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Ferry bill sets course for house

"Call it the little bill that could.The passenger-only ferry preservation bill squeezed past another deadline this week, winning a 35-13 vote in the Senate on deadline day.The bill would allow private, public, non-profit and public-private partnerships to operate passenger ferries on runs where the state ferry system abandons them.It's had an uphill battle all the way: First subjected to a Senate work group that changed it dramatically, then passed by the Senate Transportation Committee on the cut-off date, then opposed by every labor union in the state.The labor unions uniformly oppose privatization. But they couldn't convince any senator to launch an amendment that would erase the private option and apply state labor contracts to any operator on the route.Labor had some difficult amendments that would have closed the door on some options, said Sen. Bob Oke, R-26th District, one of the bill's sponsors. I'm not anti-labor, but I want a (passenger ferry) service. If it can include Washington State Ferries contracts, then good. But if it can't, we still need the options available.Oke added that private ferry operators, including Horluck Transportation in Kitsap County, have told him that state ferries labor contracts are too expensive to make private ferry operation feasible.Oke and Sen. Tim Sheldon, D-35th District, plan to present the bill to the House Transportation Committee soon, although a hearing hadn't been scheduled as of Feb. 17.Sheldon predicts the measure will get to the full House for a vote, but he's not expecting the vote until all options for funding state-run passenger service are exhausted.No one likes to use a safety net until they really need it, Sheldon said. But if state ferries stop, it's imperative that this bill pass.The labor issue will remain central in the debate in the House. David Freiboth, national president of the Inlandboatmen's Union that represents ferry workers, promised to kill the bill by leaning on representatives whose campaigns are supported by unions.But Sheldon said unions aren't in a popular position. I don't think they should dictate to the public how ferry service is going to work, he said. Hopefully, (legislators) will rise above partisan politics and union lobbying to vote for the bill.Oke said Freiboth's comments indicate the unions are not interested in solving the ferry crisis. They're not interested in getting people back and forth across the Sound. They're just interested in salary and benefits.When Freiboth spoke to ferry riders gathered at a rally on the Capitol steps Feb. 17, he said the union wants the state to fully fund ferries. Inlandboatmen's Union workers carried signs demanding ferry funding and opposing privatization."

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