An Annapolis-based marine trades group is preparing to fend off whatthe group views as further blows to a depressed industry during a tough upcoming legislative session.
The Marine Trades Association ofMaryland has spent the past few months reorganizing to shore up declining membership and to rehire its former executive director and chief lobbyist.
The group has retained Mick Blackistone, an Annapolis boating advocate who helped revive the association 14 years ago and who then became a driving force behind the group's lobbying efforts.
Last July, with marine businesses struggling to stay afloat in a recession andfinancial support for the group waning, Marine Trades found itself unable to afford Blackistone's services on a full-time basis.
Sincethen, the group has launched a major membership drive, solicited extra donations from businesses and gotten some help from the WashingtonMarine Dealers Association in the form of a $1,000 contribution. Theassociation's membership had dropped to 350 from its mid-1980s peak of 500.
Feeling vulnerable to possible new taxes and restrictions,the group felt it imperative to bring Blackistone back, said Bob Slaff, Marine Trades president.
Blackistone said, "We've cut a lot ofoverhead, a lot of expenses, out-of-state travel. We're operating like any business now to perform all services on a bare-bones budget."
The year has been difficult for many of the group's members as well, including marina owners, boat dealers and suppliers and manufacturers of marine equipment, hit by a federal luxury tax on new boats.
Sales of new boats have declined 65 percent. Over the past year, more than 50 marine businesses either have declared bankruptcy or closed. And many dealers have laid off as many as half their employees, Blackistone said.
Many of those that remain open "are maintaining a very cautious approach," he added. "Nobody's breaking open any champagne."
At this point, "anything that costs the industry money or sales could make the bottom fall out," said John Burgreen, the group's vice president and owner of Annapolis Yacht Sales. "Anything that causes further problems would certainly be disastrous. They have to give us breathing room till business comes back."
For the upcoming session, the group expects a few tough battles. Members predict fights against a proposed boat lemon law, defeated last session, and possible cuts in the state's waterways improvement fund.
The group opposes the lemon law, fearing dealers could be held responsible for a manufacturer's defect. More significantly, the law could deter banks from financing boats and stop manufacturers from selling boats in Maryland,opponents say.
"Banks will say, 'I'm not going to finance a boat that can be arbitrarily called a lemon and not get paid for the boat,' " Burgreen said.
The group also expects that legislators might resubmit proposals that failed last session, including a 10 percent slip rentals tax, gasoline and diesel taxes and a 2 percent personal property tax on boats. All would unfairly burden marine businesses and customers, the group believes.
Besides lobbying at the state level, Marine Trades has continued to pressure members of Congress to co-sponsor measures to repeal the 10 percent federal luxury tax on new boats costing more than $100,000 and the Coast Guard user fee, which imposes a fee of $25 to $100 on all boats more than 16 feet long. The federal tax has nearly wiped out sales of new, large boats, boat dealers say.
Brad Fitch, spokesman for Representative Tom McMillen, D-4th, a co-sponsor of both measures, said he hopes Congress would include a luxury tax repeal in any general tax revision next year.
"At that time, it's possible that repeal of the boat luxury tax would be included in the revision act," said Fitch.
He said it is estimatedthat 20,000 boating industry jobs have been lost nationally since the sales tax took effect in January. The user-fee repeal bill so far has been passed by both the Merchant Marine Committee and the Ways andMeans Committee in the House.
As for their membership drive, Marine Trades leaders have seen "an incredible response, almost a renewedenthusiasm from people about the association and the necessity of it," Blackistone said. "They know we have a strong reputation and good results in legislative and tax work in the past."