AKLEG Day 58: As cruise industry booms, administration seeks to end 24/7 pollution monitoring program

A cruise ship docked in Juneau on July 26, 2014. (Photo by Bernt Rostad/Flickr Creative Commons)

Day 58 of the legislative session wasn’t quite as boisterous as the pro-ferry testimony that dominated Day 57, but there was still plenty sea-faring activity to go around in Juneau. The PFD repayment plan took a hit, legislators are seeking breathing room from an ethics law passed just last year and the House is planning to take the budget on the road.

Here’s what happened.

‘The state is open for business, but the shelves are empty’

The Senate Resources Committee heard Senate Bill 70 to repeal the voter-created Ocean Ranger Program during its Wednesday hearing. The program provides 24-hour pollution monitoring of most cruise ships visiting Alaska’s waters and is more than covered by fees collected from the ships (a $4 per berth fee).

Eliminating the program doesn’t help close the budget gap (and in fact it could make it worse as the funding is used in part for other programs) so it’s being pitched as a way to make “Alaska open for business.”

“Gov. Dunleavy tasked each of his commissioners to make Alaska open for businesses,” Department of Environmental Conservation-designee Jason Brune told the committee. “To show that we are open for business and encouraging new investment to our state we must treat our industries firmly but fairly.”

He said that cruise ships would be covered by other port-based monitoring programs and by reviewing cruise ships self-reporting records. He also described the voter initiative as passing by a “slim margin” in 2006—it passed by a 4-point margin in the same election where House Speaker Bryce Edgmon actually won by the slimmest of margins, a coin toss.

Though the administration was glowing in its appraisal of the repeal, it saw almost universal opposition during public testimony.

One testifier asked if the fee and monitoring program were so detrimental to the cruise ship then why have visitors increased pretty much constantly since 2006. The Cruise Lines International Association also happens to expect record-high cruise ship visitors in 2019, forecasting a 16 percent growth between 2018 and 2019.

Joe Geldhof, the co-author of the 2006 initiative, said there’s a case for the law to be updated so a greater number of cruise ships are monitored but argued against repeal. He said the cruise ships earned the extra scrutiny.

“The industry earned the scrutiny. There were historic practices that were horrendous in terms of pollution in our waters,” he said. “The perception that this was some idea that this was floated by the environmental community is actually wrong. The idea of putting an on-board observer was a direct outgrowth of discussions with the fishing community, who were used to having on-board observers in the federal fisheries.”

Admittedly many of the testifiers identified as Ocean Rangers, many who pointed out that the relatively low number of violations found against the cruise ships should not be a sign that the program is failure but that it’s a success. Cruise ships are mobile and have a long history of bending the rules when no one is looking they argued.

But at its core, many argued that the elimination of the program would put Alaska’s pristine waters at greater risk of pollution, doing far more damage to the economy than a $4 per berth fee does.

Daniel Lynch, a Soldotna resident, testified to this point.

“The new governor has made statements to give the state back to the people. A ballot initiative that passes is the people’s intent. After oil and gas, our biggest active resource is tourism and I don’t see where the state receives any revenue to the state coffers,” he said. “The state is open for business, but the shelves are empty.”

No one from the cruise ship industry testified in support or opposition to the bill.

Sen. Bert Stedman, the Sitka Republican who co-chairs the Senate Finance Committee, told the administration earlier this session that because the bill didn’t help with the deficit that it should not be considered a priority for this year.

An extra step for PFD repayment

Legislators have a detailed legal memo arguing that the governor’s PFD repayment plan is an unconstitutional durational residency test (ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in Zobel v. Williams) and the administration thinks it will pass constitutional muster.

The disagreement means the legislation will be making an extra stop in the Senate Judiciary Committee, where Senate President Cathy Giessel referred it to during Wednesday’s floor meeting.

To check out the arguments about the legislation’s constitutionality, check out our Day 50 recap from last week.

House plans to take the budget on the road

The House Finance Committee is reportedly planning on taking the budget on the road with a series of yet-to-be-announced meetings and townhalls away from the capitol building. Facing a choice between politically unpopular cuts and politically unpopular reductions to the PFD (or some mix of the two), it’s a smart move for legislators to hear directly from their constituents.

These town halls also give the opportunity for legislators to break through the headlines and soundbites to give more thorough presentations to constituents, which is something we’ve frequently heard makes a difference in shaping constituent attitudes. More information makes a difference.

While Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy’s planned public engagement will be locked behind a $5 listening fee when he meets with the Greater Fairbanks Chamber of Commerce on March 28, hopefully the House Finance Committee is planning on meetings that are more accessible to all Alaskans.

It might be good, however, to clue everyone on the committee into the plans ahead of their announcement.

Timeline to be explained

Last week, we wrote about inconsistencies in the timeline laid out in internal emails about the privatization of the Alaska Psychiatric Institute that appeared to show state officials talking about the emergency event that drove the privatization a week before the emergency event was discovered by federal investigators.

Department of Health and Social Services officials were in front of the Senate Health and Social Services Committee on Wednesday to give an overview of the department, including an overview of the API privatization. Senators didn’t ask about this issue specifically, but a “timeline discrepancy” and HSS Commissioner Adam Crum said an explanation of it would be posted shortly.

It has yet to be posted.

Ethics repeal introduced

The Senate’s solution to a new ethics rule that’s not operating as intended is not to fix it but to repeal the provision altogether. It’s not sitting well with the law’s sponsor former Rep. Jason Grenn, who argued against precisely this sort of thing. At least the law doesn’t touch the changes to legislative travel or to lobbyist activities.

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