Internet subsidy for low-income Alaskans offers $75 per month

Internet users in Alaska who are low income or who lost wages during the pandemic are eligible for an internet subsidy of up to $75 per month under a new federal program.

A household is eligible if someone qualifies for the Lifeline program, receives assistance such as free and reduced-price school lunches or a Pell Grant, or experienced a substantial loss of income due to pandemic. Households that make less than 135% of the federal poverty designation per household also apply.

Eligibility is defined on the website for the program, getemergencybroadband.org. There are also special terms for Tribal residents.

The program is set up to give eligible households a $50 per month discount, but some Alaskans could get $75.

“I think that’s one important thing for Alaska listeners to know, the benefit is up to $75 a month for those households, as opposed to the $50 a month discount,” said Ed Bartholme, the Deputy Chief of the Federal Communications Commission’s Consumer & Governmental Affairs Bureau.

It’s called the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program, but it’s not just broadband.

“There’s a variety of service types that are included in the program — there’s fixed wireless, there’s wired for homes that have wired connectivity as an option, there is mobile which is much more akin to cell phone service,” said Bartholme.

The money came out of the huge Consolidated Appropriations Act passed by Congress in December. One aspect was focused on how much families relied on internet connectivity while staying apart from others to prevent from spreading disease.

Bartholme said it took a while to stand up the program, but for his agency, it was record time.

“Congress instructed the FCC to stand up a completely new program that is critically important, critically timely to the current environment and the current situation, but making it live and real where people can actually start to collect benefits from it.”

It won’t pay fees that are already owed, but discounts start this week.

The pandemic-related program will continue until the $3.2 billion in federal funding runs out or six months after the Department of Health and Human Services declares an end to the pandemic. 

The FCC website shows all the Alaska providers who are participating: Larger ones like GCI, Alaska Communications, and MTA, but also Cordova, Copper Valley, Ketchikan and Cricket, a total of 26 across the state. It shows three providers are also giving discounts on devices as part of the program.

Bartholme says there are consumer protections built into the program.

“One of the big things we wanted to prevent and make sure it didn’t happen, was that people who needed this sort of assistance weren’t stuck with sort of an episode of ‘bill shock’ when the money runs out,” he said.

Customers can sign up by contacting a participating provider, enroll online at https://getemergencybroadband.org/, mail in an application, or call (833) 511-0311.

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Alaska lawmakers confirm attorney general, department heads

LArge wooden doors opening to a dais
The Alaska House of Representatives entrance in the Capitol in Juneau in 2015. On Monday, (Skip Gray/360 North)

The Alaska Legislature on Tuesday confirmed Attorney General Treg Taylor and other members of Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s Cabinet.

Taylor was the only Cabinet-level appointee who generated debate among lawmakers meeting to consider Dunleavy’s nominees to lead state departments and other appointments to boards and commissions. Taylor was confirmed 35-24.

Several lawmakers said Taylor was qualified for the post. But Rep. Matt Claman, an Anchorage Democrat, said he would prefer an attorney general with experience, in particular, in criminal law.

Rep. Andy Josephson, an Anchorage Democrat, said he was concerned with Taylor’s handling of a waiver under state ethics law for former Dunleavy chief of staff Ben Stevens, who resigned earlier this year to work for ConocoPhillips. The Alaska Public Interest Research Group raised similar concerns ahead of the vote and said Taylor had not been forthcoming with lawmakers about Stevens’ request for a waiver.

Under ethics rules, public employees who leave their jobs are not allowed to provide advice or work for pay for two years on matters they were substantially involved with while working for the state. The prohibition can be waived if it’s deemed to be “not adverse” to the public interest.

Taylor, during the confirmation process, said he expected to receive waiver requests specific to certain job duties that Stevens has. He said he’s taken the approach of looking at matters on a “case-by-case basis,” rather than providing a blanket waiver.

Veri di Suvero, executive director of the Alaska Public Interest Research Group, recently said in an email that Taylor failed to tell lawmakers during confirmation hearings that Stevens had submitted a waiver request in March related to the Willow oil project in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. Dunleavy and Taylor signed off on the request in April, di Suvero said.

Charlotte Rand, a Department of Law spokesperson, said it was understood Stevens “would seek a waiver when a specific matter arose” and that he “eventually asked for ethics advice regarding a waiver to work on issues related to the Willow Project.”

At that point in the process, “that advice is confidential,” Rand said by email Monday.

The waiver request was reviewed by Taylor and Dunleavy and it was determined to be in the public interest since the state and ConocoPhillips “remain aligned on wanting the Willow Project to move forward,” Rand said.

“The department has to look at the specific facts and circumstances to determine whether a waiver should be granted and how broad that waiver should be. Attorney General Taylor has not acted differently than any attorney general under any other administration,” Rand said.

As for other Cabinet appointments, James “Jim” Cockrell was confirmed as Department of Public Safety commissioner, and Lucinda Mahoney was confirmed as Department of Revenue commissioner.

Mahoney was appointed commissioner in February 2020 but lawmakers did not meet last year to consider appointments.

In a statement, Dunleavy thanked lawmakers for confirming Taylor, Cockrell and Mahoney.

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House passes budget, leaving potential gap from federal relief rules

A man stands up from jis desk speaking into the microphone
Rep. Neal Foster, D-Nome, offers his closing argument for the operating budget bill, which passed moments later, 23-16, on May 10, 2021, in the Capitol. (Andrew Kitchenman/KTOO and Alaska Public Media)

The Alaska House of Representatives passed the state’s operating budget bill on Monday

The budget includes most of what Gov. Mike Dunleavy proposed for state agencies. But it doesn’t include funding for permanent fund dividends

Members of the mostly Democratic House majority caucus say they expect to fund PFDs in a separate bill. 

Nome Democratic Rep. Neal Foster said he’s comfortable working out any remaining budget issues with senators. 

“This is largely a flat budget compared to last year,” he said. “It seeks to protect and enhance some important public services like transportation, like education. And at the same time, we’ve taken advantage of the American Rescue Plan funds that are coming to the state. That’ll help Alaskans deal with this global pandemic.”

The 23 to 16 vote to approve the budget came the same day that news from the federal government raised a new potential budget problem. 

It appears that Alaska will receive roughly $200 million less in COVID-19 relief this year than House members planned. That’s because it appears that Alaska will be among the states that will have half of their American Rescue Plan Act money withheld for a year. 

A draft of long-awaited federal guidance on how states can spend the money was released on Monday. 

Big Lake Republican Rep. Kevin McCabe voted no on the budget, citing the inclusion of the federal money as one reason. He said it’s unsound, and that the Legislature should have followed more of the administration’s recommendations. 

“Structurally, this budget has a number of problems, in addition to the sort of emotional amendments for some projects that we have added to it,” he said.

Nikiski Republican Rep. Ben Carpenter also voted no.

“I think we missed an opportunity to address our savings,” he said. “We missed an opportunity to use the federal dollars to help us with making those structural changes. We missed the opportunity to help reduce our budget.”

But Anchorage Democratic Rep. Geran Tarr said the minority caucus offered few amendments that would have significantly reduced spending. 

“I think we’re responding to the public’s demand for the services they value,” she said. “And we’re trying to do the best we can.”

The House amended the budget bill, House Bill 69, to say that the state’s Medicaid program wouldn’t pay for abortions. The state supreme court has ruled similar laws unconstitutional in the past, because they violate the Alaska Constitution’s equal protection clause.

The House spent most of the day debating more than 30 other proposed budget amendments

Including two earlier days of debate, the House passed 18 amendments and turned down 38. 

The largest change that passed added $3.5 million to fund public assistance workers. Dunleavy’s administration anticipates eliminating the positions due to a shift to online applications for public benefits. But that shift may not happen in time to save the money in the next year.  

Other amendments that passed say that it’s the Legislature’s intent that the state government shouldn’t keep any data that can be used in facial recognition software, or to provide driver’s license information to foreign-owned corporations or foreign governments. But this intent language isn’t binding on the government. 

The House also voted to pass the Alaska Mental Health Trust budget, which is in a separate bill, House Bill 71

The votes are just one step before the budget is finalized. It now goes to the Senate, where the Finance Committee is working on a somewhat different version of the budget bill. 

The two chambers usually work out their differences in a conference committee. 

Neither chamber has passed a capital budget to fund roads and other projects. 

The legislative session is scheduled to end on May 19. 

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Rep. Young requests a few earmarks — 15 years after his ‘Bridge to Nowhere’ made earmarking taboo

What’s not on Young’s list? One very large bridge from Ketchikan to Gravina Island, where the city’s airport is.

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Bartlett High School seniors reach top of their class by leaning on ten years of friendship

three highschool students pose in front of sign that reads: bartlett high school
Allysa Wesierski (left), Andrés Arias (center), and Jessica Woo (right) pose outside of Bartlett High School in early May 202`, a week before they graduate at the top of their class. (Hannah Lies/Alaska Public Media)

As 18-year-old Allysa Wesierski thinks back to first meeting her friend, Jessica Woo, she recalled Woo was an ambitious student, even in elementary school.

“We met in second grade, and I remember that she wanted, very proudly, to be the first female president of the United States,” said Wesierski.

Woo jokingly rolled her eyes at the comment but conversation between herself, Wesierski, and their friend Andrés Arias is easy as they call up memories and exchange knowing glances about the difficulties of their AP English Literature class.

The trio will be graduating from Anchorage’s Bartlett High School this year, each of them at the top of their class. Wesierski is Bartlett’s salutatorian, and Woo will share the title of valedictorian with Arias. This is the first time Bartlett will have co-valedictorians. Bartlett Principal Sean Prince says their transcripts are virtually identical.

high school girl smiles for photo in front of a building
Allysa Wesierski, the salutatorian of the Bartlett High School class of 2021, smiles for a photo outside of Bartlett High School on May 4th, 2021. (Hannah Lies/Alaska Public Media)

The friends have no qualms about sharing the title. They’ve done almost everything together, from taking classes to becoming Eagle Scouts — the highest ranking one can get in the Boys Scouts program.

Wesierski and Woo are part of the first class of girls to join the Boy Scouts and are believed to be the first two girls in Alaska to reach Eagle Scout status. It was an achievement they had to make quickly since the organization only officially began allowing girls to earn the ranking in 2019.

They all have a deep passion for hiking and camping and the outdoors, Wesierski said. Woo said they have similar humor. But Arias said the motivation and drive to achieve is what makes them such good friends. They supported each other when they decided to sign up for their first advanced placement courses.

“We had never taken something like this. And we didn’t really have that information from our parents of what it takes to get on a college readiness track,” Arias said. “So I think we learned a lot of things together. We entered a lot of uncharted territory together.”

a highschool boy smiles in front of birch trees
Andrés Arias, the Co-valedictorian of the Bartlett Class of 2021, smiles for a photo outside of Bartlett High School on May 4, 2021. (Hannah Lies/Alaska Public Media)

Each of the students come from different and diverse backgrounds: Weiserski was adopted from the Philippines, Arias’ parents immigrated from Mexico and Woo’s family is from Brazil.

While their parents continually pushed them to do their best academically, they didn’t always know the ins and outs of college preparation. The students figured it out together. That alone would be a feat, but adding a pandemic on top of it just made that challenge even greater.

three high school students sit on steps and smile at the camera
Andrés Arias (left), Jessica Woo (center), and Allysa Wesierski (right)sit together on May 4th, 2021, one of the last days at school before their graduation at the top of their class at Barlett High School. (Hannah Lies/Alaska Public Media)

Wesierski said she hit one of her lowest moments right around the time she was applying to college.

“I remember genuinely being worried that I wasn’t going to get into anywhere. And that, alongside the stressors of the change and the new platform, that became really stressful,” Wesierski said. “I was like, ‘Maybe it was just a fluke. Maybe everything has just been easy for me in the past. So I don’t know if I deserve to be where I am’.”

But it wasn’t a fluke.

Wesierski and her friends are moving on to attend some of the country’s most prestigious universities: Wesierski will be attending Stanford, and after deliberating between six different Ivy League acceptance letters, Arias chose Yale. Woo is going to NYU.

It’s not just a big deal for them and their families but also the Bartlett community. Woo said Bartlett often gets overlooked in terms of producing high-achieving students.

“I think that’s part of the reason why we push so hard — because we’re proud to be from Bartlett, and we’re really proud to represent that. Diversity does equal strength, it does equal success,” said Woo.

highschool girl smiles for a photo in front of a blue building
Jessica Woo, the Co-valedictorian of the Bartlett Class of 2021, poses for a portrait outside of Bartlett High School on May 4th, 2021. (Hannah Lies/Alaska Public Media)

This year’s graduation ceremonies will look a bit more traditional than last year’s virtual ceremonies, car parades, and socially-distant celebrations. Many Anchorage high schools will be hosting graduation outdoors in their respective football stadiums, and students will be able to have a few guests.

In their student speeches, Woo, Arias, and Wesierski each plan to highlight the resiliency and adaptability of their class after a year of drastic changes.

They didn’t get to attend traditional events like prom, and Wesierski said initially she felt robbed of a typical senior year experience. But she said what they lost shouldn’t overshadow what her class has accomplished.

“I wanted to emphasize and implore everybody to kind of take a pause and recognize graduating from high school as the great achievement that it is,” Wesierski said. “And also recognizing the people that have helped us here because Bartlett is a community but more than that, it’s a family.”

Despite moving on to different schools for the first time in years, the students say their bond will carry them through this next period of change.

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Hear Anchorage mayoral candidates discuss their plans for the city

Two white men pictureed side by side
Former Air Force and commercial pilot Dave Bronson (left) and Assembly member and Alaska Army National Guard Captain Forrest Dunbar pictured in April, 2021 (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

The runoff election for Anchorage’s mayor ends Tuesday, May 11. The candidates have been narrowed down to Forrest Dunbar and Dave Bronson. In this episode of Addressing Alaskans we hear a virtual forum where the two candidates share their views.

This forum was presented by Anchorage Rotary.

The hour also includes a segment from Hometown, Alaska featuring questions to the candidates.

Related: Running 2021: Runoff for Mayor of Anchorage

BROADCAST: Sunday, April 9, 2021

RECORDED: Tuesday, April 20, 2021 via video conference

ABOUT:

Addressing Alaskans features local lectures and forums recorded at public events taking place in Southcentral Alaska. A variety of local organizations host speakers addressing topics that matter to Alaskans. To let us know about an upcoming community event that you would like to hear on Addressing Alaskans, please contact us with details.

SUBSCRIBE: Get Addressing Alaskans updates automatically via emailRSS or podcasts.

ADDRESSING ALASKANS ARCHIVE


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Some accuse Instagram of censorship after posts for Missing, Murdered, Indigenous Persons Awareness Day disappear

On May 5, people all across the country shared stories and pictures, and memorialized the thousands of Indigenous people who have disappeared.  Later, many users reported that content they shared to their stories disappeared too. 

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Alaska News Nightly: Friday, May 7, 2021

A photo of a small gray bird with black and white feathers
Ruby crowned kinglet (Photo by Donna Dewhurst/USFWS)

Stories are posted on the statewide news page. You can subscribe to Alaska Public Media’s newsfeeds via emailpodcast and RSS. Follow us on Facebook at alaskapublic.org and on Twitter @AKPublicNews.

Friday on Alaska News Nightly:

Congressman Don Young hopes an antique political strategy will help fund infrastructure projects in the state. And, could this summer in Alaska include more organized events? Plus, Alaskans get into this year’s Bird Sighting Contest.

Reports tonight from:

  • Liz Ruskin and Max Jungreis in Anchorage
  • Izzy Ross in Dillingham
  • Claire Stremple in Juneau
  • Nicole Edmison in Kotzebue

Send news tips, questions, and comments to news@alaskapublic.org


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LISTEN: Are unemployment payments causing a worker shortage? Economists say it’s complicated

Jason Brissett, a kitchen worker who came to the U.S. last month from Jamaica through an H-2B visa, is bracing for 80-hour work weeks this summer, to help make up for staffing shortages. (Tovia Smith/NPR)

Businesses in Alaska complain they’re having a hard time finding workers as pandemic restrictions ease. Some say generous unemployment benefits are to blame.

Montana’s governor announced this week the state would end the enhanced unemployment payments — seen by many as an incentive not to work — and instead offer a one-time bonus to people reentering the workforce.

So is it true that bigger unemployment payments have caused people to stay home?

Research suggests no, at least not entirely, says Nolan Klouda, director of the University of Alaska Anchorage Center for Economic Development.

But, as Klouda told Alaska Public Media’s Casey Grove, he’s still hearing from many Alaska business owners who believe that’s the problem.

Read a full transcript of the interview with minor edits for clarity.

Nolan Klouda: That’s a widespread belief — that the reason why people aren’t applying or coming back to work is because the benefits are so generous — so lucrative — that it’s an incentive for people not to go to work when jobs are available. That is definitely the claim. And that’s disputed by a lot of academic research.

Casey Grove: So tell me about that. How do you even look at this sort of thing? And what have you seen in the research?

Nolan Klouda: There’s been quite a body of research now that looked specifically at the issue of the $600 increase in unemployment benefits that happened following the CARES Act last year in 2020. Economists tracked the workers who received those benefits to look at whether they took work when offered compared with people that weren’t on unemployment and they tended to take jobs when offered at similar rates.

When economists looked at when the overall benefits expired at the end of the summer, at the end of July of 2020 — you didn’t see any kind of spike in employment happening at that point. If when the generous benefits expired — if those payments were keeping people home, then you’d expect people to suddenly go back to work in droves after that.

That really didn’t happen. There are plenty of differences between states and how much they pay: more generous states versus less generous states. And yet, you see similar labor market dynamics happening in all those places. Also, these studies were mostly looking at the $600 increase. Right now, the extra benefit is $300 per week. So it’s generous, but it’s less generous. So if people weren’t staying home because of the $600, why would they be staying home because of a smaller amount of $300? So there’s just a lot of complications around that story.

Casey Grove: If we can’t explain it with maybe just this one simple idea, then what is going on? I mean, what are the different factors that you think may have led to this problem with finding workers?

Nolan Klouda: There are a couple of ideas that have been offered by economists.

One is that there are still people who are caretaking for others, like a young child. Daycare capacity is still not back to 100% here in Alaska, and really anywhere else. So you may have situations where people are not able to go back into the labor force because they’re taking care of children or have elderly parents or so forth.

You also still have people that have more sensitive health conditions. A lot of the businesses that are saying they’re not getting workers are businesses like restaurants that have higher exposure risk. As more people get vaccinated, I would expect that to be less of a concern. But as of you know, in the most recent data, there are still quite a few people at least nationally saying that they’re not willing to return to work because of the risk of getting sick.

Another factor that is maybe more Alaska-specific is that we depend on a large seasonal influx of workers from out of state every summer. Think about hospitality, seafood processing, think about construction — there are workers who are nonresidents who come to work in Alaska every summer and right now is when businesses that hire seasonally are ramping up. So if people are less willing to travel to Alaska, then it’s possible that we have a bit of a shortage from that. So there are various kinds of ideas out there about why workers are staying home and I think it’s probably some combination of factors.

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Yup’ik college student, founder of Alaska biotech company, wins international entrepreneur award

A person inserts a syring in a jar of liquid
Biological siences student Michael Martinez studies ways to isolate rare earth metals from samples of Alaska coal in Professor Brandon Briggs’ lab in UAA’s ConocoPhillips Integrated Science Building. (James Evans/University of Alaska Anchorage)

A Yup’ik college student won an international award for finding a way to extract rare earth metals without hurting the environment. Michael Martinez is a University of Alaska Anchorage science student whose mother’s family hails from Kotlik.

Martinez discovered a way to use microbes to extract rare earth metals without creating toxic byproducts. He created the company Arctic Biotech Oath to develop and market the technology. The High North Dialogue Conference in Norway gave Martinez the High North Young Entrepreneur Award.

“This is a Yup’ik and Indigenous people’s win up here in Alaska,” said Martinez. “This not only shows we’re capable of doing the basic research, but this shows that we can impact a great sector. Not only of upcoming technology, but something people are looking forward to in the future.”

The system Martinez designed of using microbes to extract rare earth metals is cleaner than other methods. Rare earth metals are increasingly needed in the construction of computers and other electronic equipment, including cellphones.

Martinez attended the Alaska Native Science and Engineering Program in Anchorage.

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