Just what did voters mean last August when they approved spending $4 of a $50 head tax on cruise ship passengers to place ocean rangers on board the vessels to monitor their environmental practices?
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It depends on whom you ask.
The state, sponsors of the citizen's initiative and a House committee all have their own interpretation.
The House Transportation Committee held its first hearing Thursday on a measure that would require monitors on board only when the ships are in port, essentially duplicating a joint state and federal monitoring program already in place.
The committee proposal would cost about $814,000, a quarter of what the program is expected to collect from passengers.
"We think the initiative was vague and we are within our rights to give the Department of Environmental Conservation some direction in how to go about implementing it," said committee chairman Kyle Johansen, R-Ketchikan.
The state on the other hand has envisioned a much more expansive program: marine engineers riding the ships in pairs in order to scrutinize the vessels' environmental practices and equipment 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
But they complain the program will be a challenge to implement before the first cruise ship arrives in Ketchikan on May 5. In hearings before the Legislature, officials have questioned whether enough marine engineers could be found with the necessary skills and where the money would come from.
The state estimates the program would cost $5.6 million, almost $2 million more than the fee would bring in, although Lynn Kent, director of the Division of Water with the Department of Environmental Conservation, said the department is now reviewing its initial assumptions.
"The costs we put together were done way before the ballot measure appeared on the ballot, and we did the best we could to make some assumptions. I think we are honing in on more accurate costs," Kent said.
A sponsor of the initiative meanwhile said both interpretations are off base, and the House proposal in particular demonstrates "a remarkable lack of respect for Alaska voters" because it ignores the initiative's intent to have rangers ride the ships.
The initiative specifically says "a vessel entering the marine waters of the state is required to have a marine engineer ... on board the vessel to act as an independent observer."
"If they only get on and off in port, then they (the ships) can dump anything they want before the rangers show up, and they can dump anything they want after they leave, and we will have no one there to watch," said Gershon Cohen.
Sponsors said their proposed $3.8 million budget was based on a single entry-level marine engineer serving on each vessel.
At a brief hearing for the House measure, cruise ship industry representatives did not speak to the bill but testified that new equipment and environmental procedures have been instituted systemwide since 1999 when a series of cruise ship pollution violations prompted the state to pass new laws governing their waste disposal.
Chairman Kyle Johansen said the bill would be back before the committee again on Tuesday when they would address the constitutional issues involved in changing a voter initiative.
The measure is House Bill 164.
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