The cruise ship debate flared on the House floor this morning, as minority Democrats strenuously protested a fast track for a new bill by the chamber's Finance Committee.
Finance Co-Chairman Eldon Mulder, an Anchorage Republican, already had scheduled a hearing in his committee this afternoon on the bill, which sets a new graywater discharge standard for cruise ships and levies a $1-per-passenger fee to pay for a state monitoring and enforcement program.
The bill largely reproduces a measure by Juneau Democratic Rep. Beth Kerttula, leading House Minority Leader Ethan Berkowitz to make a comparison with the hijacked cruise ship Achille Lauro.
"I'm concerned in essence this amounts to a hijacking," Berkowitz said.
What particularly galled Democrats is that House Speaker Brian Porter, an Anchorage Republican, referred the bill to only one committee - Mulder's committee.
Kerttula's bill already is waiting for a hearing in that committee after being passed by the House Transportation and Resources committees. Democratic Gov. Tony Knowles introduced a bill March 9 that got four committee referrals and still has had no hearing. Multiple referrals often kill a bill. The Legislature is scheduled to adjourn May 8.
Kerttula, saying the committee referral "denigrates this body," asked the House to overrule Porter. By a 27-11 party-line vote, Porter's ruling was sustained.
Rep. Eric Croft, an Anchorage Democrat whose father also served in the Legislature, said upholding the dignity of the process always has been important to him.
"I hate to see this House or the other body defamed," Croft said. "I hate things that make us look bad in public. ... We hurt every major thing we try to do when we operate in this way."
Mulder said only that he intends to give the issue a full airing in his committee, taking as many witnesses and points of view as necessary.
Porter ruled that Mulder didn't have to answer questions about the content of his bill or why he's not scheduling a hearing on Kerttula's bill because those topics were not germane to the issue of the committee referral.
The cruise industry last week endorsed Kerttula's bill. Al Parrish of Holland America said Wednesday that he couldn't comment on continued support for that bill until the new Finance Committee bill was out.
While Knowles had proposed a permit system that would allow the state to ban companies that repeatedly violated pollution regulations, Mulder's bill only requires companies to register with the state.
Knowles' bill included the passenger fee now in Mulder's bill.