Local trucking firms and shipping companies working at the Port of Los Angeles are growing increasingly upset with the port's continued effort to pay a high-profile Washington, D.C., lobbying firm to help change federal law that would allow for more regulation.

The port last Thursday approved an additional $55,000 to pay the Gephardt Group, a lobbying firm led by former presidential candidate Richard Gephardt, through January to amend the Federal Aviation Administration Authorization Act in its favor. It's the third boost of funding for the lobbying group since July, totaling $205,000 this year.

"At a time when shipping lines and other businesses working at the ports are having to lay off people, it's angering to see the money they fork over to the port being spent on lobbying to change laws that will only hurt business," said John McLaurin, president of the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association, a San Francisco-based trade association that represents the ocean carriers and terminal operators working at the L.A. port.

The targeted federal act, which 30 years ago essentially deregulated the trucking industry, prohibits any political subdivision such as the port from "enforcing a law or regulation that would affect a price, route or service of any motor carrier" with few exceptions.

That, port officials claim, leaves their Clean Truck Program, which mandates a variety of rules linked to banning older high-emissions trucks by 2012, vulnerable to legal challenges.

They contend that their intent in changing the law is not directly related to enforcing a controversial rule in their version of the Clean Trucks Program, which would require all truckers who drive into the port be employees of a trucking firm and not independent owner-operators, who have mainly served the port.

The L.A. port's executive director, Geraldine Knatz, said the facility only wants the law amended to allow, not mandate, for ports to implement regulations that affect their security, congestion or environmental programs.

Amending the act is "more looking ahead in the future to safeguard our programs like the Clean Trucks Program," Knatz said. "For example, we cannot directly enforce the ban on older trucks. It's only happened because we've had the cooperation of the marine terminal operators in helping."

The Port of Long Beach, which is participating in the Clean Trucks Program, has no such employee mandate nor is lobbying to amend the act.

The L.A. port has already tried to push through the employee mandate as part of its program, but that was halted with a preliminary injunction after a challenge in court by the American Trucking Association. The port has appealed; a trial is set for December.

Trucking companies claim that the motivation for pushing the employee mandate, whether in court or in Congress, is to make it easier to unionize truckers. As employees, the drivers would be able to be organized by the Teamsters, which they cannot do as owner-operators.

The Clean Truck Coalition, consisting of 10 small, family-owned motor carriers, issued a statement calling on the port commissioners to end funding for Gephardt, who was closely allied with labor unions when he was a Democratic House Majority Leader. The change in long-standing law would expose the carriers to union organization.

"The amendment is unnecessary, unfair and unconstitutional, and will put thousands of jobs in Southern California at risk," the statement said.

"The money spent on the lobbying would have been better spent on new low-emissions trucks," said Gary Mooney, owner of Green Fleet Systems LLC, a Rancho Dominguez-based trucking firm. "The port should be focusing on the trucks, not the truckers."

Owners of three trucking firms, including Mooney, spoke to the port's harbor commission at its meeting last week, arguing that the federal act doesn't need to be amended because the port has acknowledged the program's success ahead of schedule. The port has reported that 6,000 new trucks are servicing the harbor in the program's first year, cutting truck emissions by 70 percent.

"That was accomplished mainly through trucks being financed through independent truckers and trucking firms like ours using independent owner-operators," said Albert H. Frazier, chief executive of Total Transportation Services Inc. in Rancho Dominguez. "There is no need for this."

Still, the commission voted unanimously to boost the lobbying funding, amid mostly cheers in a packed board room at the port's San Pedro headquarters full of environmental group members and truckers supporting the employee mandate.

But business interests claim that the port's actions could end up having a dramatic ripple effect on the trade industry nationwide, because it would allow for a patchwork of different regulations at each port. That in turn, said McLaurin of the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association, would create a headache for trade and transportation companies working in more than one port, as is the case in the L.A.-Long Beach complex.

"I hope the port understands the gravity of amending a long-standing federal law, not just for their customers but for their own image and future ability to attract business," he said.

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