Louisiana chemical industry files suit to block $50,000 raises for Mississippi River pilots _lowres

Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- Mississippi River in New Orleans. File photos of aerials of New Orleans area and landmarks shot July 23, 2013.

Louisiana river pilots won a months-long, bruising legislative fight with the oil and chemical industries Wednesday, with the Senate Commerce Committee killing legislation pushed by industry groups to overhaul their regulations and oversight.

The committee voted 6-2 to defer House Bill 650, sponsored by Rep. Thomas Pressly, R-Shreveport, after river pilots and their lobbyist, former Sen. Francis Heitmeier, argued the proponents were trying to keep it alive by watering it down only to change again later.

The measure presented to the committee would have added independent members to the various pilot groups’ oversight boards, which are currently self-governed. It also would have added qualifications for becoming a pilot and required the nepotistic groups to report new members who are related to pilots or political figures.

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Chairman Ronnie Johns, R-Lake Charles, amended the bill to strip out almost all of it, leaving in place only some modest changes to the pilot review and oversight board and the panel that sets rates.

But the committee still rejected the bill amid complaints from the influential pilot leaders that industry was “moving the goal” and attacking their livelihood.

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Heitmeier, who has served as a lobbyist for the New Orleans Baton Rouge Steamship Pilots Association since leaving the Legislature in 2007, accused the industry groups of making surprise changes to HB650. He said the amendments were merely aimed at keeping the bill alive to get provisions added to it later in the process. He said House members threatened to “nail you to the wall” if the bill returned to that chamber.

“We need to get together and study this stuff,” said Heitmeier, who is one of 18 lobbyists employed by pilot groups, according to Louisiana Board of Ethics records.

Sen. Rick Ward, R-Port Allen, told Pressly, “the hesitancy for some of us is what happens to the instrument once it leaves here.”

The industry and pilots have fought for years over the increasing fees charged to companies who use their services, among other things. The pilots generally are paid around half a million dollars a year, with some reaching $700,000. Their oversight boards are made up of existing pilots, which was the center of the debate over Pressly’s bill to change that.

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“We would like to see some type of transparency where it’s not just the pilots making the decisions,” said Greg Bowser, head of the Louisiana Chemical Association.

To become a pilot, which is one of the best-paying blue collar jobs in the state, people must earn the qualifications and, most importantly, win a majority of votes from the association to which they’re applying.

For years, that has given an inside track to family members of pilots and political figures. Heitmeier has six relatives who are pilots. A nephew of Sen. Patrick Connick, R-Marrero, recently was accepted to one of the pilot groups, though Connick said he had nothing to do with getting him the job. About half of all three Mississippi River pilot groups are related to another current pilot.

The pilots have long held political influence in Louisiana politics. They're prolific donors to campaigns – much like the oil and chemical industries – and employ a host of lobbyists. 

River pilots vs. big industry: War over 6-figure pay is about to get plenty more attention

Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, D-New Orleans, said the pilot system is “governed by a good old boy White boy system,” and called for reform. But she said she didn’t want industry to be in charge of making those changes, and voted against the bill.

Lee Jackson, who served on the Board of Examiners for NOBRA, also conceded that efforts to diversify the ranks of the pilots has fallen short. Jackson, who is Black, vowed to create more opportunities for other Black pilots in the maritime industry.

Black lawmakers have complained for more than 30 years about the outsized number of White pilots. Records obtained through public records requests show the pilots have made some progress hiring Black and women pilots over the years, but that the vast majority are White men.

How the Senate Commerce Committee voted on HB650: 

Voting to defer: Sen. Cameron Henry, R-Metairie; Sen. Patrick Connick, R-Marrero; Sen. Cleo Fields, D-Baton Rouge; Sen. Jay Morris, R-West Monroe; Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, D-New Orleans; and Sen. Rick Ward, R-Port Allen.

Voting not to defer: Sen. Mark Abraham, R-Lake Charles and Sen. Bodi White, R-Central.  

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