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Alaska's ocean ranger operations still in flux

Posted: Sunday, January 27, 2008

Alaska's innovative ocean ranger program remains unsettled and in flux, even after its first year of operation.

The program was created by voters in August 2006 and was in operation for the first time last summer, placing U.S. Coast Guard-certified marine engineers onboard cruise vessels to ensure pollution and other rules are followed.

The voters created the ocean rangers as they created a new tax, called the commercial passenger vessel excise tax, that brought in more than $46 million last year, said Johanna Bales, deputy director of the Department of Revenue's Tax Division.

In addition, the tax for the ocean ranger program brought in another $4 million.

Lynn Kent with the Department of Environmental Conservation said that providing full ranger coverage on large cruise ships in Alaska waters would cost about $5 million, $1 million more than the ranger tax would raise.

Kent said the cost of that program was driven up by the need to pay for a stateroom for the rangers from their departure in Seattle or Vancouver, British Columbia, so they'd be aboard the ships when they arrive in Alaska waters as the initiative requires.

That meets the letter and the intent of the law, she said.

Another option proposed having a pilot boat meet the ships in Dixon Entrance at the state's southern border and transfer a ranger to the cruise ship.

That would have been much less safe and still very expensive, she said.

"We have to purchase the berth for the entire voyage if we are going to use it for even part of the voyage," she said.

The department is also looking for other ways to implement the mandate, such as embarking at the first Alaska port and disembarking at the last Alaska port, or conducting observations only while the vessels are in Alaska ports.

The department has questions about whether those methods meet the intent of the initiative, she said.

Initiative supporter Chip Thoma attended the meeting, and said afterward supporters would be willing to talk with the state about ways to implement the program more efficiently.

State Rep. Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau, later questioned the department's $5 million cost for the program.

"That sounds awfully high to me for what I had envisioned was going to happen," she said.

The state has recently contracted with Crowley Marine of Florida to manage the program, Kent said.

The part of the new tax yet to be collected is the tax on gambling in state waters included in the initiative.

Tax returns from last summer aren't due until April 15, and with gambling currently illegal in Alaska, state officials say they have no way to estimate how much a new 33 percent tax on gambling in state waters will bring in.

"This is an industry for which we have no historical knowledge," Bales said.

Under the initiative, the state now gets 33 percent of gambling profits when the ships are in state waters.

• Contact reporter Pat Forgey at586-4816 or by e-mail at patrick.forgey@juneauempire.com.



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