Legislators to take up cruise ship bill -- and maybe a tax

Posted: Thursday, June 07, 2001

JUNEAU (AP) -- Fifty-seven out-of-town legislators will join about 5,700 cruise ship passengers in the capital city Thursday as the Legislature convenes in a special session to consider cruise ship legislation.

The legislators will be debating what environmental rules to put on the ships. And they may look at tacking a $50 fee on the passengers.

Gov. Tony Knowles called the session because a bill giving state authority to regulate cruise ship wastewater, air pollution and solid waste stalled after passing the House in the regular session that ended May 8.

House Bill 260, which the cruise industry supports, is expected to make it through the Senate with some changes. Sen. John Cowdery, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, has crafted a revised version that includes some exemptions for ships that carry fewer than 250 overnight passengers. Cowdery, who was holding on to the bill during the regular session, said he expects it to move from his committee Thursday afternoon.

Rep. Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau, who has been an advocate of cruise ship legislation, said she has problems with some of Cowdery's revisions, partly because they apply a tougher standard to state ferries than other small ships. The Knowles' administration also objects to some of Cowdery's changes.

But Kerttula said she expects other committees may improve the bill after it leaves Transportation.

The measure must also pass through the Senate Resources, Finance and Rules committees before hitting the Senate floor. And Senate changes will have to go back to the House for approval.

The big question is whether the bill will pick up a bigger head tax on its way through the process. As currently written, the measure would charge about $1 per passenger to pay for the environmental protection program.

Senate President Rick Halford, R-Chugiak, and Rules Chairman Drue Pearce, R-Anchorage, both support a higher tax. The Senate last year approved a $50 head tax on a different cruise ship bill.

That measure died in the House, and some House leaders continue to oppose anything beyond the $1 fee.

Halford said Wednesday that whether he tries to add a higher tax to House Bill 260 will depend on whether he has enough votes. He's been out of contact with his colleagues recently and said he's not sure where they stand on a head tax now.

''There's a billion dollar industry out there working the other side of the issue,'' Halford said.

A $50 per passenger tax would raise about $34 million based on an estimated 680,000 cruise ship passengers, said Deputy Department of Revenue Commissioner Larry Persily.

A poll commissioned by Republican legislators earlier this year indicated 65 percent of Alaskans would support a cruise ship passenger fee.

Knowles has urged legislators not to add a head tax to the bill, fearing it will kill the measure, and the cruise industry has lobbied hard against it.

Industry representatives say the ships pay port fees and the passengers pay sales taxes on goods they buy in port towns. The industry calculates it contributes more than $700 million to Alaska's economy through jobs and purchases.

Senate Majority Leader Loren Leman, R-Anchorage, said if a head tax comes up, he doesn't believe that will derail the bill, but it would complicate the session and lengthen it.

The session will cost about $25,000 a day for legislators' per diem, staff and supplies, Legislative Affairs Agency Executive Director Pam Varni said. Travel for the out-of-town lawmakers will add another $50,000 to the bill.

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