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Alaska House absences draw attention

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Alaska House absences draw attention

was written by Andrew Kitchenman, Alaska Public Media & KTOO – Juneau , 2019-07-27 02:33:48

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The House voting board shows the result of an amendment seeking to pay full permanent fund dividends this year, on Thursday in the House chamber in the Capitol. The board also shows that 10 members had excused absences. (Photo by Andrew Kitchenman/KTOO and Alaska Public Media)

Along with Alaska House members who’ve voted yea and nay on three major bills this week, there has been a third category: members who were absent. 

Absences rarely receive attention, but there have been an unusually high number since Gov. Mike Dunleavy changed the location of his call for the second special session from Wasilla to Juneau.

The highest number of absences was 11, on Wednesday morning. The fewest was four on Monday.

But the Monday absences drew the most attention. That’s because the House reconsidered a bill to fund the capital budget. Thirty votes — or three-quarters of the House — would have been necessary to draw money from the Constitutional Budget Reserve, but only 29 voted yes. Any of the absent members could have changed the outcome.

Three members absent on Monday had medical excuses. They were minority-caucus Republican Reps. Mark Neuman of Big Lake, George Rauscher of Sutton and Dave Talerico of Healy.

The fourth absent member was Rep. Ben Carpenter, a minority-caucus Republican from Nikiski. He is the only member who has asked, and been granted, an excused absence through the end of the special session on Aug. 6. In addition to his responsibilities as a legislator, Carpenter raises peonies outside of regular legislative sessions. He attended the first meeting in Wasilla during this special session.

House Speaker Bryce Edgmon, a Dillingham independent, said he understands there are practical problems with attending in the middle of the summer, but he also expressed concern about the high number of absences. 

“People have medical appointments, or longstanding family engagements with a lot of money spent on tickets and logistics that are very difficult for them to break. So I can understand legislators not being here on one hand,” Edgmon said. “On the other hand, given the critical nature of the veto overrides, the capital budget and the permanent fund dividend, they should be here.”

Edgmon said on the House floor on Friday morning that the House needs to have every member present on Monday, when the House is scheduled to vote for the third time in just over a week on whether to fund the capital budget. 

In other business on Friday, the House passed a bill setting permanent fund dividends at $1,600. House Bill 2003 now goes to the Senate, which has been deadlocked on the dividend amount. Gov. Mike Dunleavy supports a full dividend of roughly $3,000.

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Tongass National Forest. The Tongass is the biggest national forest in the United States. It received its name from the Tongass Clan of the Tlingit native people and goes back to 1902 when President Theodore Roosevelt created the Alexander Archipelago Forest Reserve. In 1908 the forest had been re-named and expanded and today the 16.9 million-acre Tongass National Forest extends from the Pacific to the large inland ice fields that border British Columbia and from the southern tip of Prince of Wales Island to Malaspina Glacier 500 miles to the north. Approximately 80 % of Southeast Alaska is in Tongass and with it’s thousands of islands, fjords and bays the national forest offers 11,000 miles of coastline. Tongass’ huge coastal rain forest consists of towering hemlock, spruce and red and yellow cedar. The undergrowth underneath thegiant conifers is made up of young evergreens and shrubs including devil’s club, blueberry and huckleberry. Moss and ferns cover the ground, and lichens drape many trees and rocks.

Wildlife is abundant throughout Tongass. Sitka blacktail deer and its two key predators, wolf and brown bear, are observed here. Black bear are common as well as mountain goats and some moose. Marine mammals seen along the shores consist of Dall and harbor porpoises, seals and humpback, minke and orca whales and an expanding population of sea otters. The rich waters teem with fish such as halibut and all five species of Pacific salmon. More bald eagles live in this region than in any other place in the world. Though the place to find the world’s biggest temperate rain forest, just about half of Tongass is covered by ice, water, wetlands and rock. It’s most prominent ice floe is the Mendenhall Glacier, Alaska’s “Drive-in glacier” since it is no more than 13 miles from downtown Juneau along a paved road. A boat trip through Petersburg or Wrangell can bring people near the face of LeConte Glacier, the southernmost tidewater glacier on the continent. Only 30 miles north of Yakutat is Hubbard Glacier, the longest tidewater glacier in the world and very easily Alaska’s most energetic. The 76-mile-long glacier has crossed Russell Fjord several times, lately in 2008. The rip tides and currents that flow in front of the 8-mile-wide glacier are so powerful they induce Hubbard to calve nearly constantly. The Tongass contains nineteen wilderness areas, including the 545-sq-mile Russell Fjord Wilderness, as well as Admiralty Island National Monument and Misty Fiords National Monument. Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve and the general area around Haines and Skagway aren’t part of the national forest.

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