The House of Delegates gave tentative approval yesterday to a proposal that would license the 10 men who guide ocean-going ships to dock in the Baltimore port, though the bill's fate is uncertain.
The House measure would create a new board to oversee the docking pilots, but it would scrap a Senate-approved plan to align them with Maryland's bay pilots, who bring ships up the Chesapeake Bay.
Maryland port officials have argued that the Senate plan would drive up costs by giving the bay pilots monopoly control of piloting and docking work.
It is unclear whether the House and Senate can resolve their differences on the legislation -- one of the most heavily lobbied issues of the 90-day session -- before the General Assembly adjourns Monday at midnight.
The House could approve its version today. The rewritten bill would then go back to the Senate for consideration.
"As to what happens, it would be presumptuous of me to say," said Senate Majority Leader Clarence W. Blount, who sponsored the original bill. "When it comes back over, we'll take a little time to look at it."
The docking pilots, who favored the Senate version, were clearly upset by the House action, but declined to comment publicly.
Gary R. Alexander, one of the lobbyists for the bay pilots, who also supported the Senate bill, would only say, "We are reviewing our options."
The legislation was prompted by a directive from the U.S. Coast Guard that Maryland's docking pilots must be regulated by state or federal authorities.
After initially resisting, the docking pilots agreed this year to embrace an approach pushed by the bay pilots and introduced in the Senate -- to have the State Board of Pilots also regulate and license docking masters.
While the Senate bill made clear that the current docking pilots would be able to continue practicing their trade, it appears to lay the groundwork for the bay pilots association to determine who would be trained and licensed as docking pilots.
The House Economic Matters Committee, which rewrote the bill this week, is proposing that a new seven-member State Board of Docking Masters be responsible for licensing and regulating current and future docking pilots.
The committee considered a proposal to have the Maryland Port Commission set payment rates for the docking pilots, but wound up giving that authority to the Public Service Commission, as the Senate bill did.
The House measure also would create a legislative oversight committee to review port matters -- a provision generally seen as a message to state transportation officials that lawmakers are not particularly pleased with the handling of this and other maritime matters.
Transportation Secretary John D. Porcari was lukewarm to the House proposal. In particular, he took issue with the proposal for the new oversight committee.
"We don't think that makes sense," he said.