California ports for many years enjoyed the benign neglect of the state Legislature, but they were the subject this past year of a rash of bills considered unfavorable to their industry.
A key assemblyman said the multibillion-dollar port industry has caught the attention of legislators, so ports and shipping lines must remain vigilant if they are to advance the interests of their industry.
''You will see more awareness of ports in Sacramento, not less,'' Assemblyman Steve Kuykendall told a recent meeting of the Steamship Association of Southern California.
Mr. Kuykendall, a Republican, chairs two select committees in the assembly, one on California ports and the other on international trade.
California's ports do not receive tax money.
Furthermore, since so many of the lines that call there have headquarters in foreign countries, the industry has for the most part kept out of local politics.
As a result, the Legislature pretty much ignored the maritime industry for many years.
Unfettered by political meddling, the ports and shipping lines took full advantage of the growth in U.S. trade with Asia.
Today, Long Beach, Los Angeles and Oakland are respectively the nation's largest, second-largest and fifth-largest containerports.
SERIOUS DISRUPTION POSSIBLE
California politicians this past year suddenly discovered their ports, and from the maritime industry's point of view, the bills that were submitted could have seriously disrupted their businesses.
One bill, pushed by the California Trucking Association, would have mandated that marine terminal operators in Los Angeles-Long Beach keep their gates open 12 hours a day, seven days a week.
The legislation received added attention because truck drivers, angry over long delays at some terminals, engaged in numerous demonstrations and occasional job actions.
This led to a warning by the chairman of the Assembly Transportation Committee that if the ports could not resolve their own problems, Sacramento would do it for them.
Another bill started out by attempting to put the ports under state control, but was later amended to call for a study to determine how the ports could work together and avoid duplication of facilities.
Yet another bill called for an analysis of the value of city-provided services to ports, a piece of legislation the industry believed could have led to further diversion of harbor revenues to city governments.
Although those bills were never passed, Mr. Kuykendall said that does not mean the Legislature is not interested in port affairs.
He noted that the ports generate millions of dollars in economic impact and infrastructure development.
''People pay attention when there's a lot of money involved,'' he said.
Furthermore, as increasing numbers of workers find jobs in trade and transportation, politicians become interested in the issues that affect these voters.
Likewise, the labor issues that come out of the industry, such as truck driver demonstrations, catch the attention of politicians.
FINANCIAL SUPPORT SOUGHT
Finally, on a more positive note, Mr. Kuykendall said some legislators, including himself, are trying to secure financial support for infrastructure projects like the Alameda Corridor.
They are purposely drawing more attention to the economic value of ports and trade.
Port officials say they recognize the positive as well as negative implications of the increased awareness of ports in the public sector.
Steven R. Dillenbeck, executive director of the Port of Long Beach, said after the meeting this attention is now a fact of life and ports are determined to stay involved in the political process to protect their interests.
Mr. Kuykendall said government involvement with ports can be beneficial.
He cited a lawsuit by the attorney general attempting to force the city of Los Angeles to return the $40 million it received from the port for alleged underpayment of city-provided services.
The attorney general stated the funds transfer is a violation of the state Tidelands Trust Act.
SUPREME COURT CASE?
Mr. Kuykendall said that, given the large amounts of money at stake, the issue will probably not be settled until it reaches the highest court, so the industry should support the attorney general.
Along those lines, Thomas A. Russell, a Long Beach attorney who serves as counsel to the steamship association, said that group recently asked the court for permission to join the suit in support of the attorney general.