SF Bay money tug-of-war hits state Capitol 

We would be wrong to assume the California Legislature spends its time — our time, actually — on weighty matters such as the budget, or education or chronic water shortages.

In fact, lawmakers devote most of their time to thousands of specific matters that sometimes involve culture or ideology, but mostly money — taking it from somebody and giving it to somebody else.

Sometimes it’s official money — taxes and budgets — but it’s often off the books, such as giving some interest group a tax break or a lucrative monopoly.

One of legislators’ more obscure powers is setting rates on oceangoing ships for the services of harbor pilots in San Francisco Bay and inland ports (but not Southern California ports).

Historically, shippers and the San Francisco Bar Pilots, a private group of the few dozen pilots licensed to steer ships in and out of port, have periodically negotiated new rates, then obtained approval of the San Francisco Board of Pilot Commissioners, an obscure state agency, and the Legislature’s ratification.

But this year, the pilots and the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association are waging war over a proposal to boost pilotage rates, now about $50 million a year, and thus increase pilots’ earnings.

Both factions already have weighty political presences via lobbyists and campaign contributions, but are muscling up more as the pilots push legislation by Assemblywoman Fiona Ma, D-San Francisco, to boost pilotage rates.

The opponents clashed over the issue for months at the commission. The shipping companies sought a rate decrease they said would make the Bay ports more competitive, arguing that due to increasing shipping, pilots’ incomes would still increase. Pilots, however, sought a rate boost, arguing that costs of operating the small boats that transport them to ships had increased sharply.

Ultimately, the board approved a 1.5 percent increase.

Major business groups are backing the shippers, who say the bill would raise pilots’ incomes from about $400,000 a year to more than $500,000.

Pilots’ President Bruce Horton denounced shippers’ claims about incomes as "absolutely untrue" and said even with the rate boost, they wouldn’t reach $400,000 until 2015.

But it’s legislative business as usual, deciding who gets what from whom.


Dan Walters’ Sacramento Bee columns on state politics are syndicated by the Scripps Howard News Service.

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