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Tourism groups speak out against tax

Posted: Sunday, March 16, 2003

JUNEAU (AP) -- Tourism groups spoke out against a proposal by Gov. Frank Murkowski to impose a $15 tax on out-of-state vacationers.

A spokesman with the Alaska Travel Industry Association said the plan will cast Alaska in a negative light by targeting a tax on visitors.

Murkowski is proposing a ''Wildlife Conservation Pass'' imposed on nonresident vacationers who take commercial tours.

The administration expects about 500,000 of the 1.5 million visitors to the state will pay the one-time fee for viewing wildlife. It is expected to raise about $7.5 million for the state coffers and is one of a dozen revenue-raising measures Murkowski proposes to balance the state budget.

But tour operators said the plan is not well thought out and will have unintended consequences for small businesses in Alaska.

If the Legislature approves the fee as well as a proposal to impose a summer sales tax to raise another $35 million, the state's vacation industry could take a ''double hit,'' said ATIA spokesman Mark Morones.

Tourism groups testified before the House Resources Committee which is considering legislation that institutes the ''Wildlife Conservation Pass'' in Alaska.

House Resources Co-chairman Hugh ''Bud'' Fate, R-Fairbanks, said the legislation may need some minor changes but that overall it is a good proposal.

Murkowski's plan would see wildlife watchers contribute to state coffers just as out-of-state hunters and fishers have done through license fees, Fate said.

''I think the governor is on the right approach,'' Fate said.

The pass would represent a one-time fee for visitors 16 years of age and older who take whale watching or flightseeing tours or any number of nature tours in the state.

Alaska residents as well as nonresidents who purchase hunting or fishing licenses would be exempt from the ''Wildlife Conservation Pass.''

A portion of the fee revenues raised -- about $3 million according to estimates -- would be mixed with federal matching funds to support wildlife conservation programs, said Kevin Duffy, acting commissioner for the Department of Fish and Game.

But the largest share of revenues will go to the state's general fund to support state government operations.

Sarah Dunlap, who operates a bear viewing tour in Juneau, said some of her tourists already pay a $50 federal fee for some tours.

''These people are already paying a significant fee for wildlife viewing,'' Dunlap said.

Rep. Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau, questioned whether the fee would be constitutional since it exempts Alaskans who take the same tours.

Rob Nauheim, with the state Department of Law, said the state could defend a court challenge since Alaskans pay other user fees to support state government.

One person who testified in favor of the bill was Wayne Regelin, former director for the Division of Wildlife Conservation.

Revenues for the wildlife pass could provide a strong wildlife education in Alaska to counter similar programs by anti-hunting groups, Regelin said.

''I can't believe a 15 dollar fee is going to keep anyone from coming to Alaska,'' Regelin said. ''I think it will enhance tourism rather than hurt it.''

But Alaskans should be required to pay the fee as well, Regelin said. And the state should lower the fee to collect only the $3 million needed to contribute to the federal match program, he said.

Tour operators opposed to the measure also pointed out that if the Legislature approves the measure it would take effect July 1, forcing them to add to the cost of summer tours sold in advance.

Fate said he agreed with tour operators that imposing the tax in the middle of the tourism season will cause problems for operators and may have to be changed.

And the fee may have to be adjusted based on the cost of the tour so more economical tours aren't impacted so heavily, Fate said.

The House Resources Committee plans to again hear the bill on Monday before sending it to its next committee assignment, Fate said.

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The House version is House Bill 162. The Senate version is Senate Bill 122.



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