I attended the Juneau Chamber of Commerce luncheon Thursday at the Moose Lodge, which I always try to do when my schedule permits. We'd known for a week that former Alaska Rep. Ralph Samuels, now a government relations executive with Holland America, was speaking. Having known Ralph since he served in the state House, I've always found him to be a great guy and a great public speaker.
The day before I received word there was to be an additional speaker at Chamber (none other than our newly-minted Gov. Sean Parnell). I figured this would draw an even larger crowd than Ralph already would've pulled, which suspicion proved to be correct. I got there early, and I'm glad I did. In spite of record-breaking temperatures and sunny skies outside, the place was packed.
I was looking forward to Ralph's presentation, knowing that tourism in general is having a tough year in Alaska, and cruise lines specifically are facing major challenges. But I had no problem waiting to hear about all that so Parnell could speak first. The crowd was delighted to welcome our new governor to the capital city, standing to applaud and welcome him. As I've written before, I've known Gov. Parnell since the early 1990s when he first ran for his father's seat in the state House. Over time, I've watched him grow into a highly capable leader, not flashy or attention-seeking, but calm, cool, collected and unarguably up to the task of leading Alaska.
Parnell spoke about many issues near and dear to Juneau, from his ardent support for the Kensington mine to his commitment to treat the capital city with the respect we, it's residents, deserve. He announced that he will host the first Juneau Governor's Picnic on Aug. 21, which thrilled the crowd. Sadly, I'll be at a meeting in Fairbanks that day, but I hope everyone in Juneau makes it over to Sandy Beach to meet Parnell. He talked about having the first cabinet meeting of his administration in Juneau, and about his plans to spend a meaningful amount of time here as governor. All in all, I haven't seen so many Juneau residents thrilled in quite some time.
True to his modest nature, Parnell wrapped up his comments in time to let Ralph give his planned presentation, which was sobering but worthwhile. Ralph addressed the effects of the global recession on tourism locally and worldwide. He didn't blame tourism's trials and tribulations in Alaska on the cruise ship initiative that passed in the last election, but he couldn't help but note that many provisions of this voter-passed law were making a bad situation much worse.
I voted against the initiative back in 2006, not because I thought it was all bad, but rather because I thought it did too many things without careful consideration of consequences. The incredibly stringent clean water rules, for example, were sold to Alaskans as being "for clean water" and "against dirty water" when in fact the truth is much more nuanced. Alaska already had a fairly new law mandating clean discharges of wastewater from cruise ships, which the initiative ramped up to an unparalleled level. This step ignored recent, costly investments by the cruise industry in technology to meet very high standards, and imposed ones that may be effectively unattainable.
Another provision of the cruise-ship initiative is the $50 per passenger "head tax." This fee was sold as being a way to raise off-budget funds for shoreside improvements that benefit passengers and port communities alike. What has happened in reality, however, is that many of the funds have gone unspent on their intended purpose because of the limitations on how the funds may be used. It is only reasonable to suspend the collection of the head tax when the coffers it fills reach a certain level and until the moneys are appropriated for worthy projects. This is what's done with the spill prevention and response tax collected on every barrel of oil - and it works.
The truth about tourism is that it may make life more difficult in some ways, but it provides crucial, irreplaceable dollars in our economy. Every ship that pulls out of Alaska in future seasons will leave a noticeable effect from Fairbanks to Ketchikan.
Both Ralph Samuels and Gov. Sean Parnell imparted valuable information at last week's Chamber of Commerce luncheon, but more than that, they showed real concern and compassion for Alaska's capital city. The way their message and its delivery were received by the crowd, you could tell things are looking up for Juneau.
Ben Brown is an attorney living in Juneau.