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Why Write About Boating Politics?

by Peter Schrappen

Greetings from the customs office at Poet’s Cove, British Columbia! My family just waited an hour to check into Canada before rolling into Port Browning. As my father-in-law just yelled to all whom would listen, “Timing is everything!” Now that fun can once again be the focus of our family trip and we can forget about how many apples to claim, it seems like as good of a time as any to reflect on why Northwest Yachting includes a column that covers politics and boating.

Once again, I’ll look to timing to inform this piece. Leaving Garrison Bay for Pender gave me time to finish the Robert Caro’s excellent mini-memoir Working. This author has spent thirty plus years writing about LBJ (The Years of Lyndon Johnson) and seven more years on New York urban planner Robert Moses (The Power Broker).

The Power Broker & Robert MosesOn page one, Caro shares what drove him to write about the subjects he did: “From the very start, I thought of writing biographies as a means of illuminating the times of the men I was writing about and the great forces that molded those times – particularly the force that is political power. Why political power? Because political power shapes all of our lives. It shapes your life in little ways that you might not even think about.”

Those simple yet elegant last two sentences got me thinking. What is about “political power” and “all of our lives” that comes together at the intersection of boating and politics? Yes, I’m biased on this one, but the two cannot be separated.

Let’s count the ways. It was boaters, through a citizens’ initiative, that founded Washington’s Recreation and Conservation Office. This agency invests about $17 million every year in boating projects around the state. That’s political power. It’s a straightforward grant process open to municipalities and state agencies, another layer of political power that shapes everyday boating. Cities that do not prioritize boating do not apply for these grants.

This money is funded by gas taxes that boaters are eligible to collect but typically do not each year. What better example of politics than taxes and where those taxes ultimately end up? As you know, wars are fought on this very subject (Happy belated 4th of July!).

If there’s one thing that’s certain, it’s that our government likes to tax gasoline. Not including the cost of crude oil, taxes are the single highest factor in determining how much Americans pay at the pump. Boaters are no exception. We pay a lot in gas taxes. The federal government adds 18.4 cents on every gallon. On top of that, Washington levies 49.4 cents/gallon (coming in third in the country for most taxes on gas). Because boaters are using the water and not roads, Washington diverts one percent of annual gas sales to the aforementioned RCO “Boating Facilities Program.”

We are just getting warmed up here. Here’s a back-of-the napkin list of “little ways” that are affected by political power:

  • Like mooring buoys? Those are often placed and repaired based on political power. (The shellfish industry doesn’t like them over their beds for example.)
  • Tired of derelict vessels crowding out boaters and sinking to the bottom, which hurt salmon habitat? Even though boaters voluntarily tax themselves to fund this program ($3/registration), there aren’t enough funds for the Deparment of Natural Resources to remove all the derelict vessels.
  • Taking a boat to and from Montana? Expect to get stopped and checked because of political power.
  • There are not enough launch ramps between Seattle and Tacoma. That’s political power.
  • The Missing Link part of the Burke-Gillman Trail that “Councilmember O’Brien tried to ram through the working waterfront.” (Joel Connelly, “What’s wrong if businesses get involved in Seattle City Council races?” Seattle P-I, June 16, 2019)
  • Your dock and marina are in bad shape? Everyone knows they need to get repaired. The repairs are slow and/or non-existent. It’s not necessarily because of an absentee landlord. More than likely, the permits and improvements are tied up with the Army Corps of Engineers and the National Marine Fisheries Service. All power, all political, all tied to the nexus of politics, boating and the Endangered Species Act and competing interests.
  • Frustrated that your boat repairs take too long or are too expensive? Look no further than your state capitol and their disregard of funding for curriculum that bolsters the trades (until recently, thank you Rep. Gael Tarleton and friends).
  • Fishing, shrimping, crabbing? Political decisions set those calendars.
  • You want to get a new boat and trade in your old one? You only pay sales tax on the difference, thanks to the lobbying many years ago to keep more money in your pockets and keeping you from getting taxed twice (first at the original purchase, second when you trade up).

The list could go on and on, which is the point. There’s an old podcast called It’s all Politics. To that, I say of course, it is and always has been. On a parallel track, once in a while, I’ll come across the rant that baseball players should stay out of politics and focus on baseball. Like boating, professional sports would not exist without politics. I say, let’s embrace the fact politics and billion-dollar sectors like boating have always intertwined on that same rope, err, line.

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