Rare words and unspoken issues during special session

Posted: Sunday, June 10, 2001

Longtime observers remember just three precedents over the past 10 years:

Senate President Rick Halford gave up the gavel Friday night so that he could go to the floor to debate the cruise ship bill.

It was a rare action by a presiding officer in either legislative body, and it underscored Halford's commitment to the issue, especially because he said he knew he was on the losing side of the amendment at hand.

Senators narrowly defeated a $10 head tax on cruise ship passengers. Halford had compromised on the amount, but still came up on the short end of a 10-9 vote, after industry lobbyists worked the issue in the Capitol all day long.

But Halford says next year he will be back with a $50 head tax. And he predicted that it will pass, either through legislative action or through a citizen initiative process that's already under way.

Two opinion polls this year have shown a majority of Alaskans favoring a head tax on the industry. But in the House, where Al Parrish of Holland America Line has relied successfully on his friendship with Speaker Brian Porter of Anchorage, the leadership has been adamant against it.

Halford not only wants the revenue -- $35 million, based upon 700,000 passengers -- but also wants to stop the industry's "blackmail" in small towns like Haines and Skagway, where individual local businesses or entire communities are penalized for considering local taxes and voicing concerns about industrial-scale tourism.

He also objects to the industry's use of "port lectures" to leverage additional fees from local businesses, and to charge large commissions on tours, along with big on-board markups. And the industry's "vertical integration" strategy puts the foreign-flagged companies in direct competition with homegrown entrepreneurs who do pay taxes and the minimum wage, he said.

More scrutiny of the industry will increase public support for a head tax and a corporate income tax, he said. "This is one of these cases where light will create its own heat."

In 2002, he said, "They'll wish they had $10."

The nerve of Kim Elton to have an opinion on the biggest issue in Juneau. Or so Jerry Ward must have thought.

Ward, an Anchorage Republican, refused to allow the Juneau Democrat to offer amendments to the cruise ship bill during Thursday's Senate Transportation hearing.

Elton had barely opened his mouth when Ward moved to pass the bill. Chairman John Cowdery, an Anchorage Republican, quickly took the vote and adjourned the hearing, leaving Elton silent but visibly angry.

"Personally, I was done amending," Ward explained afterward. "It's procedure" to deal with the motion on the floor, Cowdery said.

Senate Majority Leader Loren Leman, an Anchorage Republican, observed the scene and commented: "It was a little awkward."

"It has never happened to me. I have not seen it happen to anybody else," Elton said. But it was more egregious for the policy choices being made than for the procedure, he said.

The next morning, the Senate Finance Committee undid most of the controversial changes made by Cowdery.

Cowdery claimed this week not to know that graywater from cruise ships has been shown sometimes to have fecal coliform levels thousands of times above the legal limits for treated sewage.

Graywater comes from, among other sources, showers and laundries. So Cowdery asked state Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Michele Brown what hazard would be posed by someone who jumped into the ocean, with or without clothes. Brown said if it was a million people - the number of passengers and crew carried on cruise ships this season - she might be concerned.

Asked later if he was making light of test results on graywater that have been publicized since September, Cowdery said he had heard something about the testing but had no idea if the results were accurate.

But he had grown tired of the issue. He said he and his wife were planning a cruise for their 50th wedding anniversary in two weeks, but he's canceled it.

Quote marks:

"Sewage is just food that's been digested." -- Biologist John Palmes, testifying that feces-laden discharges from cruise ships might be beneficial to humpback whales

"How can you tell after it's digested whether it's apples or broccoli?" Cowdery, referring to criticism of his comparison of cruise ships with land-based facilities as "apples and broccoli"

"We flag in the well-known tax haven: The United Kingdom." -- Tom Dow of Princess Cruises, a British-flagged company, referring to the usual criticism that cruise lines operate out of other countries to avoid taxes

Bill McAllister can be reached at billm@juneauempire.com.



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