Just five days before a special session of the Legislature on cruise ship pollution, it's anybody's guess what's going to happen.
Key players say they don't know if new environmental restrictions will be approved when lawmakers return Thursday, nor whether the industry will have to pay a $50 statewide head tax. Estimates of the length of the session run from one day to five.
"There certainly are a lot of conversations going on," Michele Brown, commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Conservation, said Friday. "But I think at this point you can't predict an outcome."
"Nobody knows what's going to happen," said water quality activist Gershon Cohen of Haines.
A statewide public opinion poll shows majority support for both state regulation and taxation of the cruise ship industry.
Gov. Tony Knowles called the special session just after midnight May 9, immediately following adjournment of the regular session.
The Senate failed to act on a bill, passed 35-3 in the House on May 1, to set up a pollution reporting, monitoring and regulation system. The bill includes a $1 passenger fee to pay for state oversight and what would be the world's first discharge limits on graywater.
Senate Transportation Chairman John Cowdery, an Anchorage Republican, said there were too many problems with the bill to be worked out in the last few days of the session and prevented it from leaving his committee. There also was wide speculation that a head tax would be added to the bill on the Senate floor.
Cowdery, recently out of state for his wife's medical treatment, has scheduled a committee meeting for 1 p.m. Thursday and reportedly is preparing a new version of the bill.
But it's not only the Senate that will be closely watched. House Speaker Brian Porter, an Anchorage Republican, has vowed the bill will die if it comes back from the Senate with the head tax, according to Al Parrish of Holland America.
"He's always been a man of his word," Parrish said.
The North West CruiseShip Association has accepted the move toward state oversight of its marine discharges, air emissions and on-board waste management. If the bill doesn't pass, the association has declared its intention to abide by everything in it, including finding a way to "simulate" the criminal penalties for environmental violations, Parrish said.
But the industry has put on a full-court press against the head tax, which would total $35 million a year. Full-page newspaper advertisements and additional lobbyists have been deployed in the past month in an attempt to avert the tax.
"We're going to be worried up to the time the special session is over with," Parrish said.
Knowles, a Democrat, has remained neutral on the head tax but says he will not allow that issue to kill the environmental legislation. Juneau Democratic Rep. Beth Kerttula, the governor's key ally in the House, says she thinks he would call a second special session if the Legislature adjourned without passing environmental protection measures.
"I think this is a curious one: What's causing uncertainty isn't even on the table - yet," said Brown of DEC.
Senate President Rick Halford, a Chugiak Republican, wants both the head tax and the environmental provisions. While the Senate "is genuinely divided on both," Halford said he's not worried that Porter would simply pocket the bill in the House because of a head tax.
"I don't think in a special session a presiding officer can do that," Halford said. "I think the ultimate decision will be made on the Senate floor."
Porter did not respond to repeated requests for comment last week.
Sen. Lyda Green, a Matanuska-Susitna Republican, said her vote for the head tax last year was the only time she's ever voted for a tax. It then died in the House.
"It'd be kind of tough" to do it again, she said.
As far as environmental policy, "There's a reluctance on the part of my constituents to give DEC more power," Green said. Antipathy for agency, which would negotiate new pollution rules with the industry, also slowed action in the House during the regular session.
Sen. Kim Elton, a Juneau Democrat, said he doesn't think the bill will simply die.
"I don't see any logical outcome where we don't at least have a bill," Elton said. "I don't think anybody wants to be in the position of coming back for a special session and then being so grounded in ideological thought that it blows up."
"I think no matter what, we're going to get a very good bill on environmental issues probably a better one than we've got now," Kerttula said. She believes the bill will be strengthened to clarify that all on-board piping systems will be subject to state inspection for all possible pollutants, a concern of environmentalists who have been active on the issue. But Kerttula said she's not sure that result will be achieved in just one special session.
While the cruise ship issue is feverish in Southeast, where 1 million passengers and crew members will visit this summer, there is little intensity about it in Fairbanks, said Gerald McBeath, a political science professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. "My sense is that it's not that critical an issue on which to call a special session, but then he's governor and I'm not. ... I'm sure there's a reason there. It's not real self-evident."
McBeath said he doesn't see any political benefit or fallout for Knowles or the Legislature, regardless of what happens in the special session.
But a statewide poll recently released by Ivan Moore Research of Anchorage shows public support for placing regulations and taxes on the cruise ship industry.
In the poll, taken in the third week of May, 70 percent of respondents supported pollution testing for all discharge pipes on cruise ships. Also, 91 percent said cruise ships should be subject to the same air and water regulations as homegrown industries such as oil and mining. The industry's environmental performance was graded C, D or F by more than 80 percent.
Meanwhile, 58 percent of respondents said they favor a head tax. Only 10 percent were strongly opposed.
Bill McAllister can be reached at email@example.com.