A legislative measure requiring boat titling in Tennessee - an issue that has never navigated the legislature - sailed forward in a state Senate committee Wednesday, but could face rough political waters ahead.
The Senate Environment, Conservation and Tourism Committee passed the boat titling bill by an 8-1 vote and sent it to be considered by the Senate Finance Committee, while the bill has yet to be acted on by a House committee.
The bill's sponsor, state Sen. Tim Burchett, R-Knoxville, said its supporters include the National Marine Manufacturers Association, the Tennessee Bankers Association and the Tennessee Marinas Association.
Bill opponents are boaters who don't want to pay titling fees and do want to sell boats without many strings attached.
The Tennessee Comptroller's Office has noted there have been "several failures" to pass boat titling legislation since the 1990s, and lawmakers remain stuck between the bill's competing interest groups.
"I've been trying to craft in my mind, why are we doing this? What's broken?" state Sen. Doug Jackson, D-Dickson, said while the committee considered the bill.
Currently, boats on Tennessee's waterways are required to bear identification numbers prescribed by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA), unless falling within specific exempted categories of watercraft.
Burchett's bill would require boat owners to apply for titles through the county clerk's office upon the sale of a boat or when boat ownership is transferred. By July 1, 2011, all watercraft would have to be titled.
The bill calls for a $13.50 fee to be paid for each title issued. Local governments would get $6.50 of that amount received by county clerks. Those not complying with the bill would be subject to a misdemeanor offense.
Burchett's legislation also says TWRA can take custody of abandoned watercraft and issue certificates attesting that a boat has been damaged.
According to the state's Fiscal Review office, about 271,000 boats were registered, 29,000 were transferred and 19,000 were purchased during 2006.
Burchett said the lack of boat titling in Tennessee was cited in March 2005 Comptroller's Audit of TWRA.
"The 2000 Performance Audit of (TWRA) noted that Tennessee's lack of a boat titling law increases the vulnerability of consumers, lending institutions, and insurance companies to boat theft and insurance fraud, and hinders TWRA's and other law enforcement agencies' ability to investigate boat theft," the audit said. "The primary goal of titling is to establish ownership for the purpose of buying, selling, and obtaining a ‘clear title' in acquiring a loan. Recovery of stolen boats and prosecution of boat thefts are easier if ownership is clear."
The audit noted that more than 30 states have some form of boat titling legislation and pointed to National Insurance Crime Bureau reports showing that approximately 775 watercraft are stolen each month in the United States, costing their owners and insurance companies $40 million annually.
In her testimony before the Senate committee, Joyce Johnson of the National Marine Manufacturers Association said Burchett's bill would provide absolute proof of ownership to a watercraft buyer.
"It will allow the lending institution to offer a secured interest rate for potential purchasers of watercraft ... just as an automobile does," she said. "The insurers support this bill because they believe that the paper trail that is provided by the title will allow for the recovery of stolen vessels."
Johnson said Tennessee is the seventh-ranked state in the United States in the number of boats stolen, and she also stressed that many salvaged boats from Gulf Coast areas hit by Hurricane Katrina were sold to unsuspecting buyers.
She also acknowledged that TWRA commissioners are "afraid of bad PR" associated with Burchett's bill.
"I have emphasized to everyone that is not a TWRA-brought bill," Johnson said.
For more go to www.legislature.state.tn.us and click on "Legislation."
The bill's number is SB 0784.