau, voted against the combination plan, warning that it would likely be ruled overly broad by the Alaska Supreme Court.

Already, the Legislature’s own lawyers have advised that the governor’s proposed dividend guarantee is so significant that it may be a constitutional revision rather than an amendment. That statement came before a second amendment was merged into the dividend guarantee.

“You need a constitutional convention for that kind of major rewrite,” Kiehl said Tuesday.

The spending cap proposal has also advanced to the Senate Finance Committee separately, as well as in combination with the Permanent Fund proposal. The governor proposed three constitutional amendments; the third is a requirement that all tax increases be approved by voters. That proposal remains in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Wellpath isn’t the bogeyman. We’re committed to turning Alaska Psychiatric Institute around.

Tue, 2019-04-16 14:51

The Alaska Psychiatric Institute, photographed Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2019. (Loren Holmes / ADN) (Loren Holmes / ADN/)

It’s time to set the record straight about what is going on at the Alaska Psychiatric Institute (API). As team members at Wellpath Recovery Solutions working to return API to functionality, we believe Alaskans deserve to know the full story, complete with context and accurate information.

Alaskans are right to be concerned about what has happened at API, the state’s largest mental health facility – the possibility of API losing its certification and closing its doors was very real not long ago. Fortunately, the regulating agencies gave API a short window of time to put a plan together, which is why we’re here today.

Our team arrived at API in February, and since then, four new psychiatrists have been hired at API, with more coming. API just saw its accreditation with the Joint Commission renewed - a huge achievement. API’s new CEO, Matt Dammeyer, formerly with Central Peninsula Hospital in Soldotna, starts in a few weeks. A 400-point transition plan is being implemented, and staff is receiving training required to better serve patients.

Collectively, we bring hundreds of years of mental health experience to the table. We strongly believe in providing patients with trauma-informed care and supporting them in their recovery. Together, we are responsible for turning around troubled mental health institutions across the country, including some of the most notorious psychiatric hospitals in the U.S. Our message is this: API’s problems can be fixed. The challenges at API did not emerge overnight. It will take time to address them, but we have overcome similar obstacles at comparable institutions numerous times over the past 20 years. With proper management and implementation of evidence-based and promising practices, Alaskans will once again have access to first-rate mental health care in one of the most beautiful facilities in the country (and we’ve seen them all, literally).

Despite our track record of rescuing troubled mental health institutions, some in Alaska are unhappy with the decision to hire Wellpath. Everyone is certainly entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts. The Wellpath being disparaged by some policymakers does not remotely resemble the company we work for. Let’s get a few facts on the record to clear up misinformation.

For starters, the assertion that Wellpath has been the subject of more than 1,400 lawsuits is misleading when divorced from its context. Unfortunately, lawsuits are inevitable when providing care in restrictive environments, and both public and private entities are named in thousands of lawsuits each year. At Wellpath, 93% of the publically cited number of lawsuits was dismissed by the courts as frivolous. Furthermore, this number is based on a ten-year period, which is particularly relevant when you consider that Wellpath provides care to nearly 300,000 patients on any given day and saw approximately two million patients during the past year alone. As for Wellpath Recovery Solutions, we are proud of our record, and at institutions comparable to API, we experienced a single lawsuit in all of 2018 – at API’s current census levels, this would be the equivalent of a single suit every 19 years.

We’ve also heard accusations that Wellpath plans to conduct massive layoffs, cut costs and generally turn API on its head once we assume full management. Nothing could be further from the truth. Our approach to managing institutions is simple and verifiable:

No one goes backward in salary; many employees will see a pay increase.

All current employees are eligible for benefits from day one of employment.

All current employees who meet certain minimum qualifications and can pass a background and drug test will keep their jobs.

We have productive relationships with organized labor at multiple locations throughout the United States.

Far from the bogeyman some have made us out to be, Wellpath is an honest broker with the track record to prove it. It is why states like California, Washington, Colorado, Florida and Massachusetts partner with us to provide treatment to vulnerable patients suffering from mental illness. We are proud to be the best in the business when it comes to operating effective, efficient and compassionate centers of care for one of the most vulnerable and misunderstood populations in this country. We are confident API can be fully restored to its former status as a mental health institution Alaskans can rely on to take care of neighbors, family members and loved ones dealing with mental illness.

Kevin Huckshorn, Ph.D., MSN, RN, CADC, ICRC, is the Director of Evidence Based Programs and Practices for Wellpath. He is a former director of the Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health (Delaware), and has been associated with Wellpath since 1998.

Karen Galen, Ph.D., is Wellpath’s Vice President of Behavioral Health. She has been a Wellpath employee since 2002.

Cassandra Newkirk, M.D., is Wellpath’s Chief Psychiatric Officer and a board-certified forensic psychiatrist. She has been a Wellpath employee since 2005.

George Gintoli, M.S., is Wellpath’s Senior Vice President of Hospital Administration, a former Director of Department of Mental Health (South Carolina) and the Joint Commission Surveyor. He has been a Wellpath employee since 2005.

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at) Send submissions shorter than 200 words to or click here to submit via any web browser. Read our full guidelines for letters and commentaries here.

America has a new tune: Losing our religion

Tue, 2019-04-16 14:14

Pope Francis.

God is tied.

A recent survey showed there are now as many Americans who claim "no religion" -- 23 percent -- as there are who identify as Catholic or evangelical, the two largest affiliations.

This trend has been rising steadily, reportedly growing nearly 270 percent in the last 30 years. Which means next time they take the poll, America's most popular answer to "What is your religious tradition?" will be "None."


This might shock our forefathers, who created this country for the right to religious freedom, and who referenced the "Creator" in the Declaration of Independence.

So why are people so discouraged? Has God lost His (or Her) luster? Or is it something else?

Well. Before we look to the heavens, let's look across the earth.

Here is a random sampling of things done or said by "religious" people in the recent past:

Thousands of Catholic priests sexually abused innocent children for decades, and shamed them into silence.

Islamic jihads, or "Holy wars," have been the rallying cry for killing people all over the world, including on 9/11.

Hindus and Muslims in India continued their long-standing conflict, killing one another in scores of attacks.

White supremacist groups, including the Ku Klux Klan, boasted Christianity as justification for their actions.

Religion has been cited to reject the LGBTQ community. TV preachers have sold religion to finance indulgent lifestyles. And politicians use religion to get elected, but their behavior often belies an ethical compass.

Judge Roy Moore placed a giant Ten Commandments monument in front of the Alabama Judicial Building, but later was accused by three women of sexual assault, including two who were teenagers at the time. President Clinton attended church regularly, but had an extramarital affair while in office. Sarah Sanders, the White House press secretary, identifies as a Christian, but when she says she believes God "wanted Donald Trump to become president," she upsets a lot of people.

Critics will point out, correctly, that more wars have been fought over religion than anything in history, that the Old Testament is full of battles in the name of God, that the Crusades were all about religion, that religious conflicts are still killing countless people today in Africa.

Of course, history also boasts murderous regimes led by a-religious men, including Adolph Hitler, Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong, three examples responsible for countless millions of deaths.

So with all that as a backdrop, perhaps it makes sense that the "Nones" are multiplying. In fact, the bigger question might be, "Why would anyone turn to religion anymore?"

I will humbly suggest an answer. It begins with the fact that religion, and faith, is not what others do in the name of it, but what it does to you.

Religions, the major ones, anyhow, weren't birthed to ruin the world, but to understand it. Sure, there are many who warp their faith for personal gain or destruction. But there are far more who use it as a guide: to behave better to one another, to commit to acts of charity, to find a moral compass, and to recognize a higher power than politics, advertising, entertainment or social media.

In fact, some believe social media has been an impetus for people dropping religion. "The ease of access to the Internet helped build communities where they didn't feel alone," Nick Fish, the president of American Atheists, told

Well, I feel for people who think Facebook is the same as church. Or that anyone in your Internet "community" will provide real comfort on your deathbed.

"Under His wing you will find refuge," a psalm says. If that applies to Instagram, it's news to me.

This is just my opinion, and I cannot declare what's right or wrong, but I worry for people who give up on faith too quickly. And I worry for a future devoid of it. Yes, I know there is a growing trend towards "spirituality." And an increasing number of people say, "I'm not into religion, but I'm very spiritual."

That's certainly not a bad thing. But what exactly are the parameters of spirituality? What are the principles? What are the rules? With no scriptural basis, no congregations or rituals, it is disconnected from tradition. And we are left to create it ourselves. Some pockets of spirituality actually refer to the "self" as the center of power and enlightenment.

That makes people feel good, but using "self" to steer your moral compass seems a precarious concept, one that can just as easily sway to "me" as to "us." Remember, not all religious rituals are about glorifying a deity or demonizing others. Judaism has Yom Kippur, a day to ask forgiveness. Catholic wakes gather loved ones after a loss. Buddhism encourages charitable acts to the poor. Such traditions can provide a road map towards kind behavior.

Look. There's no easy answer for this. Organized religion has much work to do, to clean up its own act and distance itself from awful things done in its name.

But before we give up on faiths that go back thousands of years — because somehow we, in the 21st century, are more intelligent and enlightened than those who came before us — let’s look around at the world we’re creating, while proudly and loudly losing our religion. Is it really an improvement? Are we really guided by better ideals?

The majority of Americans have no religious tradition. That’s the coming headline, folks, next time they measure. And if that seems hard to imagine, I wonder if a better question for that poll might be: Is it God that you are disillusioned with, or man?

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at) Send submissions shorter than 200 words to or click here to submit via any web browser. Read our full guidelines for letters and commentaries here.

Lawmakers want to hear from public safety commissioner nominee ahead of vote

Tue, 2019-04-16 14:02

JUNEAU - Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s pick to lead the state Department of Public Safety is set to face lawmakers for one last time before her nomination is voted on by a joint session of the Legislature on Wednesday.

Amanda Price, commissioner-designee for the Alaska Department of Public Safety, is seen April 4, 2019 during a confirmation hearing in the House State Affairs Committee. (James Brooks / ADN)

Members of the House State Affairs Committee want to ask additional questions of Amanda Price after last week hearing differing accounts of her work ethic from former supervisors. Consideration of her nomination is on Tuesday’s committee agenda.

Price was an adviser to former Gov. Bill Walker. Scott Kendall, who was chief of staff to Walker near the end of Price's tenure, told lawmakers he gave Price the choice to resign or be fired. He said she suffered from chronic absenteeism and that it had become almost a joke among staff. He also said allegations of plagiarism by Price were relayed to him.

In a joint letter to the committee, Jim Whitaker, who preceded Kendall as chief of staff, and Marcia Davis, a former Walker deputy chief of staff, said during their time Price was not "disciplined or counseled for absenteeism, or plagiarism as none of these acts occurred."

The letter misspells Whitaker's name, including the signature line. Whitaker said Davis wrote the first draft, and he didn't catch the spelling error. "My concern was content correctness," he told The Associated Press by email.

Whitaker, in a separate email he said he provided a committee co-chair, said nothing in the letter is based on "second hand information, rumor or innuendo."

Price has denied plagiarizing anything and said "there was no concern ever articulated to me about work performance."

She previously told the committee she didn't leave the Walker administration of her own volition, saying she answered that way "because it was clear that it wasn't working." She said she and Walker weren't in lockstep on public safety policy, which caused a rub.

Kendall said he didn't know what Price's positions on policy were. The letter from Whitaker and Davis said Price spoke with Whitaker about concerns with law enforcement objections to an effort to overhaul the state's criminal justice system.

Price has not worked in law enforcement but her resume states she worked as an advocate for victims of sexual violence before joining Walker's administration, where it says she worked for two years. She later worked for a period on Dunleavy's campaign.

Earlier this year, Senate President Cathy Giessel said she traveled to Kotzebue with Price before session started and saw Price interact with law enforcement officers who were "very enthusiastic about her."

Giessel said Friday the recent confirmation hearings have caused her to take another look at the information on Price.

"You always have to weigh out, when someone is talking about another individual, whether they're presenting hearsay or whether they're actually presenting solid facts, whether it's a personality conflict ... or whether it's actually character issues," she said. "So that's what we all have to weigh out."

Price is among the Dunleavy appointees whose position is subject to legislative confirmation.

A Cabinet-level post has not been voted down by the Legislature since 2009, when lawmakers rejected then-Gov. Sarah Palin’s choice of Wayne Anthony Ross for attorney general.

Man who tossed daughter off Florida bridge found guilty of murder

Tue, 2019-04-16 13:02

File- In this March 21, 2019 file photo, John Jonchuck appears before Judge Chris Helinger during his trial at the Pinellas County Criminal Justice Center in Clearwater, Fla. A prosecutor says a Florida man who threw his 5-year-old daughter off a Tampa Bay area bridge knew what he was doing was wrong, and that he should be found guilty of first-degree murder. Prosecutor Paul Bolan told jurors in his closing arguments Monday, April 15, 2019, that John Jonchuck clearly knew what he was doing when he dropped his daughter Phoebe 62 feet into Tampa Bay four years ago. (Scott Keeler/Tampa Bay Times via AP, Pool, File) (Scott Keeler/)

CLEARWATER, Fla. — A Florida jury on Tuesday found a man guilty of first-degree murder for dropping his 5-year-old daughter off a bridge four years ago, despite arguments from his attorneys that he was insane and thought his actions would actually save her. He was automatically sentenced to life in prison.

Jurors in Clearwater, Florida, deliberated for about seven hours over two days before convicting John Jonchuck, whom prosecutors portrayed as a vengeful man who planned to kill his daughter to keep her away from her mother and grandmother.

The Tampa Bay Times reported that no one from Jonchuck's family was in the courtroom when the verdict was announced. And no friends or relatives spoke on behalf of Phoebe or her father before the sentencing. Jonchuck, who was stoic when the verdict was read, hugged his attorneys and said, "Yes, your honor," when asked if he understood that the verdict carries an automatic life sentence. He was then fingerprinted and taken out of the courtroom by bailiffs.

Jonchuck's lawyers had asked the judge to delay sentencing for a week because they have some issues to check. But when they failed to provide a reason, Judge Chris Helinger proceeded with the sentencing.

"I am satisfied that justice was done," the newspaper quoted Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe as saying. "My immediate reaction is killing children doesn't make one a very sympathetic character."

The judge thanked jurors for their attention during the monthlong trial. "There's no way I can express my appreciation for your service," she said. "I've never had a trial this long and I've been here about 12 years as a judge."

No one disputed that Jonchuck, now 29, dropped his daughter Phoebe 62 feet (18 meters) into Tampa Bay in January 2015, and that he had a long history of mental problems.

But prosecutors claimed his action was premeditated. Assistant state attorney Paul Bolan told jurors that Jonchuck was motivated by anger over worries that Phoebe's mother was going to take the girl away from him and his own mother's doting attention to her granddaughter when she had been inattentive to him growing up.

"It was rage that drove him to it on top of that bridge," Bolan said. "Did he know what he was doing, and did he know it was wrong? The answer is clearly yes."

But assistant public defender Jessica Manuele told jurors Jonchuck loved Phoebe more than anything else in the world and that there's no evidence he acted out of "unbridled anger."

His delusions led him to believe Phoebe was possessed and that the archangel, Michael, was coming, Manuele said. He poured salt outside her window to keep spirits away, she said.

At the moment he threw her off the bridge, "he thought he was protecting his daughter," Manuele said. "It will never make sense because it's insanity."

Twelve hours before Phoebe's death, Jonchuck's divorce lawyer, Genevieve Torres, called a state child protection hotline, fearing for the girl's safety, authorities said.

Torres told the Department of Children and Families operator that Jonchuck had driven to three churches in his pajamas with Phoebe in tow that morning, called Torres "God" and asked her to translate his stepmother's century-old Swedish Bible, which he carried and had become obsessed with. Jonchuck was also paranoid that Phoebe wasn't his child, Torres said.

But the operator thought the attorney was more worried about Jonchuck's safety than the girl's and did not report the call to authorities, they said.

Just after midnight the next day, Jonchuck's PT Cruiser raced past officer William Vickers, who was heading home from a shift in his patrol car. He started following Jonchuck, but never got close enough to read the license plate and didn't know Phoebe was inside, authorities have said.

As they reached the bridge's crest, Jonchuck stopped and got out. Vickers, fearing an ambush, stopped behind him, pulled his gun and yelled at Jonchuck to show his hands. He saw no weapon.

Jonchuck yelled at the officer, "You have no free will." He grabbed Phoebe from the back seat, held her over the side momentarily and then dropped her, according to police accounts.

Jonchuck drove off but was soon arrested. Vickers scrambled down a ladder to a dock below the bridge but couldn’t see Phoebe in the dark water. A marine rescue boat was summoned, and her body was found hours later.

Another official decides to leave Alaska’s human rights commission

Tue, 2019-04-16 12:29

JUNEAU - The chief of enforcement for Alaska’s human rights commission is leaving, marking the latest departure from the organization.

Sarah Monkton on Tuesday confirmed her plans to resign effective May 1. She said she was considering whether to make a statement.

Commission chairman Brandon Nakasato and vice-chair Freddie Olin IV recently said they would resign May 1. Gov. Mike Dunleavy quickly nominated replacements.

Alaska Human Rights Commission members Marcus Sanders, left, David Barton, middle, and chairman Brandon Nakasato are shown at the conclusion of a commission meeting Monday, April 1, 2019, in Anchorage. (AP Photo/Mark Thiessen) (Mark Thiessen/)

Nakasato said his decision was related to an uproar involving executive director Marti Buscaglia. She was suspended after complaining on social media about a “Black Rifles Matter” sticker she saw on a truck in the commission’s parking lot and believed to be racist. Buscaglia later announced plans to resign.

Olin said he was leaving for unrelated personal reasons.

The commission was scheduled to meet Thursday in Anchorage to discuss, among other things, election of officers, the process for hiring a new executive director and a "press release and apology."

In addition to a 15-day suspension, Buscaglia was to send an apology letter to the truck's owner after the commission chairman approved the wording.

[Dunleavy accelerates state public defender’s departure, but the official doesn’t believe the move is legal]

The governor has said he accepted the resignations of Nakasato and Olin and that he had appointed Cynthia Erickson and A. Debbie Fullenwider to the commission, effective April 10.

"Following recent events, and the commission's failure to restore the public's trust by taking appropriate action, I believe making changes are necessary to take the commission in a new direction," he said in a release.

The Legislature is expected to meet in joint session Wednesday to consider confirmation of Dunleavy's nominees for Cabinet-level posts and for boards and commissions.

Senate President Cathy Giessel said such late appointments can be problematic.

“When the governor gives us names this late, it’s pretty hard for legislators to actually talk to these folks and get to know them,” she told reporters recently, adding later: “We’ll do our best to get know who these folks are so we can make informed votes.”

Alcohol, sex and violence collided in murder case involving SEALs and Marines

Tue, 2019-04-16 11:41

After a long night of drinking in Mali’s capital, two Navy SEALs and two Marine Raiders smashed their way into Army Staff Sgt. Logan Melgar’s room with a sledgehammer.

Armed with duct tape, they had a goal, two of the alleged assailants recalled: Teach the Green Beret soldier a lesson for leaving them behind in traffic on the way to a party at the French Embassy. It was the latest chapter in a feud between Melgar and the SEALs, who had traded accusations about careless behavior that could threaten their mission.

One of the SEALs, Petty Officer 1st Class Anthony DeDolph, a former professional mixed-martial arts fighter and Purple Heart recipient, jumped onto Melgar and put him in a chokehold on his bed sometime after 5 a.m., two of the men later told authorities. The other SEAL, Chief Petty Officer Adam Matthews, grabbed Melgar's legs, while the two Marines sought to duct-tape them.

They moved on to Melgar's wrists, but they realized he had stopped breathing.

"At this point, we immediately began attempts to revive SSGT Melgar," Matthews recalled in a written description of that night's events that he recently signed and submitted to the military. "He remained unresponsive, so we laid him back down and I began rescue breaths while the tape was cut off of him."

"His chest rose and fell from my rescue breaths, and during one of the breaths, I saw red-tinted spittle come out of his mouth and hit me in the face."

All four men face the same charges, including felony murder, obstruction of justice and hazing, according to U.S. military documents, in the June 4, 2017, death of Melgar, a member of 3rd Special Forces Group who had served two deployments in Afghanistan.

The case drew attention to criminal misconduct allegedly committed by elite U.S. troops deployed to several countries to carry out secretive campaigns against Islamist militant groups, including some affiliated with al-Qaida.

DeDolph and Matthews, another Purple Heart recipient, were members of the counterterrorism unit commonly known as SEAL Team 6. The other two men, Gunnery Sgt. Mario Madera-Rodriguez and Staff Sgt. Kevin Maxwell, were assigned to Marine Corps Special Operations Command.

Some aspects of the case, including the names of the accused and allegations of a cover-up, have been reported previously. But hundreds of pages of legal filings obtained by The Washington Post provide new details about the events surrounding the deadly assault.

The documents remove a veil of secrecy on a culture in which womanizing and heavy drinking were said to be commonplace in the city of Bamako, despite alcohol restrictions and warnings about kidnappings and terrorist threats.

In “stipulations of fact” - effectively, accounts of what occurred submitted to authorities, and not previously reported by the news media - Matthews and Maxwell acknowledge their roles in Melgar’s death. Attorneys for both men said plea-deal discussions for their clients are underway, as reported by The Daily Beast in March, but they declined to discuss most of the specifics.

Brian Bouffard, an attorney for Maxwell, said the men never intended to harm Melgar.

Grover Baxley, Matthews' attorney, confirmed that his client has reached a pretrial agreement with the government in which his client will plead guilty to lesser charges that include hazing and assault. His case will be referred to a special court-martial, Baxley said. It is considered less serious than a general court-martial and limits the punishment to no more than a year of imprisonment.

Attorneys for DeDolph and Madera-Rodriguez did not respond to requests for comment.

No one else has been charged in the case, said Elizabeth Baker, a U.S. military spokeswoman. She declined to comment on many of the details in the documents, citing the open court cases. A hearing in the case was scheduled for December and for March and was postponed both times. No additional dates have been scheduled, she said.

The documents leave some questions raised in earlier news reports unanswered, including what else might have caused friction among the men.

"It's still a tragic situation, but the motivations behind what happened that night are nothing like what was reported," Baxley said.

Accusations and anger

The documents describe months of tension among Melgar, DeDolph and another SEAL who was not charged. Melgar and the SEALs lived in the same house, while the Marines lived a few blocks away.

To limit their interactions, the SEALs banned Melgar and another Special Forces soldier from their operations center, another soldier who also lived there later told Naval Criminal Investigative Service agents, according to U.S. military documents.

In the weeks leading up to assault, Melgar brought foreigners to the residence, the other soldier said. He added that Melgar had engaged in "frat-like" behavior and had acted in ways that got them both "uninvited" from events at the U.S. Embassy. At the request of military officials due to security concerns, The Washington Post is not identifying several other Americans who have not been charged with a crime.

"Logan, Tony, everyone had a turn at it," the other soldier said of excessive drinking, acknowledging that he also consumed alcohol on occasion.

Earlier media reports said Melgar did not drink.

Melgar had accused the SEALs of bringing prostitutes to the house, a detail that was first reported by The Daily Beast last year. The other soldier living in the house, asked by investigators about the prostitution allegation, declined to answer directly but said infidelity occurred among some people living there, the documents said.

Melgar vented about the men to his wife, Michelle, in a series of messages that she turned over to authorities.

"I freaking hate them," Melgar told her.

She has asked not to be contacted by reporters, U.S. military officials said.

A plan takes shape

Over beers and whiskey at the Western-themed Appaloosa bar and a nightclub called Byblos, the men discussed hazing Melgar, service members involved and witnesses told investigators.

Melgar returned home a few hours after leaving the other service members behind on the way to the French Embassy party, and said he had made the right decision because it was a "high-class" event, the other soldier told NCIS agents a few months later, according to NCIS documents. Melgar said he had two or three beers there, the other soldier reported to investigators.

Matthews, in his stipulation of facts, said he and the other three men who were charged agreed to restrain him up when they returned to the shared Navy-Army residence. The Marines brought more duct tape and a sledgehammer from their residence nearby.

"The sledgehammer was not required for us to gain entrance to SSGT Melgar's room, but we used it because we thought that the noise associated with it would further surprise him," wrote Matthews, who was visiting Bamako for a few days.

Within minutes, the situation had spiraled out of control.

The service members attempted CPR on Melgar before retrieving a defibrillator and equipment to open an airway with an emergency procedure on his throat. They considered calling an ambulance, but they determined that it would take too long and transported him to a nearby clinic. Melgar was declared dead there.

In the following hours, the men hatched a plan in which the SEALs would take the blame and say that the Marines had not been in the room when DeDolph put Melgar in a chokehold, the stipulations of fact said.

The men sought to cover their tracks in other ways. The other soldier deployed with Melgar told NCIS agents that he directed one of the Marines to throw away the alcohol in the house because any service member subject to General Order No. 1 - which restricts alcohol consumption while deployed - would "get smoked" by authorities, according to an NCIS report in court filings.

In the chaos, the crime scene was not fully sealed for hours, the documents allege. Scott Patterson, an assistant regional security officer with the State Department, entered Melgar's room with Madera-Rodriguez serving as a witness. Patterson was unaware that the Marine would later be accused of being involved in the death.

Jason Willis, the regional security officer in Mali, told investigators that when he arrived at the clinic, Matthews was shirtless and had "blood all over his hands." DeDolph initially said the men had been wrestling, Willis told investigators, but he was "pacing, in a state of shock, repeating himself and 'not lucid.' " DeDolph also had blood on his hands, Patterson told investigators.

A State Department spokesman declined to comment, citing the open cases.

In text messages included in the investigative files obtained by The Post, Madera-Rodriguez told an American woman who had been out drinking with them that night that he thinks "about Logan's family all the time." DeDolph was "out of his mind" after Melgar's death, he said.

The woman, who was working in Mali with the U.S. government, recalled speaking with DeDolph that morning several hours after the assault.

“I had a moment alone with him at the table,” she wrote. “He said he kills people for a living, but not Americans.”

Alaska’s fiscal crisis is a mindset

Tue, 2019-04-16 11:33

Revenue Commissioner Bruce Tangeman, Office of Management and Budget Director Donna Arduin and Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy meet with the Anchorage Daily News to discuss Gov. Dunleavy's budget proposal Tuesday, March 26, 2019. (Loren Holmes / ADN) (Loren Holmes / Anchorage Daily News/)

Alaska’s fiscal crisis is mostly in the mind and ideology of Gov. Mike Dunleavy and his transplanted cohorts, who seem to be disciples of Ayn Rand, the priestess of anti-altruism. Essentially, their belief is that the private sector can do no wrong and the more that government does to privatize its fiscal assets (the Permanent Fund dividend being a priority), resource wealth and responsibility to its citizens (as in the case of Alaska Psychiatric Institute), the better off the economy will be. In turn, they believe we as citizens of the economy will be better off and not need as many government services. If this massive governmental and social remake creates a situation where the state hasn’t enough revenues to for pay this plus agency operations, the conservative go-to solution is to reduce the budget for state-provided services. This is the crux of our current debate.

Now, as campaign promises become more clear, true Alaskans (those who care about the welfare of their neighbor as well as themselves) are questioning Dunleavy’s pillars of progress. They acknowledge that government services need to strive for better efficiencies, but ask whether Dunleavy’s approach is throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Efficiency should not mean doing without. Rather than seeing our economy as just a private-sector pogo stick, they recognize that a balanced economy is a stable three-legged stool with healthy private, public and nonprofit sectors. Each of these sectors has unique advantages for serving us, and the best balance is a good match between the sectors and our societal needs.

It’s apparent that many Alaskans don’t see state government as this evil, ever-spending monster as portrayed by the governor. They realize that the state might be the more appropriate choice to provide some services we seek, or even need. This particularly applies to situations that might be considered “market failures” due to lack of economies of scale (rural communities); they are not attractive to private-sector investment. Many Alaskans speaking out acknowledge that these services need to be paid for, at least in part, by the public — even if that means more revenues. It’s more fair than an obsession over what is efficient.

Gov. Dunleavy’s radical vision of governance seems to be the catalyst (inadvertently) for developing a fiscal consensus that says Alaskans are willing to pay for what we get, but we want to get what we pay for. The pillars of fiscal pragmatism for this consensus includes:

1. Reduced Permanent Fund dividend: The fiscal austerity facing all state agencies should be shared by the PFD payment.

2. Fair oil taxes: Oil and gas companies are fastidious about maximizing profit. Why not the state that owns these resources? Gov. Jay Hammond argued against an “undertax.”

3. Progressive income tax: A progressive income tax, in tandem with the PFD, provides a fair balance between aiding those who are financially struggling and applying a “user fee” for state services. It is also a mechanism to ensure that nonresident workers also pay something for their use of state services and resources.

A combination of these alternatives would not necessitate severe cuts to agency operating budgets in order to balance the budget. However, in the Dunleavy mindset, it would not result in less government, which is his quest. But if it provides the type of society most Alaskans seek, who cares about labels?

Gov. Dunleavy’s proposed budget came out of the chute like a charging bull. But the Legislature has heard the public outcry over drastic budget cuts. Consequently, the House Finance Committee has decided to set aside the governor’s budget and instead use last year’s budget for their deliberations. Considering that Dunleavy’s budget is the centerpiece for his ideology and it tripped badly coming out of the chute, it leaves one to wonder what he will be doing the next three years?

George Matz lives in Homer. He has experience in the private, public and nonprofit sectors. In his career as a state employee, he was a budget, policy and project analyst.

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at) Send submissions shorter than 200 words to or click here to submit via any web browser. Read our full guidelines for letters and commentaries here.

It’s construction season. Here’s what you can expect on Southcentral Alaska highways.

Tue, 2019-04-16 10:00

Motorists traveling on the Seward Highway should expect road closures at mileposts 84 to 89 on April 15-17 between 9 p.m. and 3 a.m. (Bill Roth / ADN) (Bill Roth / ADN/)

Construction on the 15-mile stretch of the Seward Highway from the bottom of Turnagain Pass to the Girdwood intersection is in full swing for the second year.

The project, estimated to cost between $200 million and $250 million, will replace or repair nine of the bridges that span the many creeks, overflows and rivers along Turnagain Arm, including four that will be under construction this year, according to the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities. The work is expected to conclude in 2020.

This year’s work along the project corridor will be completed by Granite Construction under a $51 million contract, said Shannon McCarthy, a spokeswoman for the transportation department.

The project will also add five passing lanes, which DOT officials hope will relieve congestion during the heavily traveled summer months:

  • A 2.5-mile southbound passing lane from Mile 89 to 86.5, between Virgin Creek and Kern Creek
  • A 1-mile northbound passing lane from MIle 81.2 and 82.2, just north of the Twenty Mile River bridge
  • A 1.5-mile northbound passing lane from Mile 78.8 to 80.3, beginning at the Portage Creek No. 2 bridge just north of the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center and ending just south of the Twenty Mile River bridge
  • Two miles of simultaneous northbound and southbound passing lanes from Mile 75.5 to 77.6, between the Placer River Overflow and Ingram Creek

Additionally, crews will be realigning the highway along curves that see a high number of accidents, constructing new parking lots and improving access to existing ones, among other changes.

Two miles of highway between Mile 84 and 86 will be closed from 9 p.m. to 3 a.m. through Thursday morning while crews install cross culverts. The nightly road closures will continue April 22-23 in the same time frame.

Motorists traveling on the Seward Highway take a detour over a temporary bridge during construction of a new bridge at Virgin Creek south of Girdwood on Thursday, April 11, 2019. (Bill Roth / ADN) (Bill Roth / ADN/)

Additional construction is already underway along other portions of the Seward Highway, as well as highways throughout Southcentral Alaska.

Most of these projects will require lane restrictions, reduced speed limits and detours, McCarthy said:

The DOT is also continuing to identify and make emergency repairs to areas of road that were damaged in the Nov. 30 earthquake.

“The thawing road beds are starting to unmask some of the damage that was being held together by frozen asphalt and soils,” McCarthy said in an email.

Here is more of what the DOT says you can expect to see on the highways this season:

Seward Highway

Mile 104 to 114: Indian Valley Mine to McHugh Creek

This rockfall-prone stretch of highway along Windy Corner and Beluga Point became particularly dangerous after the Nov. 30 earthquake when large rocks began falling onto the road.

Crews pushed the rocks into a ditch immediately after the earthquake and will be working this season to remove them entirely. Drivers should expect lane closures and flaggers on the road.

Mile 17 to 22.5: Kenai Lake

Construction will begin in September on the stretch of highway that runs along the eastern side of Kenai Lake.

Crews will be widening the highway, adding at least two slow-vehicle turnouts, replacing the bridge at Victor Creek and repairing two other bridges. Most of the work will take place in 2020.

Glenn Highway

Hiland Drive to Artillery Road

Most of the work on this project near Eagle River will start in the fall, but it will involve a number of changes transportation officials hope will improve the highway’s capacity.

By the end of the project, the highway will have an additional southbound lane -- which could allow for a “high-occupancy vehicle” lane in the future -- a new southbound bridge over Eagle River to accommodate the new lane, and a new frontage road west of the highway.

Additionally, crews will be realigning the highway to reduce its southbound grade south of Eagle River Bridge.

Mile 38 to 43: South Inner Springer Loop to West Arctic Avenue

This five-mile stretch of the Glenn Highway in Palmer will go from a two-lane road to a four-lane divided highway.

Eklutna Interchange to Parks Highway

Crews are replacing culverts along the highway this summer, and that may affect traffic in the area, the DOT said.

Sterling Highway

Mile 97 to 118: Soldotna to Clam Gulch

The Sterling Highway has been closed at Mile 106 since March 5 while crews replace a culvert at Coal Creek. It will remain closed until April 22. The DOT is asking drivers to use Kalifornsky Beach Road as a detour.

The closing is part of an ongoing project to widen the shoulders and install rumble strips along the highway between Soldotna and Clam Gulch.

Breeding season turns ptarmigan into kooky showstoppers - and a hunter into an admirer

Tue, 2019-04-16 09:58

A male willow ptarmigan struts his stuff during breeding season. (Photo by Steve Meyer)

A male willow ptarmigan nestled into snow at the base of willow shrub, his eyes shut and his red eye comb lowered. When he opened his eye to glance at the human in his presence, it was with half-cocked interest – the setters do this when they are napping nearby and hear the refrigerator open. The lab cannot manage such lucid restraint and is usually nose-first into the treat bin. But setters seem to indicate that they will not get up for less than a sure thing.

The only thing that got the male ptarmigan off a morning roost was the sound of another male calling nearby.

The mostly white bird had begun to change color with the ground. Only its neck had a scruffy dark plumage, a kind of hipster beard. It sprang to and planted two substantial snowshoe-looking feet on the surface of the snow. The red eye combs flared up and his neck stretched out. “Where is this other male that has appeared on the scene?” he seemed to ask.

Across the willow thicket, a single all-white female crouched in her roosting place while the two males barked at each other in sonorous ribbits and cackles. Steve caught the movement of another ptarmigan running across the highway at top speed. Why does the ptarmigan cross the road? Perhaps to answer the call of another territorial male or to fight for the honor of a lady ptarmigan.

The males did not engage in any fights. Instead, they walked in line with puffed chests and outstretched necks. It’s one of my favorite scenes in the ptarmigan repertoire – they never seem as animated and full of expression as in the breeding season. Here, they take little notice of people and make all sorts of funny faces and gestures.

Spring is the time of year when my way of life shifts, although not as dramatically as the ptarmigan’s. We both put away our winter outfit, including snowshoes – I store mine, and they shed the extra feathers that expand their sturdy footprint in winter. Instead of changing with the ground, I rearrange my closet so that the lighter, brighter clothes are in the front and the heavy layers are in the back.

After the upland bird season ends in Southcentral Alaska on March 31, the switch happens fast. Instead of posting photos of English setters on point, I share photos of various ptarmigan and their changing looks. It catches me off-guard when someone comments that “they are also good to eat,” because that’s not what’s on my mind anymore.

Not to say that ptarmigan meat isn’t some of the best available. They feed on wild plants and shrubs that do not contain pesticides or herbicides. There are no additives, and ptarmigan, in particular, have the highest protein level – 24.8 percent – of any game meat in Alaska.

A willow ptarmigan stands guard with a female. (Photo by Steve Meyer)

As Steve and I get ready to begin volunteer ptarmigan surveys, we both tend to forget about hunting as we watch the show – and it’s some show. Besides being entertaining, surveying provides some firsthand knowledge of how the birds are doing in a particular area and if there is a population healthy enough to hunt in the fall.

Whether hunting a specific species or not, every encounter with wildlife gives a day in the outdoors extra meaning. Unlike with bigger animals, there’s little expectation of being attacked by a game bird. However, a territorial male ptarmigan in the breeding season may whack you on the side of the head as part of a response to the call of another male. The attack is more due to a high level of distraction and is nothing personal. And usually you can hear the flight song – a kind of “yippee kay-yay” minus the yippee – as the scruffy-looking bird coasts in from a neighboring haunt.

Although it makes sense to those of us who enjoy watching wildlife and also hunt, it is no easy task to reconcile the heart of the hunter who may hunt for food on one hunt, for livelihood on another, and sometimes for the thousand-and-one other joys that go into a way of life. These smaller aspects cannot be brushed aside to fit one restrictive description.

One hunter may always think of ptarmigan as food, and when he comments on my wildlife photo as if it is my dinner plate, he may be just as confused as a non-hunter as to why I am noting what appear to be personality traits in individual birds if just weeks prior I pursued them as game meat.

But many conversations about hunting break down depending on hunter motivation. The existing categories for hunting – subsistence, commercial and sport – may work well for legal purposes, but they do little to describe a person’s reason for hunting. And, the limited definitions create ethical and cultural silos.

I love the story of two moose hunters, who after years of hunting together found themselves watching a valley filled with bull moose while they drank coffee. They were not immune to the beauty of it and had enough meat put away for the year. They contemplated what was different about that one day, and there is plenty of room in conversations about hunting for contemplation beyond what is “most correct.”

One of my favorite quotes about the gifts of wildlife is from Henry Beston’s book “The Outermost House": “In a world older and more complete than ours, they move finished and complete, gifted with the extension of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings: they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.”

Having spent hours amounting to months watching and admiring ptarmigan, most often I am not thinking of eating them. But I do hunt them with the dogs during the season. I do not take this responsibility lightly, and there have been many times I’ve wondered if I can continue to shoot birds.

The lesson may take me a lifetime to figure out, but there is no doubt in my mind that by spending any amount of time with ptarmigan in the high country, you begin to love these kooky birds. You value them more than you do a serving of meat that you know nothing about. Instead, the awareness makes it so maybe you eat a little less meat, waste a little less and appreciate a lot more.

Christine Cunningham of Kenai is a lifelong Alaskan and an avid hunter.

Shooting near Seward leaves 2 men dead and another charged with murder

Tue, 2019-04-16 07:12

A shooting near Seward on Monday evening left two people dead and one man in jail on murder charges, the Alaska State Troopers say.

Troopers received a report of the shooting, which they described in an online dispatch only as being “in the Seward area,” just after 6 p.m.

Joseph Chandler, 30, of Seward, is accused of killing 28-year-old Dustin Marx and 40-year-old Michael White, both from Seward, after what troopers described as a “confrontation.”

No further details about the shooting were immediately available.

Chandler was charged with two counts of first-degree murder and taken to the Seward jail, where he is being held without bail.

Check back for updates on this developing story.

‘It’s almost miraculous’: Tiger Woods’ return from back surgery is a medical marvel

Tue, 2019-04-16 06:37

Tiger Woods reacts as he wins the Masters golf tournament Sunday, April 14, 2019, in Augusta, Ga. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip) (David J. Phillip/)

In April 2017, Tiger Woods announced he had undergone the fourth operation on his back in a little more than two years. At the time, Woods had not played in a major tournament in more than 18 months. Back spasms and related pain shooting through his leg had made it difficult for him to play with his two children or sit long enough to eat dinner at a restaurant. He didn’t know whether he would play high-level golf again. The aim of the surgery, he said, was to recapture “a normal life” while giving him a chance to return to competitive golf and live “without the pain I have been battling so long.”

Woods' victory Sunday at the Masters completed the most stunning sports comeback in recent history, testified to the durability of genius and, perhaps most fundamentally, endorsed the possibilities of modern back surgery. Woods could not have added an indelible capstone to his singular, tormented, celebrated career had his career not first been saved.

The moment that made Sunday's victory possible occurred two years ago, almost to the day, at the Texas Back Institute. Richard Guyer performed anterior lumbar interbody fusion surgery on Woods, fusing together his L5 and S1 vertebrae, most likely with titanium or high-grade medical plastic, injected with synthetic protein or bone cells. The procedure, also called ALIF, relieved debilitating pain from a degenerative disk in his lower spine.

Whether a patient is a weekend hacker or one of the greatest golfers of all time, ALIF is a last resort. "For lack of a better term, it's a bailout procedure," said Stephen Banco, an orthopedic spinal surgeon at the Keystone Spine and Pain Management Center in Wyomissing, Pennsylvania. It has been used for more than 50 years and is considered routine. Its rate of success has risen so high that it is used as the control for other experimental procedures to be measured against. But success typically means a patient recovers to the point of happiness, not athletic greatness. In the wake of Woods' Masters victory, experts expressed shock at the extent of his recovery.

"It's almost miraculous," said Jack Zigler, president of the International Society for the Advancement of Spinal Surgery. "On the one hand, you have somebody who's in great physical condition and extremely well motivated - it's the ideal patient. But on the other hand, he's going back to an unbelievable level of function. The likelihood you could ever get back there is small."

Before Woods, the chances may have been nonexistent. Wellington Hsu, a professor of orthopedic surgery and neurological surgery at Northwestern University, has studied athlete recovery from spinal fusion surgeries. For golfers, he pegged the successful return after spinal fusion surgery as a “0 percent success rate.”

Hsu has seen players return to the NBA, NHL and NFL with few problems. He used PGA Tour pro Dudley Hart as a case study for golf. When Hart returned from spinal fusion surgery last decade, he could play well for two rounds, Hsu said, but pain and soreness prevented him from stringing four rounds together at his previous level. From that example, Hsu came to believe the demands of playing golf after fusion surgery, owing to the rotational force of the swing, were greater than any other sport.

"It's nothing short of amazing," Hsu said of Woods' triumph. "I never thought having a lumbar fusion would be compatible with return to play in golf, and I'm just talking about returning to play at a high level, not winning the Masters by any stretch of the imagination. When he had his surgery done, I had a lot of questions about what his prognosis was. I was probably giving as bleak of a prognosis as anyone could, just to get back to the sport."

Banco said he would have told Woods to expect to be relieved of pain, and to get back to a normal life, but a normal life without, say, winning the Masters.

"I get people back to golfing, but these are amateur golfers that want to play once or twice a weekend," Banco said. "This is a guy competing at the highest [level] four days in a row. It is remarkable that he did it. That's all I can say: It's absolutely remarkable. I would have never given him a chance."

Tiger Woods reacts as he wins the Masters golf tournament Sunday, April 14, 2019, in Augusta, Ga. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum) (Matt Slocum/)

Woods came back from a number of personal and physical travails: the public exposure, and attendant humiliation, of rampant extramarital affairs; a reported obsession with Navy SEAL training that diminished him physically, torn ligaments in his knee, prescription drug addiction treatment spurred by a DUI arrest; the toll age extracts from any great athlete.

For all Woods confronted, it was his fourth back surgery that unlocked the possibilities on display at Augusta National. At one point before he turned 40, he once recalled in a Time interview, Woods collapsed outside his home and had to wait until his daughter found him lying there. "Sam, thank goodness you're here," he told her. "Can you go tell the guys inside to try and get the cart out?" On Sunday, at 43, Woods beat the world's best golfers and hoisted his son behind the 18th green in celebration.

"All of a sudden," Woods said Sunday, "I could actually swing a golf club again."

The spine can be envisioned as a tower of building blocks with cushions in between. The blocks are vertebrae, and the cushions are disks. Trouble comes when a disk tears or breaks internally. A tear can cause a piece of the disk to push against a nerve, which leads to sciatic pain firing into a leg. An internal break means a shock absorber has broken, and mechanical back pain strikes.

Woods had a disk problem. Most likely, he had a disk both torn and broken inside. In 2015, Woods underwent three operations, the first two of which were discectomies - shaving down a disk to prevent it from bulging against a nerve. Those surgeries provided only temporary relief. The shaving of the disk eventually left him bereft of shock absorption. The torque applied by a golf swing would have magnified the intense pain he felt.

Why try multiple discectomies if ALIF is what saved Woods' career? Those initial operations, experts said, were not mistakes. ALIF is considered a more drastic measure, with less chance of allowing a top-level golfer to return to his best form.

"Any time you deal with a golfer, especially a professional golfer, lumbar fusion is the absolute last treatment option you're willing to consider," Hsu said. "We really don't have a mode of success for these kind of procedures. That's why surgeons were choosing to be as conservative as possible for as long as possible."

The disk afflicting Woods was the cushion between the lowest lumbar vertebra (L5) and the highest vertebra in the sacrum (S1). The sacrum is a large, triangular bone that anchors the spine at the back of the pelvis.

If Woods had any good fortune, it's that of any disk to derail his career, it was the one between the L5 and S1. At that level, the pelvis still provides protection, and the location takes less torque than higher levels of the spine.

"If you are going to have single-level fusion, the bottom level is the best place for it to occur," Guyer said in a statement on Woods' website announcing the procedure in 2017. "Some individuals are born with one less vertebrae, which would be similar to someone who had a single-level fusion." (On Monday, TBI Chief Development Officer Cheryl Zapata said the institute could not confirm or deny Woods had been a patient, let alone make Guyer available for an interview, despite his prior comment.)

The surgery can be described through each letter of the acronym.

Anterior: where the incision happens. Guyer would have sliced Woods open at the front of his body with a small incision, moved behind his abdominal muscles and pushed aside his bowels without disturbing them. (This is considered minimally invasive; patients can stay in the hospital for as little as 23 hours.)

Lumbar: The surgeon operates on the lower spine, as opposed to the upper (cervical) portion of the spine.

Interbody: Between bones - in this case, the two vertebrae.

Fusion: Guyer would have effectively turned two bones into one, in the process removing the disk causing so much pain.

First, the surgeon removes the problematic disk. Next comes the fusion. When a surgeon fuses bones together, the goal is to trick them. The body's natural mechanism to heal bones is also the best method. A surgeon will clean the ends of the vertebrae to create bleeding, which prompts the body's natural reaction.

The vertebrae are grafted together with a substance from outside the body. In the early days, a surgeon would have used a piece of bone taken from the patient's pelvis for the graft. It worked great but also meant a longer recovery - sometimes a weeks-long hospital stay.

Doctors transitioned to bones from cadavers, which are still used, but rarely so. Typically, the bones are fused with titanium or high-grade medical plastic, often with two screws on the S1 side and one screw on the L5 side. The hardware itself will not sustain the fusion. The material will be filled with something to promote bone growth - pieces of bone from a cadaver, bone cells or synthetic protein.

Essentially, Zigler said, the surgeon is creating "living rebar."

Raymond Hah, assistant professor of clinical orthopedic surgery at USC's Keck School of Medicine, is a spinal surgeon and a recreational golfer. He finds Woods' performance inspiring for both reasons. He could see Woods adjust his swing after surgery, less fluid at first, "trying to accommodate his new anatomy," Hah said. More than his physical recovery, Hah marveled at Woods' resolve.

"It actually is kind of mind-blowing to see him come back from that really so quickly," Hah said. "I don't know if there's a great medical perspective on it, other than it's a pure testament to his ability and his mental toughness."

Moving forward, Woods will require maintenance and, more importantly, discipline to avoid a heavy schedule. Woods has said he will play fewer tournaments this season, and surgeons agreed that is wise. The surgery places Woods at risk in the future. Data suggest people who have undergone fusion surgery will see the level above their fused vertebrae - in Woods' case, the L4-L5 - wear down quicker than the natural aging process.

"You look at his swing speeds, [and] you got to worry about the longevity of the next level of his spine," Hah said. "As I look at it, I would say there is some concern there."

Banco said the risk of increased degeneration is about 30 percent to 40 percent for an average person, but for a professional golfer placing excess torque on his lower spine, he believes the risk is higher.

"I wouldn't underestimate him," Blanco said. "We have no data to support that, because he's so far outside the standard deviation."

The dramatic success Woods experienced may convince other sufferers of back pain to consider surgery. Zigler cautioned against that impulse. He said 95 percent of people do not need back surgery, and the other 5 percent need to go through structured, more conservative care first.

"I would tell the average golfer, do not extrapolate this to your situation," Banco said. "I would say 99.9 percent of people need a little bit of physical therapy because they're out of shape."

Still, Woods provides a success story. "This is something nice for us to point to," Hah said. "People can really have a high level of function and have a quality of life. Sometimes the perception is not that."

Woods' victory was inspiring in many ways. For those who have suffered debilitating back pain, it offered a unique kind of hope.

“We don’t expect everybody to go out and win the Masters,” Zigler said. “But it looks like it’s possible.”

Unaware he had measles, a man traveled from New York to Michigan, infecting 39 people

Tue, 2019-04-16 05:51

A woman, right, who identified herself as Ester, passes a group of boys, Tuesday, April 9, 2019, in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, New York. Ester says that she does not believe that the measles vaccination is safe. The city health department ordered all ultra-Orthodox Jewish schools in a neighborhood of Brooklyn on Monday to exclude unvaccinated students from classes during the current measles outbreak. In issuing the order, the health department said that any yeshiva in Williamsburg that does not comply will face fines and possible closure.(AP Photo/Mark Lennihan) (Mark Lennihan/)

Last month, a traveler raising money for charity in Brooklyn’s ultra-Orthodox Jewish community drove through the night to Detroit - his next fundraising stop. He felt sick en route and saw a doctor when he got there. But the doctor, who had never seen measles, misdiagnosed the man’s fever and cough as bronchitis.

Over the next two weeks, the traveler would become Michigan's Patient Zero, spreading the highly contagious respiratory virus to 39 people as he stayed in private homes, attended synagogue daily and shopped in kosher markets. His case offers a cautionary tale about how easily one of the most infectious pathogens on the planet spreads within close-knit communities - especially those whose members live, work and socialize outside the mainstream.

"Every one of our cases has had a link to the initial case," said Leigh-Anne Stafford, health officer for Oakland County, a Detroit suburb where all but one case was reported.

In the past five years, 75 percent of measles cases reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention occurred in various insular communities, among them the Amish in Ohio, the Somali community in Minnesota, Eastern European groups in the Pacific Northwest and the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in New York.

In the current outbreak, the New York contagion has spread through Patient Zero and other travelers to predominantly ultra-Orthodox communities in Westchester and Rockland Counties in New York; Oakland County in Michigan, and Baltimore County in Maryland. On Friday, Connecticut officials said an adult contracted measles while visiting Brooklyn in late March. New Jersey officials are investigating possible links between 11 cases in the Ocean County area and those in New York.

"What's similar about all of these communities is that they live in proximity to each other and spend a lot of their time interacting with each other," said Daniel Salmon, a professor of international health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and director of the school's Institute for Vaccine Safety. "That's what matters. Measles doesn't care what your cultural heritage is."

Many of these communities are wary of government, avoid television and the Internet, and often rely on their own clinicians for medical care. In such a void, anti-vaccine misinformation has sometimes gained a foothold, deterring parents from fully vaccinating their children.

The traveler had come from Israel last November to Brooklyn, the epicenter of a measles outbreak, and stayed for about two months before going on to the Detroit area in early March, said Russell Faust, Oakland County's medical officer. The man, whom Michigan health officials are not identifying, told them he was visiting ultra-Orthodox communities in the United States to raise money for charity.

Feverish and coughing after his arrival, he saw a doctor, who prescribed antibiotics.

When the man called back to complain of a rash the next day, the doctor thought he was having an allergic reaction. But after the doctor thought more about it, he worried about the possibility of measles and decided to leave a voice message for the health department with the man's cellphone number. Health officials jumped on the case - but couldn't reach the man because of a problem with his cellphone.

They turned to Steve McGraw, head of Oakland emergency medical services and longtime member of the Detroit-area Hatzalah, the ultra-Orthodox community's emergency medical response group, an all-volunteer effort with deep ties to many families. McGraw alerted rabbinical leaders, then jumped in his car and drove to the area the traveler was supposed to be staying to look for the man's rental car, a blue sedan, knowing it would stand out among the minivans used by virtually every family.

Hatzalah members and rabbinical leaders also mobilized to search for the traveler, who was staying in a neighborhood guesthouse. When they found him a few hours later, the traveler was stunned. He told McGraw and the rabbi who found him that they had to be wrong since he believed he had had the measles.

"There is only one disease, and you have it," McGraw recalled saying, as one rabbi translated into Hebrew. "He put his head down and was very emotional. I could tell from the look on his face that he was devastated. He was doing the math in his head," counting all the people he had been in contact with, McGraw said.

The traveler, as it turned out, had had hundreds of contacts with community members that health officials needed to trace. He had stayed mostly in private homes in the areas of Oak Park and Southfield. He had visited synagogues three times a day to pray and study and frequented kosher markets and pizza parlors, among 30 locations in one week.

"This guy was walking around all over the community and contagious," McGraw said. "We knew we had a really significant exposure."

Measles virus is so infectious that if an unvaccinated person walks through a room up to two hours after someone with measles has left, there's a 90 percent chance the unvaccinated person will get sick. People can spread measles for four days before and four days after the telltale rash. Because measles is so infectious, at least 96 percent or more of a community need to be vaccinated to prevent risk of outbreak.

On March 13, blood tests confirmed the traveler's measles. The strain matched the genetic fingerprint of the New York City outbreak, McGraw said. The same day, health officials alerted the public.

To get information out to the ultra-Orthodox community, health officials used its internal messaging system known as a calling post. Recorded voice messages ring on about 1,200 mobile phones. McGraw recorded a message that rabbinical leaders approved for delivery, the first of several that provided information about the disease and vaccination clinics.

Over the next few weeks, Janet Snider, a pediatrician for many ultra-Orthodox families, and Gedalya Cooper, an emergency medicine doctor, both members of the Hatzalah, visited people in their homes to diagnose and test them for measles.

The Council of Orthodox Rabbis of Greater Detroit issued an unequivocal statement, saying Jewish law obligated every community member to be "properly and fully vaccinated" according to the CDC. The agency recommends children get two measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) doses, starting with the first dose at age 12 through 15 months and the second dose at age 4 through 6 years.

"In order to protect and safeguard each and every individual within the larger community, every individual, family and institution must take the necessary precautions against anyone who chooses not to be vaccinated," the statement said.

The Hatzalah and rabbinical leaders helped the health department set up three clinics at one synagogue, immunizing nearly 1,000 people in one week. As of early April, health officials have given more than 2,100 vaccinations. Vaccine refusal does not appear to be a major factor in the Oakland County cluster, officials said.

In Michigan, at least, the close collaboration between health officials and the religious community appears to have controlled the spread of the disease, which can cause severe complications including deafness, pneumonia, brain damage and death.

Now, with 555 measles cases in 20 states - the highest in five years - other localities are looking at that model. Hatzalah groups in other parts of the country are reaching out to county officials for advice on boosting vaccination within the ultra-Orthodox community, Faust said.

Oakland County had something else going for it: Measles outbreaks typically start with children. But Patient Zero had spent most of his time with adults, and most of the 39 cases are in adults. Many adults who got sick had believed they were immune, as some had been told they had the disease as children or were vaccinated.

"There are a fair number of nonimmunized or under-immunized adults," said Faust, the medical officer. Some of the adults infected also were born before 1957, when most people caught measles and are thought to have natural immunity.

Officials said that the risk remains high for those who are unvaccinated or under-vaccinated and who travel to communities here or abroad where measles cases are raging.

Gaps in vaccination coverage have led to a 20-year high in measles cases in Europe. Major outbreaks also are taking place in parts of the Middle East, Southeast Asia and Japan. More than 1,200 people have died in Madagascar. With spring break and summer vacations approaching, travelers visiting European countries with outbreaks, such as France and Italy, have a much higher chance of bringing infections back to "islands or pockets of vulnerability," said Saad Omer, an infectious disease expert at Emory University.

“Measles is a very unforgiving disease,” he said. “Even if most people are vaccinated, that number may not be high enough.”

Why ‘tax the rich’ demands are so unreasonable

Tue, 2019-04-16 05:33

FILE - This March 22, 2013 file photo, shows the exterior of the Internal Revenue Service building in Washington. The Internal Revenue Service is recalling about 46,000 of its employees furloughed by the government shutdown, nearly 60 percent of its workforce, to handle tax returns and pay out refunds. The employees won't be paid. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File) (Susan Walsh/)

If I told you there was a movement to create a navy or air force, you might respond, “Don’t we already have those?” If I said we need a movement to convince bears to relieve themselves in the woods, you might say, "Wait. Isn’t that happening already?

But if I said we needed to tax the rich, a lot of people's first reaction would be, "Yes! It's about time!"

In fact, there's an astroturf movement based on precisely this notion. There was just a big conference, fittingly named the "Tax the Rich!" conference, hosted by a group called Patriotic Millionaires.

"Tax the Rich. Save America. Yes, it really is that simple," they explain in their mission statement.

This slogan is simply dishonest; rich people do, in fact, pay taxes. Just under half (48 percent) of federal revenue comes from income taxes. If you define the rich as the top 1 percent -- which is probably too narrow, depending on the region of the country -- the rich pay a big chunk of that. In 2016, according to the Tax Foundation, the top 1 percent accounted for 37.3 percent of all income tax revenue, a share that was greater than the bottom 90 percent of all payers of income tax combined. The top half of taxpayers paid 97 percent of income taxes.

The Tax Policy Center estimates that 44 percent of Americans won't pay any federal income taxes for 2018. That doesn't mean they don't pay any taxes, of course. Payroll taxes eat up a big chunk of many Americans paychecks -- a fact we all learn the first time we shout, "Who the hell is FICA!?"

But the income tax is remarkably progressive. Once again citing the Tax Policy Center (a joint project of two left-of-center think tanks: the Brookings Institution and the Urban Institute), Americans in the top 20 percent paid an estimated 87 percent of income taxes for 2018. This was up from 84 percent in 2017, which means that the "Trump tax cuts" actually made the tax code more progressive.

The folks shouting "Tax the rich!" know this, which is why, when they move beyond sloganeering, they say that what they really want is for the rich to "pay their fair share." This is a more debatable claim because "fair" is in the eye of the beholder. It's not preposterous to argue that the rich, however defined, should pay a few percentage points more in income tax in the name of fairness. But it's also not preposterous to say that when 1 percent of the people provide more than a third of income tax revenue, they're already paying their fair share -- and suggesting that people who don't want to pay even more are "unpatriotic" is bullying nonsense.

While we're on the topic of fairness, there's another common argument for hiking income taxes for the wealthy, or for even simply taxing wealth itself: The rich deserve it. Or, to be more generous, the super-rich don't deserve their money, while the rest of the country does.

The New York Times' Farhad Manjoo recently argued for "abolishing" billionaires outright. Presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren and Beto O'Rourke say we should make the rich less rich because income inequality is bad. Candidate Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (and many others) think that everything from Medicare for All to the Green New Deal can be financed largely -- or entirely -- by pillaging the bank accounts of the rich.

This is populist insanity masquerading as public finance. According the Manhattan Institute's Brian Riedl, doubling the top tax brackets (from 35 and 37 percent to 70 and 74 percent) "would close just one-fifth of the long-term Social Security and Medicare shortfall. Even seizing all annual income earned over $500,000 would not come close."

You could literally confiscate 100 percent of the wealth of the entire one percent and not come close to paying for Sanders' version of Medicare for All (price tag: $32 trillion).

This points to my real problem with all of this “tax the rich” talk. It works from the assumption that the problems of ordinary Americans are the result of a tiny group of people selfishly refusing to do their part. Not only does this assume that the wealth of people who have paid considerable taxes still belongs to everyone, it’s also simple scapegoating. By my lights, it would be no less outrageous if the math added up. But it doesn’t, which makes it even more irresponsible.

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at) Send submissions shorter than 200 words to or click here to submit via any web browser. Read our full guidelines for letters and commentaries here.