A state senator’s call for more “transparency” on the board tasked with licensing bar pilots threatens to stall operations at Mobile’s port, potentially paralyzing commerce in the state.
Since Feb. 22, two bills that would effectively reauthorize the Alabama State Pilotage Commission have been sitting untouched in the Senate. One, sponsored by State Sen. Paul Bussman (R-Cullman), would simply reauthorize the commission for another term. Another, sponsored by State Sen. Trip Pittman (R-Montrose), would add another member to the three-member panel. Neither have been taken up by the Senate as the legislative session draws to a close.
The inaction and potential sunset of the commission has Alabama State Port Authority officials concerned about a possible shipping delay and looking at alternatives in order to keep the port open.
“The system is not broken,” port authority spokeswoman Judy Adams said. “There have been no complaints. It has been in operation this way for a long, long time.”
Adams added that by allowing the commission to sunset, the Legislature would be taking an unprecedented action.
“We’ve never heard of this happening in the United States,” she said. “Outside of embargoes between warring countries, we don’t think this has happened anywhere in the world.”
Another concern for port officials is the message a move like this sends to the international business community, members of which might be spooked by the mere possibility of a shutdown.
“We are the 10th largest port in the nation,” Adams said. “We are a huge port and we drive the commerce of the state. We don’t know what’s behind this.”
The three-member Pilotage Commission is required by law to contain a bar pilot, a business leader with ties to shipping and a representative of a steamship company headquartered in the state.
In its original form, Pittman’s SB222 would add a fourth member to the board and require that member be a Coast Guard or Navy veteran. Under the law, the governor makes all appointments.
Adams pointed out Pittman’s bill would provide for 2-2 votes, which would not be beneficial to the commission.
SB222 has already passed the House, but was amended to make the fourth member a nonvoting member to fix any issue with a tie vote. The amendment also gives the Port Authority the power to recommend three nominees to the governor for the fourth position.
Pittman also amended an initial version of Bussman’s SB74 to add a fourth member to the commission, but it was stripped from the legislation when it passed the House.
For his part, Pittman said he introduced the legislation at the beginning of the session to deal with concerns over the commission’s transparency.
“It takes two to tango,” he said. “It still boggles my mind that the status quo is being defended.”
He accused leaders of “dragging their feet” on it and accused House members of “playing around with it” for weeks before ultimately passing it.
“We’re working through this,” he said. “I’m confident we’ll reach a compromise.”
As currently written though, Pittman said SB222 would need to go to conference committee, which “would take a few hours.” He said this is necessary because the House made a technical error when it passed the bill by referencing the wrong code section.
Pittman has also reportedly leveraged the state’s funding match for Medicaid in order to ensure that his bar pilot bill passes. When asked about it, Pittman said it was a “strategy” he used, but didn’t go into specifics.
While senators have discussed ending the session on Wednesday, Pittman said the Legislature could legally meet for an additional five days, giving the body time to work out any differences.
Bar pilots are typically issued two sets of licenses; one from the state and one from the federal government, Adams said. If a compromise isn’t reached and the commission is forced to sunset, she said the port would have no choice, but to look at federalizing the shipping channel. Officials are researching that now.
“We are reluctant to do this,” Adams said. “We’re looking to make sure commerce is not impeded.”
In an email message, Mobile Area Chamber of Commerce CEO Bill Sisson urged members to make their voices heard on the issue.
“Yes — it’s that critical,” he wrote. Alabama (Sen. Pro-Tempore) Del Marsh and other members of the Alabama Senate need to hear from you today or tomorrow morning at the latest to keep the Port of Mobile open.”
He asked members to call senators and discuss the possibility of an up or down vote on the reauthorization bill sponsored by Bussman.
“While our Mobile County delegation is in full support of the bill and working to bring it to a vote … Marsh must make the call,” Sisson wrote. “Other (s)enators can show their support by pressuring … Marsh to call for the vote.”
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