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The cruise ship industry's battle against a voter initiative to increase taxes and environmental scrutiny on Alaska's cruise lines intensified Tuesday when 14 tourism groups filed a lawsuit to block the initiative from the 2006 ballot.
The lawsuit filed against the state in Anchorage's Superior Court accuses the Alaska Division of Elections of inadequately scrutinizing signatures collected during the cruise ship initiative drive last year.
The initiative proposes new taxes for the cruise ship industry, including a $50 head tax on cruise ship passengers. It also would require environmental observers on cruise ships.
At present, the city of Juneau is the only community in Alaska that charges a head tax on cruise ship passengers.
One of the plaintiffs in the suit - the North West Cruiseship Association, representing nine major cruise lines that operate from Hawaii to Alaska - claims the new taxes and regulation would damage tourism in Alaska. Shortly before filing suit, the group hired a former Secret Service agent to review the petition's signatures.
"This appears to be a prophylactic lawsuit attempting to usurp the initiative process," said Joe Geldhof, a Juneau maritime attorney and one of the original petitioners for the voter initiative.
Geldhof said the initiative includes a "reasonable" tax rate that would provide new revenue for Alaska communities to improve their harbors.
The state Division of Elections published its final report approving the voter initiative last Thursday.
The division has 40 days to review and respond to the legal complaint, said John Hansen, Vancouver, British Columbia-based president of the cruise ship association.
"I presume they could clarify some of the signatures ... whether they were all OK," Hansen said.
Two Juneau-based groups, the Alaska Steamship Association and Alaska Travel Adventures, joined the suit. The others are the Alaska Hotel and Lodging Association, the Alaska Travel Industry Association, Chilkat River Adventures, Chilkoot Gardens, Cruise Line Agencies of Alaska, Skagway tourism booster Robert Donahue, the Greater Sitka Chamber of Commerce, the Ketchikan Visitors Bureau, Mahay's Riverboat Service, the Resource Development Council for Alaska, Seibu Alaska and the Skagway Street Car Company.
Hansen claimed the major problem with the state-approved initiative is that it didn't indicate whether people who signed the petition were legitimate voters when they signed it.
"It's hard to determine whether they were registered on that date," Hansen said.
Geldhof responded, "What's interesting about this is they admit they don't know if there are invalid signatures. This is an attempt to file a suit and see if they can dig up some facts in support of their notion."
Elizabeth Bluemink can be reached at email@example.com.