Gov. Tony Knowles today offered to delay a special legislative session on cruise ship pollution by up to 17 days to accommodate a personal emergency of a key opponent.
Knowles has been criticized even by supporters for calling the Legislature into special session May 21, when Anchorage Republican Sen. John Cowdery has been excused. Cowdery's wife is tentatively scheduled for heart surgery at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., on May 23, according to Senate President Rick Halford, a Chugiak Republican.
The governor said in a late morning teleconference with reporters that he's willing to go as late as June 7, the first day after Cowdery's excused absence from the Senate. That's "a reasonable accommodation," Halford said in an interview from Florida this afternoon.
Halford said that he talked with Cowdery this morning and that Cowdery raised no objections. Juanita Cowdery would need up to 10 days of in-patient recovery after the surgery, so it's possible her husband could make it to Juneau for the special session, Halford said.
Knowles said he was unable to reach Cowdery Sunday night and hasn't spoken with him since the adjournment of the regular session Tuesday.
House Speaker Brian Porter, an Anchorage Republican, will be notified before the proclamation declaring the special session is officially amended, said Bob King, spokesman for Knowles. The governor's staff was having trouble reaching Porter, who apparently is in California.
The timing of the special session has been contentious since Wednesday, when Halford, a supporter of cruise ship regulation, said that Knowles was "inhumane" for calling it when Cowdery would be unavailable. Since then, Knowles said, his chief of staff, Jim Ayers, has been in constant touch with the Senate president.
The governor said he wrote Halford a letter Sunday to suggest "that we could put the personality issues aside so we could refocus the attention on the environmental protection." The letter notes that no legislator has suggested an alternate date but offers June 7 as a compromise.
"If we do that, I'm pleased to have made the accommodations necessary to get everybody in good faith back to the issue of how we protect our marine waters," Knowles said this morning. With two recent incidents of illegal discharges by cruise ships, "The case has indeed been made that this is important state business that needs to be done at the earliest possible time."
Halford didn't repeat his harsh criticism of Knowles, saying only that it had been "very frustrating" to find out that Knowles knew in advance that Cowdery's wife needed treatment. Asked whether the governor's letter had improved the atmosphere for a special session, he said: "I certainly hope so."
Knowles acknowledged he had known of Cowdery's excused absence. But he said given that Cowdery was asking to be excused from Senate business, he assumed that the senator expected business to go on. "I assumed he wasn't going to be taking part in it."
He called on Cowdery's Transportation Committee to take up the stalled bill and "make whatever adjustments they feel are necessary and then move it on." Halford said issues taken up in special session "usually get decided on the floor," a hint that he would not let Cowdery just hold on to the bill.
The governor has complained about the assignment of the bill to the Senate Transportation Committee, saying that similar legislation hasn't gone there. But Halford said that while he tried to talk Cowdery out of taking the bill, he couldn't deny a referral to a committee chairman who insisted on it.
"I didn't think that was a problem at the time," Halford said. Because the cruise industry was testifying in favor of the bill, he assumed Cowdery wouldn't be opposed.
But Cowdery said passing regulations on cruise ships would be unfair because municipal sewage in Alaska is insufficiently monitored. He also had concerns about whether the state ferries could comply with discharge standards without major capital costs. A committee hearing May 6 ended with no vote on the bill, which had passed the House 35-3 five days earlier.
Knowles said that in talking to Halford about a new special session date, he has not negotiated the bill's content. "We're going to do that all out in public. I may end up having to veto it, if they water it down, if it becomes a sham bill that doesn't protect the environment."
He also said he won't allow the question of a $50 head tax to kill the bill. The Senate passed such a tax last year, but it died in the House.
"This is a no-tricks mission that I'm on," said the governor, who has taken no position on a head tax. "No sleights of hand, no delay, no excuses."
Halford said he hasn't decided whether to offer the head tax as an amendment but said he doesn't necessarily accept the widespread speculation that the House would kill the whole bill to stop the tax. He said the industry makes up to $1 billion annually in Alaska and pays few taxes. "What they leave behind is mostly sewage."
In general, Halford sees better prospects for the bill as a result of the recent discharge incidents. "It didn't do anything for the credibility of the industry, certainly."
Aside from written news releases from Norwegian Cruise Line and Holland America Line, industry representatives have not commented.
Bill McAllister can be reached at email@example.com.