Grant Porter, of Formula Boats, knows the marine industry’s position on ethanol can be a tough sell for members of Congress in his corn-growing state of Indiana. But he believes he made progress with at least one senator when he said the industry is not opposed to ethanol use per se, but that blends higher than 10 percent will damage boat and other small engines.
“Obviously there’s a lot of corn growing in our state,” Porter said on the final day of the May 5-7 American Boating Congress in Washington, D.C. “We had a good reception from the staff at Sen. [Dan] Coats, though we could see in Sen. [Joe] Donnelly’s case we weren’t going to tug him over.”
It’s all part of the process, says Thom Dammrich, president of the National Marine Manufacturers Association, adding that even if people feel as if progress on a topic was minimal, it all factors in at the end of the day.
This year’s ABC earned the Congressional Boating Caucus four new members: U.S. Reps. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., Kerry Bentivolio, R-Mich., Rick Nolan, D-Minn., and Joe Pitts, R-Pa.
MarineMax west operations president Brett McGill says his company probably will add a few more people to the mix next year because he believes the event was so productive for him and his father, CEO Bill McGill. It was MarineMax’s first year attending.
“This has been a good experience,” McGill says. “I probably didn’t recognize before how important the effort is.”
Dammrich urged all 230 conferees to bring a friend to the 2015 ABC, which will take place May 11-13 at the larger Renaissance Hotel, to double the impact next year. That would be on top of a 20 percent increase in attendance this year. The event had 38 co-hosts and 20 sponsors, also more than last year.
“I encourage everyone to bring a competitor or a supplier, so next year we’ll have 450 people,” Dammrich said on the final day. “Just the appointments our staff made reached 250 congressional offices, and we know some made their own appointments. There are 535 congressional offices, and I’m confident we’ll visit half of them.”
After the event, Dammrich emphasized the importance of having more representatives attend ABC. “We are 35,000 businesses supporting 350,000 jobs, and there ought to be a lot more than 250 people in Washington, D.C., every May.”
Reminding members of Congress of the boating industry’s $35 billion in sales reach and the 340,000 people it employs is crucial, Dammrich says. “We’re important to our nation’s economy,” he says. “Contrary to people’s perceptions that boating is only for the wealthy, 75 percent of boat owners have household incomes of less than $100,000.”
It’s up to the industry to ensure that issues important to it are on the radars of policy-makers, Dammrich says. “The first year, your members of Congress may not know you and may not know your issues. But by the third year they’re fully versed on your issues and who you are, and that is the difference between success and failure. If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu. We’ve got to make sure we’re in Washington to be sure we’re not on the menu.
“Our industry is an ecosystem,” Dammrich adds. “If something happens that impacts one part of our industry adversely, it eventually impacts another part of our industry adversely.”
Building relationships with policy-makers is crucial when the industry has an issue it needs help with. “You can’t go in and ask for something unless you already have a relationship, and if you don’t have a relationship, now’s the time to start building one — and ABC can help you do that,” Dammrich says.
BoatUS lobbyist Nicole Wood said the bills seeking to revise the Renewable Fuel Standard had gained traction. The Renewable Fuel Standard Elimination Act had 83 cosponsors, gaining one after ABC, and the RFS Reform Act added five, for a total of 68 bipartisan sponsors.
“We’re looking good,” Wood said. “But we need you to continue that momentum and hopefully we’ll get a vote straight up and down in committee.”
The midterm election could slow progress on any amendment, Wood says.
The “farm states are a problem,” Dammrich concedes. “But an important part of the message is that we’re not anti-ethanol.” The issue saw traction, and having members advocating on behalf of an amendment helps the overall process.
“You can be from farm-heavy states, and you can say, ‘Hey, we’re not opposed to ethanol,’ ” says Nicole Vasilaros, who directs regulatory and legal affairs for the NMMA. “We’re just opposed to E15 blends and higher.”
Wood gave some background on the industry’s most consuming issue for the American Boating Congress. “The Renewable Fuel Standard was a highly popular measure” when it was enacted in 1970s, she says. “You have to remember where we were at the time. We were on the heels of a very expensive war. We wanted to reduce our dependence on foreign oil” and help corn growers domestically.
Now the industry and others are working hard to reform the standard. “I heard some good talks on the ethanol issue,” McGill says. “It seemed a lot [of legislators] were supportive.”
Cobalt Boats CEO Paxson St. Clair made sure he told legislators he’s sensitive that they hear both sides of the issue because Kansas is a major agricultural state. But he emphasized that it was important to the well-being of the industry and to jobs for representatives to consider the arguments for amending the RFS to max blends out at 10 percent instead of moving to E15 and beyond.
Recreational fishing has a branding problem, Scott Deal, the founder of Maverick Boat Co., told conferees. Deal helped co-author “A Vision for Managing America’s Saltwater Recreational Fisheries” — a set of ideas designed to help the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act distinguish between recreational saltwater fishing management and commercial fishing management — because the act has traditionally lumped the two together. He and Johnny Morris, founder of Bass Pro Shops, were recognized for the suggestions they created.
“People hear fishing, and they think, fun,” Deal says. It’s up to the industry to get them to think about jobs.
“This may be the first time we’ve gotten together as a group and gotten out in front of an issue instead of complaining about what just happened,” Deal says.
American Sportfishing Association president Mike Nussman made the point that the dollars generated by the commercial industry are less than those generated by recreational fishing, but commercial anglers catch far more fish. “Jobs is a metric this town understands,” Nussman says.
Now that recreational fishing and boating are compiling data about jobs and dollars, there is a better chance the act will better reflect the growing needs and importance of the recreational industry, says Jeff Angers, president of the Center for Coastal Conservation. “I really think we have a good chance because a lot of our policy-makers are passionate about the outdoors,” Angers says. “Until recently, we haven’t been as aggressive to assemble the facts about what sportfishing means to this country. Tourism and fishing dollars are good dollars for a coastal region because that doesn’t put so much burden on infrastructure.”
U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., who hails from Pensacola, received the Conservationist of the Year Award from the Center for Coastal Conservation at the event. Miller was the lead author of the Billfish Conservation Act, one of the pieces of legislation signed during the most recent Congress, Angers says. He is also the lead author of the Gulf of Mexico Red Snapper Conservation Act, an issue that has been hotly contested on the recreational side in that area.
While honoring Miller at the Cannon Building on Capitol Hill, Center for Coastal Conservation president Angers called him a “great leader.” He was joined at the presentation by Angers, as well as Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation president Steve Stock and executive director Tony Fins; Artmarine’s Tim Choate; and Boston Whaler president Huw Bower.
Balancing current science with the health of the overall ocean ecosystem is important, Stock said after the presentation. “We need healthy oceans for business, but we’ve also gotten involved in advocacy because we really care,” he said.
When it comes to Biscayne Bay and the Everglades, parks officials are rightly concerned about preservation, “but I don’t necessarily think how they go about that is necessarily based in fact,” Stock says. “From our standpoint, it comes down to science.” Fins agrees.
Having advocates for fishing and boating such as Miller on Capitol Hill is important to helping various interests better understand how to balance the interests at stake, they say.
St. Clair emphasized in a meeting with U.S. Rep. Lynn Jenkins, R-Kan., that his company employs hundreds in Neodesha, Kan., before making his pitch for passage of the Business Activity Tax Simplification Act, or BATSA. “It’s trying to establish fair rules,” St. Clair says. “I’m still going through discussions with Nebraska because we have to declare there.” Conducting warranty work or having dealers in another state is obligating Cobalt to pay taxes there, even though the company does not have a physical presence in that state.
“Manufacturers understand that if we have a physical presence in New York, then we should have to pay taxes there,” St. Clair says. “It’s just very costly to have to file taxes in 40 different states.”
This issue is big for others, too. “We drive through a lot of states,” says Wes Holmes, chief financial officer of Indmar in Millington, Tenn. “For states to tax you when you don’t have a presence there is not a good deal. We pick up engines from manufacturers, bring them back to Tennessee and then deliver them all over the U.S. So we’re running our trucks through a lot of states.”
Scott Porter, of Formula Boats, calls the tax-reporting responsibility “amazing.”
“That’s a big one for us,” Porter said at the onset of the conference.
It was a point St. Clair echoed as he spoke to Jenkins. If every state that Cobalt sells boats to or has a dealer in decides to make the company pay taxes there it would be an administrative nightmare. Already it is getting unwieldy, he says. Although the code is not new, as states increasingly look for revenue in a strained economy, more are requiring companies such as Cobalt to file there, even without a physical presence, St. Clair says. “We’re sending tax dollars to other states that should be staying in Kansas.”
Dammrich calls BATSA a “tough one” because the National Governors Association opposes it. “I think it will prevail eventually,” he says. “In Cobalt’s case, that’s money that’s being taken from Kansas. It’s not like they’re just taking more money from some company. They’re taking money away from the state that they’re operating in.”
Sport Fish Fund
The marine industry was also looking for support of the Sport Fish Restoration & Boating Trust Fund, a $600-million-a-year fund that helps support fishing around the country. David Kennedy, of BoatUS, says the money not only contributes to boater safety programs and education but also directly helps improve docks and other boating infrastructure. “The single biggest revenue source for this fund is the tax attributed to gasoline that goes into engines,” Kennedy says, adding that it accounts for more than half of the fund.
The cycle of success helps legislators understand that more programs lead to more people buying boats, which leads to a need for fuel and equipment, and it all cycles back to more money in the fund, Kennedy says. “I think it’s always a good idea to highlight this virtuous cycle to members of Congress,” he says.
“There are members of the Tea Party who don’t look keenly on any taxes and think they all should be generated back to the state, and that’s where the opposition would be from,” says Jeff Gabriel, of the NMMA. “But if you emphasize that this is user-paid and we understand the benefits,” they are likely to be on board.
Typically the state fisheries and boating industries receive 15 percent to almost 50 percent of their operating budget from the bill, Gabriel said during an ABC webinar that previewed the issues. “This is critical to the operation of fisheries and boating access.”
Not just teaching, but learning
Speakers ranging from Reps. Joe Garcia, D-Fla., and Stephen Fincher, R-Tenn., to U.S. Fish and Wildlife deputy director Rowan Gould and Chad Moutray, an economist with the National Association of Manufacturers, addressed ABC conferees, as well.
Garcia focused on the importance of reauthorizing Magnuson-Stevens, including language that would apply to recreational saltwater anglers. “As Magnuson-Stevens gets out of the Senate, where I think it’s in very good posture, and heads our way, we’ll be sure not to overreach,” Garcia says.
But he wants to see the House pass a version that includes language from the Deal-Morris report. Recreational Boating and Fishing Foundation president and CEO Frank Peterson emphasized the need to reach more minority-group members, women and young people in the effort to grow boating and fishing. “Around a year ago we engaged with Walt Disney, one of the most admired companies in the world,” Peterson told the group. “Reaching multicultural families with kids is at the core of our growth strategy.” That is a goal Disney has managed to achieve well.
“The second reason we joined this partnership was the goals of this organization” align with Disney’s, Peterson says. “Disney is about fun, experience and excitement. They have a corporate objective to introduce 35 million kids to outdoor activities. With these common goals, we formed a strategic alliance.”
Dammrich honored the Marine Retailers Association of the Americas as ABC ambassador for the work the group did in promoting the event. A Political Action Committee fundraiser Tuesday night raised $30,000, which National Marine Manufacturers Association PAC manager Denny Salas says was very good. “Our goal going forward is to have every company, everybody who makes a living in the boating industry, get involved in the political process,” Salas told conferees on the last day of ABC. “One way is to get involved in the PAC.”
Intrepid Powerboats, Grady-White and Regulator were recognized for their contributions.
Rep. Stephen Fincher, R-Tenn., told attendees that some of the dominant extreme viewpoints are “not reality.”
“The Tea Party guys hate my guts because I’m ‘not conservative enough,’ which is ridiculous,” Fincher says. “I’ve been married 22 years. I don’t get everything I want at home. I’m certainly not going to get everything I want in Washington.
“A lot of you probably watch Fox News — people like Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh,” Fincher said. “I love to listen to them, but I’m never going to be as conservative as Sean Hannity. It’s just not going to happen. It’s not reality.”
Fincher says Congress works for the taxpayers, not the other way around. “Sometimes in Washington some of my colleagues lose sight of that,” he says, which is why they sometimes forget they have to compromise to accomplish things.
Amy Walter, national editor of The Cook Political Report, discussed the political climate moving into the upcoming election season. In the 2016 presidential election the Republican Party faces the same problem that the marine industry overall grapples with — dispelling the image of being rich, white and male. But the field and possibilities have never been as wide open as they are for 2016, she says.
Walter says the perception of Mitt Romney as being Scrooge McDuck skiing down a mountain of money is one the Republican Party probably will work to shake prior to the presidential election. That image is the reason that in polls, although Americans think Republicans will typically do a bit better on improving the economy by a couple of percentage points, the GOP is about 20 points behind Democrats on the question of who connects better and acts in the interests of the middle class, Walter says.
That said, Republicans would be hard-pressed to lose the House, she says. The Senate could easily swing Republican, as well. “Nobody should get comfortable in this town wearing the majority Senate jersey,” Walter says. “The Republican House is likely to be there a good amount of time, but the Senate will go back and forth.”
The back and forth is another reason it’s important for the boating industry to stay engaged with issues important to keeping it thriving, Dammrich says. “The feedback’s been overwhelmingly positive,” he says. “It was a good week for boating.”
“We’re not going to get every member of Congress to agree with us on every issue out there,” he says. “On average, it takes seven years to get a bill through Congress. You’ve got to have staying power. Just educating members of Congress so they can make informed choices [is important]. Our presence helps them make more informed decisions.”
This article originally appeared in the June 2014 issue.