Wildlife viewing bill lurches forward

Posted: Sunday, April 13, 2003

JUNEAU (AP) -- A bill to charge tourists $15 for a wildlife viewing pass failed to win a ringing endorsement but cleared its first House committee Friday.

Only two of eight members of the House Resources Committee recommended the House pass the bill. The committee narrowly defeated an amendment that would have pushed the bill's effective date from next summer to next year.

Gov. Frank Murkowski introduced the pass as a way to raise $7 million annually in new revenue. The pass would be a required purchase for nonresidents who take an organized tour or ride the Alaska Railroad or marine highway.

Visitors who buy hunting or fishing licenses would not have to buy a pass.

The administration projects that about a third of the 1.5 million annual visitors to Alaska will pay the one-time fee.

Public comment about the proposal has been mostly negative. Tour operators say the fee will cast Alaska in a poor light and especially hurt operators of cheaper tours.

Operators also have concerns about how earnings will be spent. Income from pass sales would go to a separate account in the state general fund and about $3 million could match federal wildlife grants. However, legislators would have final word on where to spend the money.

Rep. Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau, proposed an amendment Friday to change the date the fee takes effect from July 1 to Jan. 1. Kerttula said instituting the fee in July would force tour operators who have already sold tours for this summer to pay the fees themselves.

''I'm afraid it's those small Alaska businesses we'll be affecting the most this year,'' she said.

Rep. Carl Gatto, R-Palmer, said the earlier effective date would lead to many tour operators simply refusing to collect the fee.

''It's too quick for something that I think is very complicated to do,'' he said.

Other Republicans said tour operators would be able to make the adjustment, allowing the state to make money this year.

''The industry's very fluid,'' said Rep. Cheryll Heinze, R-Anchorage. ''This is not going to be that big a thing.''

Lawmakers rejected Kerttula's amendment 4-4.

Kerttula and Rep. David Guttenberg, D-Fairbanks, said the broad language of the bill left it as a tax on all visitors.

''It's basically just a tourist pass,'' Guttenberg said. Kerttula noted that every tourist in Alaska will end up seeing wildlife. She said the exemption for residents violated the state constitution.

''I think it's overbroad, I think it's unconstitutional, I think the effective date is going to put the onus on Alaskans,'' she said.

Committee members voted 6-2 to move the bill to the Finance Committee, with Kerttula and Guttenberg opposed. Only Heinze and Rep. Bev Masek, R-Willow, voted to move the bill with a recommendation that it pass.

A Senate version of the wildlife pass bill has yet to have a committee hearing.

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