House lawmakers are hoping to see at least some cruise ship passengers like these seen in this September 2017 file photo, and passed a resolution urging Congress and the president to take action on behalf of Alaska’s tourist sector. (Michael Penn / Juneau Empire File)

House lawmakers are hoping to see at least some cruise ship passengers like these seen in this September 2017 file photo, and passed a resolution urging Congress and the president to take action on behalf of Alaska’s tourist sector. (Michael Penn / Juneau Empire File)

House OKs resolution urging federal action to allow cruise ships to come to Alaska

Some lawmakers objected, citing legal concerns

The Alaska House of Representatives passed a joint resolution Wednesday urging the U.S. Congress and the president to take action on Alaska’s behalf to allow a cruise ship season this summer. The bill needs a final approval vote in the Senate, but that body already passed the resolution unanimously once.

Despite the resolution’s broad bipartisan support in the Senate where the bill had 15 bipartisan cosponsors, Republican lawmakers in the House objected to language requesting the president ignore federal laws. At question is the Passenger Vessel Services Act which puts certain prohibitions on foreign-built or crewed ships transporting passengers. Those ships must dock at a foreign port before reentering American waters, but with Canada’s ports closed to cruise ships, those vessels can’t travel to Alaska without violating that law.

The resolution asks Congress to temporarily waive the law, allowing cruise ships to sail from Seattle to Alaska without their typical stop in Vancouver, British Columbia. But, failing that, the resolution also asks President Joe Biden not to collect the $800 per-passenger fine violating the law normally comes with, and that was something House Republicans said they objected to.

That division stalled Monday’s floor debate on the bill when Republican members objected to the language asking the president to ignore the law. Republicans repeated their protest Wednesday, but after an amendment altering some of the language was adopted the resolution was passed by all but two lawmakers, Reps. David Eastman and Chris Kurka, both Wasilla Republicans.

Following Wednesday’s floor session the House Coalition caucus released a statement praising the resolution.

“We need tourism to return to Alaska for our state to enter a recovery phase that allows businesses, families, and individuals to get back to work and reach solid ground again,” said Rep. Andi Story, D-Juneau, in the statement.

[House Republicans balk at cruise ship waiver language]

Alaska’s businesses had found ways to stay open during the pandemic, Rep. Sara Hannan, D-Juneau, said in the statement, and now the federal government needs to find a way to bring cruise ships back to Alaska this summer.

“Another season without tourism in Southeast Alaska is simply not an option,” Hannan said.

The amended resolution removed language from the body of the bill requesting the president not collect the $800 fine, and thereby ignore federal law, but that language remained in the bill’s title despite objection from some Republicans. Republican members said even if they agreed with the goal of the resolution, asking the president to ignore the law set a bad precedent.

Democratic lawmakers pointed to the state’s marijuana industry which operates openly in the state despite cannabis being federally illegal.

Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, D-Sitka, said Wednesday he believed most members of the House would vote for a resolution urging the president not to enforce federal marijuana laws, and noted the Legislature itself regularly waives legal obligations such as payments for school bond debt reimbursement.

“The world is not always perfectly theoretically aligned with how we like it to be,” he said on the floor. “There’s kind of a messy reality, and we all need to compromise and govern in a way that’s practical.”

The resolution will go back to the Senate for a final confirmation vote. In a statement, the bill’s original sponsor Sen. Jesse Kiehl, D-Juneau, said with vaccinations becoming widespread Alaska is ready to keep visitors safe.

“We can’t afford to miss a second season in a row,” he said.

• Contact reporter Peter Segall at psegall@juneauempire.com. Follow him on Twitter at @SegallJnuEmpire.

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