Aren't we in the visitor business?

Posted: Sunday, February 13, 2005

Ketchikan Daily News By Lew Williams

This writer thought that Alaskans were promoting the visitor business and Alaska salmon, especially in Southeast Alaska, hard-hit by the shutdown of the timber industry.

But now comes a Southeast group based in Juneau, Responsible Cruising in Alaska, financed by San Francisco-based environmental groups, according to The Voice of the Times. The Juneau group is sponsoring an initiative to restrict Alaska's cruise ship industry and increase the taxes upon it to the detriment of Southeast towns.

Earth Island Institute and Bluewater Network financed collection of signatures for the initiative petition that will be before the voters in the August 2006 primary election unless a pending legal action voids it.

To begin with, hiring the collection of signatures is a questionable practice. It has led to trouble in other states where companies specialize in collecting signatures for any type of initiative. They go state-to-state and are paid by the number of signatures collected with little care on authenticity of the signatures. The practice should be outlawed. The state constitution says; "The people may propose and enact laws by the initiative ... ." It doesn't say special-interest groups and paid solicitors.

There are several onerous features in the initiative. Local Alaska businesses won't be happy with the requirement that they publicly post how much they pay cruise ships for advertising and commissions.

We wonder about some local businesses, too. There once was a perception that the fishing industry was trying to promote wild Alaska salmon.

The city of Ketchikan wants to expand its moorage space for cruise ships but one proposal is opposed by Trident Seafoods because it is, in their opinion, too close to their Ketchikan cannery, although the city guarantees the new dock and the ships using it won't hinder access to Trident's dock.

Trident should consider that about 200,000 passengers will land near their dock each summer. An attractive sign on the cannery should read: "Buy TRIDENT brand seafood in your hometown supermarket. Wild Alaska salmon is good for the heart," or some such wording. Later, a viewing room might be established at the cannery so visitors can see the operation (for a fee) and pick up a sample can, recipes and literature on how great wild Alaska salmon is for their health.

For reaching 200,000 people, that's cheaper than TV advertising and pays its own way. Seafood producers should hire more publicists and fewer lawyers if they want to sell salmon.

Another feature of the initiative headed for the ballot assesses an income tax on the operation in Alaska of foreign-registered ships. The Alaska Supreme Court ruled in 1998 that the state had that power. It only involves foreign-registered ships, now exempt from federal and other states' income taxes. Companies pay on their shoreside operations.

If Alaska wants to be first to collect on cruise ships (it collects on domestic registered ships such as tankers calling at Valdez) that is fine, but the state should stay out of taxing areas open to local communities such as a port head tax and a sales tax.

So the worse feature in the initiative is the $50 per passenger state head tax on cruise ship passengers with 25 percent of the money going to communities that don't entertain cruise ships. The initiative calls for putting the money in special accounts, which appears to violate a constitutional ban (Article IX, Section 7) against dedicated funds unless the initiative also is intended to be a constitutional amendment. And another section of the constitution says: "The initiative shall not be used to dedicate revenues."

Southeast towns such as Ketchikan, Juneau and Haines already collect a head tax, although Ketchikan's $4 isn't widely publicized. The cruise companies have agreed to increase the fee in Ketchikan to pay for the $58 million dock expansion south of downtown, the least expensive of the options for more dock space. It also can pay for related upland improvements such as access, parking, an aquarium, an expanded museum and other visitor attractions.

And, every visitor to Southeast towns pays a sales tax, as do the locals. We suggest that if Anchorage and Fairbanks, where most of the initiative signatures probably were collected, need more money for convention centers, or whatever, that they also enact a sales tax instead of tapping Southeast communities.

• Lew Williams Jr. is former publisher of the Ketchikan Daily News.

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