Funding for Alaska’s onboard cruise ship inspectors has been eliminated by Gov. Mike Dunleavy. The Ocean Rangers program was created by a ballot initiative and is paid for by cruise ship passengers.
At Friday’s press conference announcing his vetoes, the governor faced some tough questions from reporters about a decision to cut Ocean Rangers in light of recent a criminal judgment and $20 million fine against Carnival Corporation for illegal discharges including in Glacier Bay National Park.
So why cut the funding for Alaska’s onboard inspectors?
“We believe that there are ways to actually protect the environment,” the governor replied. “And I’m not sure if we have one of our folks here that want to speak to that in any detail–“
Press Secretary Matt Shuckerow stepped in.
“There’s other mechanisms to make sure that environmental conservation is done,” Shuckerow said.
He didn’t elaborate on what those were.
But to better understand why the Dunleavy administration might want to eliminate Ocean Rangers, it’s helpful to go back to a March pitch to lawmakers from the head of Alaska’s Department of Environmental Conservation.
Commissioner Jason Brune explained it was a matter of fairness across industries.
“There are no mining rangers, oil rangers, fish processing rangers or timber rangers,” Brune told the Senate Resources Committee. “Why should there be cruise ship rangers?”
A few Ocean Rangers tried to answer that question: that other industries don’t move around like cruise ships.
Jeff Hokkanen, a marine engineer from Homer who works summers as an Ocean Ranger, told lawmakers that thousands of reports and observations have been filed in the past decade.
“The Ocean Rangers have been able to supply DEC with information that can only get by having rangers on the ships when they’re operating underway,” he said.
That assertion is backed by DEC’s own cruise ship program chief.
“The Ocean Rangers have been a critical part in our permitting process,” DEC’s Ed White told CoastAlaska in a February 21 interview.
And it’s not just the state that uses Ocean Rangers data.
“We’ve really come to value the reports of the Ocean Ranger program over the last few years,” senior scientific adviser Scott Gende at Glacier Bay National Park said Friday, “because the Park Service doesn’t have an analogous program of compliance monitoring the ship operations.”
The National Park Service has interpretative rangers on cruise ships as they pass through federally protected waters under special agreements worked out in advance, he said.
“We don’t hire marine engineers to ensure the ships are essentially complying to the operating conditions that they agreed upon,” Gende said.
But the governor’s veto effectively blocks DEC from receiving the $3.4 million in cruise passenger head tax next season.
The money is still there, it just won’t be spent — on anything.
Juneau Democratic Sen. Jessie Kiehl says he can’t follow the governor’s logic.
“This veto cannot reduce the state’s budget gap,” Kiehl said. “And the money can’t be used for other programs.”
As the voter-backed initiative that created Ocean Rangers remains on the books, the inspection program hasn’t been eliminated. It’s just been de-funded for next year.
And that’ll create an awkward legal situation for the legislature and Dunleavy administration.
The legislature could still override the governor’s veto.