Final Debate Opens in Senate on Bill to Restructure Boatline


State Senate action on a hostile bill to restructure the Steamship Authority was delayed in eleventh-hour maneuvering by Cape and Islands Sen. Robert O'Leary yesterday, and with just two days left in formal session at the state legislature, the bill will be taken up again by the Senate today.

"There is a lot of tension over this bill, and we need to get it off Beacon Hill, but we're now getting what I consider to be a bad bill, and I am going to fight it," Mr. O'Leary declared after the Senate had ended its formal session for the day just after 8 p.m. last night.

The Senate adjourns formal session for the year on Wednesday.

The boat line bill began to clear the final hurdles of the state Senate yesterday. Early in the day the bill was reported favorably out of the Senate Committee on Ways and Means, in the same form as was approved by the House last month.

Among other things, the bill will expand the board of governors from three to five members and give immediate voting seats to Barnstable and New Bedford. The bill will also require New Bedford to pay for half of any operating deficit on New Bedford ferry service for three years - although the obligation is capped at $650,000 and does not apply to any losses on the passenger ferry Schamonchi. After three years, the city would be required to pay 25 per cent of any deficit for two years.

Forged behind closed doors last month, the House bill was a drastically altered version of a bill authored by the Joint Committee on Transportation earlier this year. The new bill concludes a a four-year hostile campaign by New Bedford to take over the 42-year-old public boat line that is the lifeline to the two Islands.

The SSA legislation has been the subject of heated debate for months in the state legislature, nearly all of it centering on the long list of demands from New Bedford.

This week New Bedford Sen. Mark Montigny, who is chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, began to lean heavily on his colleagues as he looked for support on the boat line bill.

When the bill came out of Mr. Montigny's committee with a favorable report yesterday, there was a move on the Senate floor to suspend the rules and approve the bill. But a motion to suspend the rules requires unanimous approval, and Mr. O'Leary objected, buying one more day in the last three days of formal session before the boat line bill comes up for a vote.

Senate President Thomas Birmingham made it clear yesterday that he will allow no more delays, and the Senate is expected to do business for the next two days with no calendar and no rules.

Once the Senate gets to the substance of the bill, Mr. O'Leary plans to introduce nine amendments, including one that would force New Bedford to pay for half of any operating deficit forever, and another that would allow the boat line board to vote New Bedford off the board if there is not "substantial" ferry service between the Whaling City and the two Islands. Mr. O'Leary will try to introduce an amendment replacing the entire bill with the earlier bill authored by the transportation committee. He also will try to strike from the current bill a provision that requires a binding vote on the Vineyard in November to decide whether to change the way the Vineyard SSA governor is appointed. The Vineyard boat line member has been appointed by the Dukes County Commission since 1960.

"I consider that to be the most onerous part of the House bill, and I will pin my hopes on that one," said Mr. O'Leary, who plans to ask for a roll call vote on the amendment.

Any change to the bill would force it into joint conference committee unless the House agrees to the change. If the bill goes into conference there is a chance that the clock will run out on the legislative session before the bill is voted, but Mr. O'Leary said that scenario now appears extremely unlikely.

"The Senate president made it clear yesterday that he intends to put this behind the Massachusetts legislature," Mr. O'Leary said.

If it is approved by the state Senate and signed by acting Gov. Jane Swift with 10 days after the end of the legislative session, the bill will usher in a distinct new era of change for the boat line. The August monthly meeting of the SSA board of governors in Hyannis could conceivably take place with an expanded board.

The bill would allow the two Islands to retain control of the board through a weighted vote. The bill approved by the transportation committee three months ago would have given a voting seat to Barnstable and a provisional nonvoting seat to New Bedford. But the bill was derailed by the powerful House delegation in New Bedford.

Mr. O'Leary said yesterday he expects many senators will argue that it is too late in the session to discuss amendments to the bill, but he said the responsibility for the delay rests squarely with the Senate leadership. But with literally only hours remaining in formal session, Mr. O'Leary also said the debate about the boat line bill is no longer centered on the merits.

"In the end it all comes down to obligations [between senators]. The merits? The substance of this gets lost," he said.