Devils in the details regarding Measure 2

Juneau, Ketchikan would likely receive no money

Posted: Sunday, July 16, 2006

Measure 2 on the Aug. 22 primary election ballot assesses a $50 head tax on each Alaska cruise ship passenger, with the money going to the state and the ports welcoming the travelers. Sounds great, except there are devils in the details.

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That is why there is a lengthy list of Alaska municipal governments, civic organizations, tour operators, tourists associations, small businesses and individuals opposed to the measure. That list is 1,200 signatures long and growing, according to Alaskans Protecting Our Economy. The opposition is widespread from the Fairbanks Chamber of Commerce - one of nine major Alaska chambers opposed - to the Mat-Su Convention and Visitors Bureau, to the Southeastern Conference, representing 29 communities in Southeast Alaska.

Pushing the ballot measure are environmental organizations. Earth Island Institute of San Francisco put up $30,000 to hire professional signature collectors to put the measure on the ballot. Others include the Juneau Sierra Club, the Alaska Conservation Foundation, and Oceana (environmental litigators headquartered in Washington, D.C.), all sailing under the banner of Responsible Cruising in Alaska.

One of the sponsors of the petition is Gershon Cohen of Haines, the manager of C-SAW, the Campaign to Safeguard America's Waters. C-SAW is a project of Earth Institute. Earth Institute is a division of Friends of the Earth, which was founded by David Brower after he was bounced out as executive director of the Sierra Club in 1969.

Also supporting the ballot measure is Bluewater Network of San Francisco, another subsidiary of Friends of the Earth, and Karen Jettmar of Equinox Wilderness Expeditions in Anchorage, a self-proclaimed environmental activist and former officer in the Wilderness Society.

Devil in the details? Try this: Each community visited by cruise ships will be entitled to $5 of the $50 collected by the state. If a community decides to share in the fund, it has to give up any current tax it assesses. Ketchikan already assesses $7 per passenger, which the cruise lines are paying and which goes to retiring $38.5 million in bonds the city issued for port improvements.

Juneau assesses a fee of $10 per passenger for its harbor improvements. It is likely that Ketchikan and Juneau would decline to give up their fees so the money the state collects goes to other towns and none to the cruise industry's two busiest ports! No fair.

Four dollars out of the $50 is going to support a sea ranger program, a make-work arrangement. It places a state employee on each cruise ship to monitor compliance with state and federal law. Cruise ships already undergo rigorous testing to comply with state, federal and international requirements. Independent third party laboratories perform these test for the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation.

Ships also must provide tests results, obtained by a third party, showing compliance with Alaska wastewater rules 90 days before they reach Alaska waters. Ships are subject to both scheduled and unscheduled tests throughout the season. Results of continuous on-board monitoring in conjunction with wastewater treatment are part of the ships' logs, all open to Coast Guard and state inspection.

What the ballot measure does is set up duplicate regulation and another layer of bureaucracy.

Under terms of the ballot measure, cruise ships must reveal financial agreements with local businesses. Local businesses won't like having their business details made public - posted in 14-point type, no less.

Another devilish section of the ballot measure awards to complainants up to 50 percent of any fine assessed a cruise operation. This encourages frivolous complaints, knowing that large corporations occasionally rather pay a fine to avoid lengthy and expensive litigation, without acknowledging wrongdoing.

One devilish detail might develop into something interesting in long-term litigation. It is a 33 percent tax on gross income of the casino operation on each ship. Casino gambling is illegal in Alaska, how can Alaska tax it?

Current federal law allows operation of casinos aboard cruise ships if the ship is more than three miles from an Alaska port. Shipboard casinos must remain closed while ships are in port. Ships must be on multiple day voyages, and have overnight accommodations for all passengers. This is to prevent gambling ships on cruises to no-where, or casino barges moored outside Alaska communities.

Shades of the "good old" days.

Prior to 1949, there were slot machines in every fraternal lodge and veterans' post in Alaska, and in some private bars, such as Charlie Miller's famous Talk of the Town in Fairbanks.

The 1949 Legislature got frisky. Alaska needed a basic tax structure to prove that the territory could afford statehood. So the lawmakers passed seven revenue measures, among them a tax on slot machines. But gambling was illegal in Alaska! This embarrassed federal law enforcement. Soon all slots were gone, along with the revenue that lodges used to pay the rent.

Anyway, that warns Alaskans to be careful about taxing floating casinos. The $50 passenger fee would not be a big detriment to cruising but losing casino gambling would be.

One of the three sponsors of the ballot measure, in addition to Cohen, is Joe Geldhoff, a Juneau attorney. The third sponsor is Norman Sarabia, head of the Douglas Indian Association. Not all Indians agree. Listed among opponents of the measure is the Sitka Tribe of Alaska.

Ballot Measure 2 could be termed the Environmental Lawyers' Full Employment Act. Considering the damage those litigators have inflicted, and continue to inflict, upon Alaska's timber industry, it is hard to believe many will support their attack next on the visitor business.

•Lew M. Williams Jr. is a retired publisher of the Ketchikan Daily News and a Southeast Alaska journalist since 1946.

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