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Steve's News from Annapolis

2015-03-16

 

The past couple of weeks have been quite incredible in Annapolis. With the backdrop a large and beautiful snow, we have been debating major legislation, and had hearings that have stretched late into the night. We have been addressing many substantial policy issues. We have also reached the time when all bills that are going to get passed must “cross-over” (from the House to the Senate and vice versa). This also adds to the crunch time!

The State Budget

In earlier newsletters, I reported on and commented upon, the Governor’s proposed budget that removed funding for public education, eliminated the 2% pay raise that the state workers began to receive on January 1 and cuts in the Medicaid funding.

The House Appropriations Committee has completed its review and approved a budget by a unanimous vote of the Republicans and Democrats on the committee. The budget will be presented to the full House Monday night. This budget will restore $130 million for public education and community colleges, restore the 2% pay increase for state workers, and continue Medicaid funding for pregnant women while retaining the current physician direct payment rate. The budget also adds $2million for additional heroin addiction treatment which is one of Governor Hogan’s initiatives.

Such changes were made possible by the decision to reduce the contribution to the state pension program. Since returns of the retirement investments have exceeded the predictions, the analysts believe that we will still meet our 2022 funding goals even without the $75 million that will be redirected to education.

Maryland’s Business Climate

Early last year, House Speaker Mike Busch and Senate President Mike Miller established a commission to address the perception that Maryland is not friendly to business, to examine our business climate and to propose recommendations. Chaired by retired CEO Norman Augustine, the Commission has made 32 recommendations http://msa.maryland.gov/megafile/msa/speccol/sc5300/sc5339/000113/020000/020838/unrestricted/20150235e.pdf and has led to the introduction of these five bills:

  • HB 943 proposes an overhaul and combine the current business related agencies and give it a greater role and provide greater oversight
  • HB 942 creates a pilot apprenticeship program involving businesses and school systems in order to provide alternative pathways for young people to enter the job market
  • HB 940 establishes customer service training for employees in agencies that deal extensively with businesses
  • HB 939 creates a council of agency heads, lawmakers and small business owners to look at the impact of state regulations
  • HB 941 sets up a task force to improve the transfer of technologies and innovations into the marketplace

These are clearly only the first steps that the legislature, working with the Administration, is committed to finding ways to support businesses and improve Maryland’s competitiveness.

Death With Dignity

The Health and Government Operations Committee heard many hours of testimony regarding a proposal to allow an individual to end his/her life with dignity HB1021.  This is the first time that this very difficult and emotional issue has been heard by the legislature. Health care professionals, family members and individuals whose lives are declining all shared their views and opinions.

The bill is based on legislation in other states and provides:

  • Only a patient may request medicine to end his/her life
  • The patient must be certified as competent
  • The patient must make 3 requests for a life ending prescription; the third one must be at least 15 days after the initial one
  • The attending physician and consulting physician  must certify that the patient is competent and that the prognosis is that death is likely within 6 months
  • The patient may withdraw the request at any time
  • The patient self-administers the medication

This is a complex issue that may not be decided this year. However, it has started an important debate.

Repeal of the Stormwater Fee

The Governor proposed to repeal the stormwater fee that is required in ten (10) Maryland jurisdictions. However, phosphorous, nitrogen and sediment pollution from stormwater runoff in these suburban and urban counties continues to grow.  The Governor’s bill, HB 481, not only would have repealed the fee that is set in each county but all aspects of the bill. We heard hours of testimony for and against the fee, including many who supported the repeal but wanted to keep many elements of the law that they saw as valuable.

The bill did not pass in The Environment and Transportation Committee (E&T). I was proud to vote against the repeal since the current law allows local governments to establish a dedicated revenue source in order address their own, different goals for reducing pollution into the Bay.

“Fracking”for Natural Gas

Last week, E&T Committee held a very lengthy hearing on HB 449, a bill that would create an eight year moratorium on fracking in Maryland. Over the last five years, there has been a lot of debate about the need for, and potential problems of, hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking”. Fracking would enable gas drillers to natural gas deposits in the Marcellus Shale formation a mile beneath the surface located in Garrett and Allegany Counties. Proponents argue that landowners will receive lease income, that jobs will be created and that getting to this gas further creates energy independence for the United States.

Opponents point to evidence of well and subsurface water contamination in Pennsylvania and other states, illnesses and damage to roadways from the thousands of trucks required in the process. They also have pointed to negative social impacts in the communities where drilling occurs the lack of sufficient public health data and the potential damage to land values and tourism in Western Maryland. It is notable that the Garrett County Board of Realtors and over 100 businesses in Garrett County oppose fracking.

I support a moratorium because we need more public health information to better ensure it is safe before we approve such drilling. I expect that my committee will vote on the bill this week.

Protecting Bees

There is no disagreement that bees are invaluable pollinators that help in food production.  There is also no doubt that there has been significant loss of bees and a substantial increase in colony collapse. One of the suspected reasons is the presence of neonicotinoids (“neonics”) which is a pesticide. HB 605, The Pollinator Protection Act of 2015 that would require neonics to be labeled and would then ban their retail sales, was heard in the E & T committee last week.

While there was no disagreement about the plight of bees, we were caught in a battle of science where many beekeepers and anti-pesticide advocates presented evidence that neonics are a definitive cause of the death of bees. However, this was countered with evidence that neonics are important pesticides and are not the cause for the extensive loss of bees.  If we are going to establish laws regarding the use of neonics, it looks like we need further information and study.

Reducing the Phosphorous that Gets into the Bay

As I reported in my last newsletter, the E&T Committee heard my bill that would introduce a Phosphorous Management Tool (PMT) to identify the levels of phosphorous on farms where chicken manure is spread as a fertilizer. Phosphorous pollution remains high in the waters of the lower Bay due to chicken manure. Since then, I have had numerous discussions with the Secretary of Agriculture and the Governor’s office about their plan to address phosphorous reduction by regulations that would take a year longer and provide ways to stop the implementation of the PMT. I remain very concerned that we stay on course to reduce phosphorous.

Last Friday, a Senate Committee changed its version of my bill by requiring the Department of Agriculture to develop regulations by 2016 and keeps a hard deadline for fully implementing the PMT. My bill is still alive and negotiations continue so we’ll see how this plays out over the next week.

Other Bills in Environment and Transportation Committee 

We had lengthy bill hearings in my Committee on a number of other important issues. These bills included establishing tighter standards for animal shelters (HB876), recycling of bottles and cans (HB 982), the elimination of plastic bags and requiring a fee for paper bags (HB551) ground rents (HB637), restoring highway user revenues to the counties (HB484), penalties for poaching of oysters (HB1036), and banning the application of pesticides on the grounds of public schools and day care centers (HB995).

Proposed Tax Credit Assistance

You may have heard or read that the County Executive sent a letter to parents at Dulaney and Pikesville High Schools stating that a proposed tax credit for a community next to the county’s Eastern Landfill would jeopardize the funding for critical physical improvements to their schools. This came after the County’s House delegation gave its approval for such a tax credit.

I would like to clarify this issue. As Chair of the County House delegation, I was involved in the hearing and debate on this bill.  The bill only enables the county to establish a tax credit to help this community. The bill does not set the amount for a credit or even require the county to enact one. There is no dollar amount required so the Executive’s claim that it would cost $250,000 a year is not true – unless the county agrees. At no time during the debate did the Executive indicate that necessary improvements to these two schools would be hampered by the approval of this bill.

And, more importantly, the County House delegation is very disappointed, and many are very angry, that the Executive would send a letter that seeks to pit one community against another. The County’s Delegates seek ways to help our constituents in a cooperative way. That should be the way we all govern.

As always, feel free to contact me with your comments or questions. I can be reached at Stephen.Lafferty@house.state.md.us or at 410-841-3487.

Best wishes,

Steve

Delegate Steve Lafferty
Maryland House of Delegates, District 42
410-841-3487
stephen.lafferty@house.state.md.us

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