A bill the state Legislature will take up this session would give lawmakers the power to say "yea" or "nay" to any sale of state-owned ports.
The bill's author, Del. Harry R. "Bob" Purkey, R-Virginia Beach, said he is targeting the type of port privatization deals currently before state officials.
Purkey has filed the bill in every session going back to 2009, generating little interest from his colleagues or media attention. Those bills all languished in various House committees and subcommittees.
But Purkey said the state's potential lease of operating rights at five state-run terminals for up to 48 years -- and the General Assembly's lack of input into that decision -- has perked up the ears of fellow lawmakers. He only hopes it isn't too late.
Purkey said that before last year's ports bids, members of the House and Senate by and large had not realized how simple it is for what he called "one of the greatest arsenal's in the state" to be sold or leased for decades and decades.
"I didn't know frankly, until I saw the private equity people circling Virginia," he said.
Currently the governor-appointed board of the Virginia Port Authority is set to vote sometime in the Spring on one of two competing bids -- one from APM Terminals, the other from a partnership of Maher Terminals and JPMorgan IIF Acquisitions.
Those bids don't reflect the future value of the ports, he said, and in particular the lucrative business that could come to Hampton Roads with the widening of the Panama Canal in 2014.
"If you try to tell me a 30- 40-, or 50-year deal is fair, that's bull hockey," Purkey said. "Whatever number you come up with, you've got to add a bunch of zeros to it."
Purkey's bill could have supporters among those lawmakers who've been critical of the current process for reviewing ports bids, as well as those who have argued that public-private partnership deals for road projects in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads have been flawed.
Del. David Toscano, D-Charlottesville, was among the members of a House transportation subcommittee, where Purkey's bill stalled in 2012.
He said he couldn't remember the bill or why it didn't get any further in the past, "but there's a lot of consternation about what the governor is proposing to do with the ports and the lack of input from the General Assembly."
And, Toscano added, "I think that consternation is shared across party lines."
Leesburg Republican Richard "Dick" Black has also pre-filed identical legislation in the Senate.
"I'm a long ways from the ports but up here in Northern Virginia, we are wrestling with the fact that the Dulles Toll Road was given away, and it has caused all kinds of problems," Black said.
"I'm sensative to giving away major assets of the state of Virginia," he said, "because they might sell it for something but never close to what it's worth."
But even if the ports bill has broad support and becomes law this year, it's not clear whether it could have any impact on the APM and Maher-JPMorgan bids currently under consideration.
Non-emergency legislation takes effect July 1, which would be after the VPA board's loosely scheduled vote.
Purkey said he wished the bill had had more success in previous sessions, but there wasn't the same atmosphere of "illumination and public indignation."
Black said that the timing is not ideal.
"It would be a shame to have this go through and then have the Port Authority act to the contrary" without the legislature's input, he said.
He said outside of federal contracting, the ports represent "the foundation of our entire economy in Virginia."
"It is of such magnitude that this ought not be left up to a board no matter how powerful a board it is."
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