The state is moving forward with plans to place ocean rangers on board cruise ships this season, and not just when the ships are in port but while they are under way, Gov. Sarah Palin said Wednesday.
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"We want to make sure we have the ocean ranger program up and running to the greatest degree we can with the dollars afforded us. That doesn't mean on shore, that means on the ships," Palin said while signing several bills at a news conference.
State lawmakers have been debating what voters meant when they approved a citizens initiative this summer that would levy a $50 head tax on cruise ship passengers.
The initiative earmarked $4 of the tax to pay for pollution monitors to ride on board the ships. That portion of the tax is estimated to bring in about $3.7 million from the more than 900,000 tourists that arrive via the big ships every year.
But the House Finance Committee stripped the item from the state budget earlier this month while the House Transportation Committee proposed an alternative program. It would have marine engineers board the ships only while they are in port at a cost of about $800,000 dollars a year. The program would be similar to what the state Department of Environmental Conservation already does.
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The bill is currently before the House Judiciary Committee where Chairman Jay Ramras, R-Fairbanks, is proposing to retain in-port monitoring but reinstate the remainder of the funds, almost $3 million, to be spent on ocean research and education programs.
"The ships no more need an on-board monitor than I need a (Department of Environmental Conservation) member standing in one of my restaurants being mindful of what I pour down my grease trap," said Ramras who gave his gavel to co-Chairwoman Nancy Dahlstrom, R-Anchorage, to avoid a possible conflict of interest from his work as a restaurateur.
The committee heard testimony from the cruise ship industry and supporters who said that industry practices have changed since the ships' much-publicized pollution violations in 2000 and 2001. They said ships now adhere to strict federal and state discharge standards, which are verified under existing monitoring programs.
The committee also heard from sponsors and supporters of the initiative who said the voters' intent was clear.
David Otnes, a shellfish farmer from Petersburg, said he is still suspicious of the industry.
"Trust but verify, and this is a cheap way of doing it. I find it insulting to consider cutting that funding and moving the money over to some perceived environmental groups elsewhere," Otnes said.
Otnes warned lawmakers that they would have "a hell of a fight on their hands" if they succeed in changing the initiative.
The committee did not take action on the bill or Ramras' amendment but will take it up again next week.
The Legislature cannot repeal an initiative for two years but it may change the language as long as it remains true to the voter's intent.
At the governor's press conference, Palin stopped short of saying she would veto any legislation that changes the initiative saying she had not yet seen the proposals. But she paraphrased Rep. Carl Gatto, R-Palmer, a past sponsor of a cruise ship head tax and a vocal critic of the proposed changes in the initiative.
"If people were to accuse the public of not knowing what they were voting for with the cruise ship tax then perhaps they didn't know whom they were voting for when they elected their representative to represent the will of the people," Palin said.
Gatto said the industry should not be afraid to prove itself.
"The cruise ships are always bragging about how clean they are. I hope the ocean rangers find they are right on the mark. I would be delighted," he said.
Officials with the environmental conservation department said they are working on setting up the program. Earlier they estimated the ocean ranger program would cost about $5.6 million a year but more recently said they were revising that estimate.
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