As members of the House Finance Committee agonized over possible cuts to the state’s budget Thursday, one of the most debated cuts of the day was over a program that doesn’t get its funding from the state’s general fund.
The Ocean Rangers Program, funded by a $4 fee that cruise passengers pay, has been on the chopping block this session after Gov. Mike Dunleavy introduced Senate Bill 70 to repeal the program. Rep. Kelly Merrick, R-Eagle River, proposed an amendment Thursday that would defund the program in the House’s budget proposal.
The members spent about half an hour discussing the program before voting 8-3 to cut funding for it.
Does it actually save money?
Those in favor of cutting the program’s funding argued that it would save the state $3.4 million. Those who argued against it said it isn’t costing the state money. Both sides are kind of right, Department of Environmental Conservation Acting Administrative Services Director Ruth Kostik said Thursday.
“It depends on semantics to say if it would save the state money or not,” Kostik said in a phone interview. “It is money the state has collected and the state will save that money, but it is not the general fund.”
The $3.4 million that funds the program comes from the passenger fees and goes into an account along with passenger fees collected from the Commercial Passenger Vessel Environmental Compliance (CPVEC) program. The Legislative Finance Division identifies these fees as “other” funds instead of state funding, Kostik said.
This joint fund of Ocean Ranger and CPVEC money can be used to fund overall regulation of cruise ships in Alaska waters, Kostik said. Ocean Ranger fees go to the DEC’s Division of Water, which funds the program, Kostik said.
For example, Ocean Ranger fees pay for more than just the Ocean Ranger program. Kostik said Ocean Ranger passenger fees also helped fund overhead costs in DEC’s administrative division, and the Legislature used Ocean Ranger fees to fund the Fish Tissue Monitoring program in the 2017 Fiscal Year.
The House Finance Committee’s vote Thursday got rid of the funding for the Ocean Ranger program in the Division of Water, and replaced the funding to the DEC administrative division and the Fish Tissue Monitoring with CPVEC funds.
If the governor’s bill passes to repeal the program, the state will stop collecting the $4 passenger fee. If the bills do not go through but the Legislature defunds the program, the state will continue to collect the passenger fee, but the DEC would not be able to continue to fund the program because of the Legislature’s action.
So does this save money? It depends on how you look at it, as Kostik said.
In Dunleavy’s letter accompanying SB 70, he doesn’t use the word “save” to describe how this would affect the budget. He writes that repealing the program would “reduce the state’s budget.”
Overseeing versus discouraging
The main argument between legislators Thursday was whether the program was doing its job.
The program, which was created via statewide ballot initiative in a 2006 vote, aims to not only catch cruise ship violations but to have a presence on board to discourage cruise companies from pushing the envelope.
According to DEC numbers presented at a March 15 meeting about the program, Ocean Rangers have reported six violations in the past 11 years.
During Thursday’s meeting, Rep. Andy Josephson, D-Anchorage, listed off examples of cruise ships committing major violations both in Alaska and elsewhere. Rep. Dan Ortiz, I-Ketchikan, said having an enforcer on board the vessels has a similar effect to having a State Trooper riding in your car — if an authority is right there, Ortiz argued, you’re less likely to break the law.
“The industry will push as hard as it will possibly push,” Josephson said. “Without an observer there, it will push more.”
Rep. Ben Carpenter, R-Nikiski, stated that imposing this $4 fee and putting Ocean Rangers on board cruise ships “burdens (the cruise industry’s) ability to do business.”
Cruise Lines International Association of Alaska President John Binkley didn’t respond to the Empire’s request for comment about the cruise lines’ views of the program, but the cruise industry continues to send more ships to the state every year. This summer, for example, 1.31 million passengers are expected to cruise through Alaska’s waters — an increase from 1.17 million passengers in 2018.
• Contact reporter Alex McCarthy at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @akmccarthy.