Empire editorial: Uphold voters' intent on cruise ship initiative

Posted: Sunday, April 15, 2007

Why is it so hard for some politicians to understand what democracy means?

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Ground Control to Capitol: Mind your electorate. Check Measure 2. Change course accordingly.

Some legislators have been trying to unravel the cruise ship initiative Alaskans approved last year. The sweeping measure requires a $50 head tax on cruise ship passengers. It requires cruise lines to meet the same clean water standards as other industries.

It also calls for more disclosure about cruise ships' promotions of local tours, and it puts rangers on board ships to monitor pollution.

House Speaker John Harris, R-Valdez, Rep. Mike Kelly, R-Fairbanks, and others say Alaskans didn't really know what they voted for. Reps. Kyle Johansen, R-Ketchikan, and Jay Ramras, R-Fairbanks, are among those working to gut the part of the initiative requiring ocean rangers to make sure liners aren't dumping their garbage in our waters.

Who's off course, the politicians or the voters?

The cruise ship industry spent well over a million dollars on an advertising blitz before the election. Maybe Harris, Kelly, Johansen, Ramras & Co. were permanently persuaded.

Voters didn't buy it, though. Then or now.

The latest political spin in the House would place rangers on board ships only when they're in port and spend only about one-fourth of the program's funding on monitoring. The rest of the money would go toward "research," "education," "youth programs" and other vague-sounding stuff.

The problem is none of that vague stuff was on the ballot. Ocean rangers were. Disclosure was.

A Senate budget subcommittee has rightly restored about $2.5 million to ocean rangers, who in the Senate proposal would be on board ships while they're under way.

Opponents of this plan argue that cruise lines have done so much to reduce pollution that there's no reason to have the monitors on board when a ship is out of port.

Should state troopers stay in their office parking lot to watch for speeders? Or are they more likely to find them out on the highway?

Meanwhile, the House has been quibbling about the initiative requirement for disclosure about ships' on-board promotions of onshore tours and shops.

This part of the initiative was designed to disclose to passengers that the cruise corporations make money by promoting flightseeing with Company X or salmon fishing with Company Y.

Critics claim cruise lines have scared passengers away from unaffiliated companies by saying that only their under-the-table partners are safe or reliable - not revealing they get kickbacks for steering people toward specific vendors.

It's no wonder that some businesses keep protesting the voters' decision. What would you do if you had a sweetheart deal worth thousands?

House members produced a new version of House Bill 217, which initiative sponsors now back.

The latest version of the bill, sponsored by Rep. Lindsey Holmes, D-Anchorage, eliminated disclosure of the size of the commission unless it exceeds 25 percent - an amount that might raise eyebrows.

HB 217 does do several things in keeping with the intent of the initiative:

• It requires cruise ship companies to reveal to passengers the cruise lines are promoting certain businesses because they're paid to.

• It forces cruise lines to state that alternatives to their recommendation may be available.

• It calls for cruise lines to make available information about the local visitors bureau and a list of other tours.

The measure also would raise the penalties for failure to disclose information. Crafters of the initiative mistakenly set the penalty at $100, instead of the $1,000 they intended.

The latest House proposal would change that so that penalties could be 10 to 250 times the amount stated in the initiative and follow fines outlined in the Unfair Trade Practices Act.

While this plan does alter the specifics listed in the initiative, it maintains its intent and actually increases penalties. Legislators would be wise to embrace this proposal.

The state still has the rest of the pieces of this many-faceted initiative to put in place. Legislators need to approach the rest of the initiative the way they have with disclosures of promotions - honoring the intent of the ballot measure and doing what voters told them to do in the first place.



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