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Del. Senate OKs lawmaker say in port privatization

Randall Chase, Associated Press

DOVER, Del. (AP) -- Delaware's Senate on Wednesday dealt a blow to the Markell administration, narrowly approving a bill that prohibits privatizing operations at the Port of Wilmington without the consent of the General Assembly.

The bill, which passed the Senate 11-9 and now goes to the House, prevents the state-controlled Diamond State Port Corporation from entering into any agreement to privatize or lease the port without first obtaining approval from both chambers of the Legislature.

Delaware economic development director Alan Levin, who chairs the port corporation, urged senators to delay action on the bill, saying it could upset delicate negotiations with Houston-based energy company Kinder Morgan.

Sen. Robert Venables, a Laurel Democrat who is one of two lawmakers that serve on the DSPC, agreed with Levin that premature legislative action could cause Kinder Morgan to have second thoughts.

"You might kill the golden goose before we get hold of him," Venables told fellow lawmakers.

Levin was even more troubled by an amendment tacked on by Democratic bill sponsor Robert Marshall of Wilmington. The amendment, which also passed 11-to-9, prohibits Kinder Morgan from assigning any privatization agreement to a third party without legislative consent.

Levin said Kinder Morgan was wrapping up its due diligence and that officials hoped to have a final offer from the company soon.

"It will not be signed before you all have a chance to comment," said Levin, noting that the DSPC includes two members of the General Assembly and two representatives of organized labor.

"I think they adequately represent the interests of each of the parties that are concerned here."

But Levin failed to sway lawmakers who are concerned that a for-profit corporation might cut jobs if it takes over the port.

"There really is no guarantee that the workforce will be protected," said Sen. Margaret Rose Henry, D-Del. "I don't see any harm in the transparency."

A spokeswoman for Gov. Jack Markell issued a statement echoing Levin's argument that the bill was premature.

"But we know that allowing the General Assembly to renegotiate the independent board's decision-making will make it more challenging for the board to reach an agreement that can preserve and grow the number of jobs," said Markell spokeswoman Cathy Rossi.

Levin said the administration is focused on doing what's best for the port, its employees and customers, and businesses that service the port. He said the state can't afford to pay the estimated $150 million in capital expenditures needed over the next 10 years to maintain the port.

Levin also shot down rumors that Kinder Morgan, which operates 183 ports and terminals around the country, wants to expand the Wilmington port to take on liquefied natural gas or additional coal exports. He said the company has pledged not to do so.

Senate president pro tem Patricia Blevins, D-Elsmere, said the bill was not targeting Kinder Morgan deal specifically.

"This bill has nothing to do with Kinder Morgan, it has to do with how we deal with the disposal of state assets," she said.