Money to implement the voter-approved cruise ship initiative took a major cut in the closing days of the Alaska Legislature, but Gov. Sarah Palin said she'll implement the program anyway.
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"I'm going to implement the initiative as approved by voters last fall," Palin said in her end-of-session press conference.
Legislators who were aligned with the cruise ship industry, which opposed the initiative, made repeated attempts to weaken the law. Voter initiatives cannot be repealed by the Legislature for two years after passage.
As a conference committee was meeting to reconcile the House and Senate versions of the operating budget, Sen. Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel, proposed cutting funding for the $2.4 million program to $1.2 million.
Sen. Fred Dyson, R-Eagle River, spotted the cut and objected. He asked for an explanation of how the program would be run as voters intended without adequate funding.
The conference committee's majority members apparently had agreed among themselves about what changes to make in the budget, a process to which Dyson also had objected.
Hoffman told Dyson that the Department of Environmental Conservation, which will manage the ocean ranger program, said it could operate the program with the smaller amount of money.
Dyson then withdrew his objection.
However, Environmental Conservation spokesperson Lynda Giguere disputed Hoffman's claim that her department had agreed to the cut.
"We were surprised by that statement," she said.
The Empire attempted to ask Hoffman where he got the information that the department supported the budget cut. He did not return multiple phone calls over several days.
"We can only surmise there was a misunderstanding somewhere along the way," Giguere said.
Dyson said that it now appears he was "misinformed" by Hoffman, but declined to speculate on how that happened.
Palin said the amount appropriated by the Legislature was not enough to operate the program, but she said she would submit a supplemental budget request later. She said some legislative leaders told her they would be amenable to such a request.
The department is still developing the ocean ranger program and hopes to have it running fully by August, said Giguere.
For now, big cruise ships sailing into Alaska have a state environmental observer on board for a single leg of a trip between ports. Those observers work through a checklist of pollution control efforts that takes about 12 hours, she said.
The information compiled by the nine observers will be used by Environmental Conservation managers to develop the guidelines for the ocean ranger program, she said.
"They're refining the program based on the observations they're making," she said.
The voter initiative funded the program with $4 out of the $50 head tax on cruise ship passengers. The tax is expected to raise about $4 million this year.
The cruise ship industry fought the initiative with a multimillion dollar ad campaign, but the conflict seems to have died down, Giguere said.
"It's actually been going very well. The industry has been very cooperative," she said.
Pat Forgey can be reached at email@example.com.
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