Do bar pilots deserve more than $450,000 a year?

Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Walters is one of my favorites. I’ve been running his commentaries for decades. He’s straightforward, insightful and his columns are conveniently short.
He sent one this week pointing out the irony that while Democrats in Sacramento are hoping to raise income taxes on Californians who earn more than $250,000 a year, they also are considering a bill that would raise rates for San Francisco Bay bar pilots, who already earn more than $450,000 a year.
My initial reaction was one of outrage that while the state is cutting so deeply into social services programs and education that our legislators would be wasting their time — and our tax money — considering raising the rates for about 60 shipping experts who make such lucrative salaries.
But I decided to look deeper into Assembly Bill 2287.
Bar pilots guide ships through the treacherous waters of the San Francisco Bay, often carrying oil or gas or other hazardous materials. They are called bar pilots because they board and disembark the ships beyond a sand bar out past the Golden Gate Bridge.
According to the analysis of the bill by the Assembly Committee on Transportation, bar pilots have been guiding ships into the San Francisco Bay since 1835. Before the American Revolution, pilotage was regulated by colonial legislatures. One of the first acts of Congress in 1789 was to delegate authority to regulate bar pilots to the states. Every major port employs such pilots, but few have such dangerous conditions as the San Francisco Bay.
The San Francisco Bar Pilots Benevolent and Protective Association — described by Walters as a politically influential group — has lobbied for higher rates because of higher operating costs. The pilots help guide more than 9,000 vessels a year through the bay.
The bill would require a second pilot during times a limited visibility and when hazardous chemicals are involved.
To be clear, this isn’t taxpayer money. Fees are paid by shipping companies, although ultimately costs are passed along to consumers.
And to put in perspective, while $450,000 seems like overly generous compensation, UCLA basketball coach Ben Howland makes $2 million — and frequently runs his ship into the ground.
“If the rich are already getting too much,” Walters poses, “why should Democrats help some of them get richer?”
While the prospect of a chemical spill in the bay is horrific and the pilots who spend their lives on those choppy waters deserves to be well-compensated, $450,000 a year is plenty.
Tell me what you think.