State Level Politics: A Dangerous Precedent is Set

Published Jan 24, 2011 8:00 AM by The Maritime Executive

Boston Pilots rate bill killed again by a single Senator’s objections; marine safety in the Bay State now at the mercy of – and being compromised by – the commonwealth’s legislators.

No one needs to be reminded that we are today witnessing one of the most colossal state-level meltdowns in the history of politics. And, while I know that MarEx readers always have their eyes squarely on the ball, it is necessary for me to advise you that we are not talking about the state of Illinois. As tempting as it may be to label Illinois as one of the most corrupt and ill-managed legislative machines in the country, the Land of Lincoln has absolutely nothing on Massachusetts, especially in terms of the ease with which just one politician can subvert an otherwise sound and much-needed piece of legislation. In the waning hours of current legislative session on Tuesday night, MarEx has learned that a single objection to S515 (legislation relative to rates of pilotage) was raised. That bill is now dead.

First introduced in January of 2007, the bill has been batted around like a political football ever since. S515 was intended simply to provide the first rate increase for local harbor pilots since 2001. It followed S510, which passed both houses in Massachusetts before landing on the desk of (then outgoing) Governor Mitt Romney, who allowed the bill to expire without his signature. At the time, Romney was on his way to the GOP presidential sweepstakes game, where it is apparently considered bad form to sign anything that might have the appearance of raising local taxes. Ironically, a rate increase for local pilots would have no effect on local tax rates and in fact, have cost the Commonwealth’s citizens nothing. In the end, the failure of both efforts leaves Bay State pilots wondering when their next increase – no matter how small – will come.

On Wednesday morning, Boston Pilots President Gregg Farmer expressed deep disappointment in the Massachusetts’ Senate’s actions, and also said, “The pilot rate bill was again held up during last hours of the legislature last night. There is nothing fair about it, and the apparent goal is to just wear everyone down; including the pilotage system in Massachusetts. I can only hope that in the next session, our political leaders will not allow this to continue.” Farmer further alluded to the months of delays perpetrated by those who attached riders – among other tactics – to achieve other goals that were inconsistent with marine safety in Massachusetts. And virtually all of these machinations have been perpetrated on behalf of a single business entity and a few individuals in the Bay State.

The push to enact all but unfettered and unregulated certification of so-called “docking masters” in Boston Harbor is but one factor in the current turmoil on Beacon Hill. This potential rule making, which provides highly favorable terms to "docking pilots" with very limited oversight by the traditional system of State Pilot Commissioners, is a bad idea. Any license for these individuals should be in full compliance with all applicable sections of MGL Ch 103. With notable exceptions, there is virtually no support for this effort in Massachusetts among maritime stakeholders. And yet, it seems that failing this particular goal, the entire system of pilotage will continue to be held hostage.

Another reason that the pilots cannot move a simple rate increase through the legislature hinges on a (failed) effort to push military veterans – regardless of their qualifications – to the head of the line when it comes to selecting new pilot candidates. The effort, wrapped in red, white and blue, still smells like rotting fish and, if passed, would significantly dumb down the curriculum for Bay State pilots at a time when national standards and oversight are being ramped up in a big way. Without a doubt, the failure of the veteran’s preference initiative and the push for unregulated docking master certification will continue to impact marine legislation in the Bay State as long as the state legislature has any control over local pilot issues.

About 200 miles to the south, it took Long Island Sound marine pilots more than 25 years to achieve a rate hike, which, in reality, will do little more than belatedly bring safety and equipment standards back up to a minimum level of operational readiness. That process, prolonged by years of infighting in the Constitution State, virtually brought the local pilot system to its knees. It is only now recovering to the point where a viable and sensible system is being implemented. There is no telling how much traffic or business went elsewhere in the face of that bureaucratic mess, and yet, it appears that Massachusetts is headed down the same path.

It is way past time to remove the supervision and oversight of pilot affairs from a legislative body which knows little about what they are considering, regularly uses the process to achieve ancillary political goals and along the way, compromises the very lifeblood of Massachusetts commerce. We can only hope that this time is coming soon. Failing that, Boston Harbor will quickly become a trendy place for dockside condominiums, boutique hotels, souvenir shops and the odd small boat marina or two. And maybe, at the end of the day, that’s been the goal all along. – MarEx.

Joseph Keefe is the Managing Editor of THE MARITIME EXECUTIVE. He can be reached at [email protected] with questions or comments on this or any other article in this e-newsletter.