Legislature seeks balance in boating rental, safety laws

boating

Should most individuals over the age of 18 be allowed to rent a motorboat in Louisiana without passing the required boating safety course? The House and Senate think so, and now the issue will be decided by Gov. John Bel Edwards. 

The Legislature on Wednesday put the finishing touches on Senate Bill 424 by Sen. Jeremy Stine of Lake Charles. At times, the months-long debate put Stine at odds with Wildlife and Fisheries Secretary Jack Montoucet, who was appointed by Edwards and opposed the proposal during the regular session. As for what Edwards will do with the bill, we’ll have to wait and see.

Changes in law

Under current law, anyone born after Jan. 1, 1984, who wants to operate a motorboat (more than 10 horsepower) must successfully complete a boating safety class approved by the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators. The legislation, which the governor will either veto or allow to become law, would do away with that requirement for rentals only, including jet skis, boats and everything in between and beyond.

Sen. Eddie Lambert of Gonzales, a commercial fisherman, voted against the legislation following its first hearing. During that initial debate, he marveled at the proposed law’s applications.

“So, if I wanted to go and rent one of these boats I see flying down the Diversion Canal that’s 40 feet long and has three engines in it that goes 100 miles per hour, I could rent that boat from an establishment in Louisiana?” asked Lambert. 

“You find an establishment to rent you that vessel, I believe this law would allow you to do that without the boater safety course,” answered Cole Garrett, the general counsel for the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.  

Lambert immediately fired off another question during the debate: “There’s no limitation on horsepower in this bill or anything of that nature, is that correct?” 

“That’s correct,” Garret replied.

Rental boat safety

Department officials argued boating-related fatalities are on the rise in Louisiana, but legislative supporters repeatedly pointed out this session that none of those cases involved rental boats. 

Only a few lawmakers opposed the legislation during its many hearings. Instead, conservatives and liberals alike found cover under the bill’s pro-business packaging. 

House Natural Resources Chairman Jean-Paul Coussan told his committee this session he wanted to find a balance between safety on Louisiana’s waterways and the economic viability of the state’s livery industry. The proposed change wouldn’t make Louisiana an outlier, he said, but would instead bring it in line with Alabama, Mississippi and other states.

“Several local businesses have expressed frustration over this,” said Stine. “It’s about helping them to be competitive. In Florida, you’re on the water within an hour in a pontoon boat.”

Coussan’s committee crafted a compromise to make sure motorboat renters aren’t allowed to simply take the keys and run. The amendment passed by the House requires all rental contracts to specify that the “operator has been instructed in proper and safe operation of the vessel and receives the latest department publication on recreational boating rules, regulations and safety.” Specifically, livery businesses must show a department-approved video and provide other boating materials to renters.

The Sportsman contacted the secretary when it became clear the legislation was going to pass. Montoucet was asked about the House-crafted requirements and the governor’s decision-making process. 

Montoucet recognizes balance

“While the video and other materials are not as detailed as our full boating safety course, it will provide some measure of boating safety education,” said Montoucet. “LDWF prefers, and has advocated, for all Louisiana boaters to take the highest standard of boater education, but we recognize the Legislature’s efforts to balance public safety with the interests of boat rental businesses.”

Opponents have pointed to disparities in the proposed law. For example, an 18-year-old girl who grew up learning how to drive her father’s boat and knows every inch of the vessel would still be required to take a boating safety course before piloting on her own. If she opted to take the free, in-person course offered by the department, that would mean six to eight hours of class time.

Meanwhile, an 18-year-old who has never been on the water would be allowed to rent the same boat, according to the legislation, without the required safety course. 

While most livery businesses already offer short training videos and other instruction, as called for in the legislation, Montoucet argued the extra coursework approved by the state makes boaters three times less likely to be involved in a fatality. “I’m begging you. We want to keep the numbers down,” he asked lawmakers last month. “It’s not a hell of a lot to ask.”

Now, of course, the final decision is up to the governor — and the secretary is staying mum. “I rarely speak publicly about any conversations I have with the governor,” Montoucet said.

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