Alaska lawmakers have one job to do when they convene in special session on June 7. They should pass House Bill 260 to regulate cruise ship discharges into the state's air and water.
Some lawmakers, including Senate President Rick Halford, have talked about raising the issue of a statewide head tax on cruise passengers. Such a tax is fair game for debate. It may be a good idea. But not now.
First, a head tax tacked onto HB 260 may kill the bill. Even if Sen. Halford has the votes in the Senate, the House, which passed the cruise ship bill on a 35-3 vote, is likely to balk. That would give us a special session and nothing to show for it -- no clearly defined independent authority to test for cruise ship pollution, no clearly stated principle that Alaska has primary responsibility for safeguarding its own air and water.
That's the most important element of the bill. That's the element the industry resisted for so long, but has accepted now. That's the element Gov. Tony Knowles refused to compromise. Establishing that principle is essential now and for the future.
The industry estimates it will bring 700,000 visitors to Alaska this year. That many people and the ships carrying them create a lot of waste. Already this season the Coast Guard is investigating two cases of improper discharges into Alaska waters. Hence the governor's urgency for the bill to become law and for the state to start this summer on testing and inspection procedures.
Second, the head tax deserves a thorough airing of its own. Is such a tax fair? Necessary? If so, how much should the tax be? Besides the flow of money into the state's general fund, what are the consequences -- intended or not -- of such a tax? Even those Alaskans who would shed no tears for the cruise industry should pause to find out if the tax would cut trade for shore-based businesses.
Let's take a long, cold look at a cruise ship head tax in January, during the regular session -- not now, when lawmakers are pulled out of family, work and vacation schedules to do a specific part of the people's business.
On June 7, give us a bill for cleaner water and cleaner air. Settle the tax issue later. -
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