Gov. Mike Dunleavy wants to repeal a program that places Coast Guard-trained observers aboard cruise ships to monitor their environmental operations and marine discharges.

His plan, under Senate Bill 70, would eliminate the state Department of Environmental Conservation's "ocean ranger" program. The measure received its first hearing in the Senate Resources Committee late Wednesday, drawing widespread pushback during public testimony.

The $4 million program is funded by cruise passengers who pay a $4-per-berth fee. That means its elimination would not reduce Alaska’s general-fund spending.

DEC Commissioner Jason Brune told the committee the bill still represents fiscal stewardship.

“The argument has been made that since this doesn’t have a positive impact on our state’s coffers, we shouldn’t be dealing with this bill,” he said. “I wholeheartedly disagree with that sentiment.

“To show that we are open for business, and encouraging new investment to our state, we must treat our industries firmly but fairly and be good stewards, not only of our own money, but also of the cruise ship passengers who pay these fees and are significant contributors to Alaska’s tourism industry.”

Brune claimed there was also a fairness issue in play in placing observers aboard ships.

“In Alaska there are no mining rangers, oil rangers, fish processing rangers or timber rangers,” Brune told the committee. “Why should there be cruise ship ocean rangers?”

The program is a product of a 2006 ballot initiative that became law one month after the November general election.

Alaska became the first and only state to mandate Coast Guard licensed marine engineers on board the ships, according to DEC’s website.

DEC has issued six violations based on the ocean rangers' observations, Brune told the committee. Program supporters say the number would be higher if there were not ocean rangers on board.

Rep. Dan Oritz, I-Ketchikan, said the program is essential to coastal communities such as Ketchikan and Juneau, who received more than 1 million cruise ship visitors last summer.

“There’s value to the program, and frankly I’m nervous about repealing the program, removing the program until, and if, the DEC can come up with a strategy effectively monitor ships without having to need a physical presence on board,” Ortiz said. “Until they can show me a plan that says, 'Yeah, this is how we are going to monitor a ship’s activity out on the ocean,' I’m not comfortable with it.”

The committee also took public testimony on the bill. Twelve people testified, including four ocean rangers. None spoke in favor of the bill.

“The industry earned the scrutiny,” said Juneau attorney Joe Geldhof. “It’s time to re-evaluate the program, but not just repeal it. We can re-program the funds; we can probably be more efficient.”

John Binkley, president for Cruise Lines International Association Alaska, said in an emailed statement that CLIA neither requested the bill nor had comment on it.

The bill is scheduled for another hearing on Monday.

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