Port Workers Won't Need 2nd ID Under Security Bill
By BILLY HOUSE The Tampa Tribune
Washington, May 10 -
Workers at the Port of Tampa and other Florida seaports won't be forced to obtain a new federal ID badge, at least right away, under an amendment passed by the U.S. House on Wednesday as part of a homeland security bill.
Instead, federal officials first would have to fix the problems that have prevented attempts to integrate that new card's technology with a Florida port security-access system that already is in place.
Florida officials argue their card is better and want it integrated into - not replaced by - the federal system. They have no intention of getting rid of the state card, and say port workers within the state should not be required to have both.
The amendment was attached by Rep. Kathy Castor to a homeland security authorization bill that now heads to the Senate.
"As long as proper security requirements are being met, as they are in Florida's port credential, we need to spare the working folks who keep our ports moving from having to bear the burden and expense of undergoing unnecessarily duplicative background checks," Castor said Wednesday.
The Tampa Democrat was able to introduce and get the amendment included on the bill as a member of the House Rules Committee.
At issue is the new federal Transportation Worker Identification Credential, a response to the Sept. 11 attacks. The biometric card, which contains information such as fingerprint data that can be read by scanners, would go to all longshoremen, truckers, and others who enter secure port areas, and would be good for five years.
The Department of Homeland Security will launch the card this summer in 10 selected ports nationally that have not yet been announced.
Florida approved its own biometic credential for port employees in 2003.
Under the state system, more than 100,000 users of Florida's ports already have been screened for criminal backgrounds by both the FBI and Florida Department of Law Enforcement. In Tampa alone, 39,000 state seaport badges have been issued.
At a hearing last month, federal Transportation Security Administration officials acknowledged under questioning by Palm Harbor Rep. Gus Bilirakis that problems continue with integrating the federal card system with Florida's technology.
TSA officials, however, still refused to rule out that any Florida ports would be included in the first 10 to be selected for launching the new card this summer or the added 40 ports due to be brought under the program by January. All ports are to be under the federal badge program by January 2009.
That led Bilirakis, a member of the House Committee on Homeland Security, to complain at the hearing that Florida's ports would be forced into a costly and confusing system of duplicative federal and state security checks and card-reader systems.
Now, Castor's amendment to the homeland security authorization bill directs the federal officials to work with the state of Florida - and other states that may be in a similar situation - to resolve the technological differences.
Castor's chief of staff, Clay Phillips, said that means Florida's ports will not be forced to use two separate port-access security systems. TSA officials could not be reached for comment.
"I've been talking with port businesses for many months, and they have told me that this issue and its resolution will have a profound effect on both the vitality of our maritime business and the security of Florida's ports," said Castor, in a statement from her office.
Republican Bilirakis spoke in favor of Castor's amendment Wednesday on the House floor.
In a later statement, Bilirakis said, "I would like to thank Congresswoman Castor for offering this amendment and her support for my ongoing efforts to integrate the federal and state port-security systems."
"This action is just further proof of what can be accomplished when we work together," Bilirakis said.
Reporter Billy House can be reached at (202) 662-7673 or firstname.lastname@example.org