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Steve's News from Annapolis

2016-03-06

   
   

The legislative session has now passed the mid-way point.  This last week was one heck of a week.  The Environment and Transportation Committee heard testimony on nearly 60 bills over four days. On two days, the hearings and follow up meetings ended a little before 9 pm.  It was great to see so many citizens, advocates and business people come to Annapolis and take their time to share their thoughts and concerns.

Last week, the Baltimore County House delegation hosted a reception for nearly 25 former Delegates from Baltimore County.  These men and women from both parties all enjoyed themselves as they visited with their colleagues and current Delegates.  Among the former members, one became Governor, two others served as County Executive and many others also served in the State Senate.  But, they got their starts in the House of Delegates representing Baltimore County!  It was an honor to greet and meet so many former leaders. 

We also paused on the floor of the House to honor fallen soldiers. For the first time in many years, no Marylanders died during the past year while serving our country in the military. We also recognized outstanding student athletes and a Boy Scout who received the Boy Scout medal of heroism for saving his father who was trapped in a car. We have many amazing Marylanders!

Environmental Issues and Bills

Greenhouse Gas Reduction Act of 2016

In 2009, the legislature passed a law that required the state, by 2020, to establish strategies and actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 25% from the 2006 levels.  This led to efforts to increase energy efficiency, to promote greater reliance on clean and renewable energy and to an increased emphasis on waste reduction. As we continue to experience climate change and the threats of sea level rise, such changes are vital.

This year’s bill, HB 610, extends the time for the Act to 2030 and sets a greenhouse gas reduction goal of 40% by then. It requires the creation of a plan that will set the strategy and steps needed to achieve this target. Analysis also shows that this new goal will provide an estimated net economic benefit to the state of between $2.5 billion and $3.5 billion while creating and maintaining between 26,000 and 33,000 new jobs. Protecting the environment and public health can, and will, go hand in hand with economic growth in Maryland.

Poultry and Poultry Farming in Maryland

This year, as in previous years, we heard a number of bills that address pollution from poultry manure and chicken farming operations in Maryland.  The focus is on the lower Eastern Shore where the vast amount of chicken production takes place.

Chicken manure has been used as a fertilizer for decades. While it is a relatively inexpensive fertilizer, its application has led to high levels of pollution in many waterways of the Eastern Shore. Last year, I worked with Governor Hogan’s Administration to help devise new standards for applying chicken manure on farmland as a fertilizer. We need to utilize the science that now shows that oversaturation can lead to further pollution.

This year’s Poultry Litter Management Act, HB 599, is aimed at changing responsibility for managing and disposing of the litter from contract growers to the “integrators”.  “Integrators” are the businesses, like Perdue and Tyson’s that actually own the chickens.  The hearing was very long and contentious.  I am still sifting through the materials to see whether this bill will, in fact, help reduce pollution.

The Farmers’ Bill of Rights bill, HB 1496, proposes to establish contract standards and protections for Maryland’s farmers. While there was testimony about inequities in payments, unfair contracting and threats of retaliation, a number of farmers and others in the agricultural community strongly opposed the bill as being unnecessary. They contended that they know the contracts, did not experience or feel intimidation and believe the contract structure is economically beneficial. I am not yet convinced that this bill is necessary. The bill will continue to be discussed in the Committee.

Transportation Issues and Legislation

Commuter Benefits

The House Ways and Means Committee recently heard HB 1012 which will increase commuter benefits. Maryland provides a tax credit to businesses that provide commuter benefits for employees such as van pools, Guaranteed Ride Home and the use of MTA.  HB 1012 increases the existing tax credit to businesses from $50 to $100 per month per employee.  This is intended to provide transportation alternatives, decrease the number of vehicles on the road and incentivize employers to encourage ridership options.  I support this legislation as an important tool to reduce commute times and increase the use of transit.

Transportation Funding Transparency

Often, the reasons for state funding decisions for major state and local transportation projects, particularly road, bridges and transit, aren’t easy to determine.  Each county submits its priorities and the Maryland Department of Transportation establishes priorities for state highways and bridges to create the state’s Consolidated Transportation Plan. But, there are no clear criteria or standards beyond general requirements. Funding decisions should be prioritized based on more objective and uniform criteria.

I support HB 1013, Maryland Open Transportation Investment Decision Act. This bill would require the use of eight (8) goals and various measures to evaluate funding requests. These goals include safety and security, system preservation, economic prosperity, cost effectiveness and return on investment and community vitality.  The bill also creates a scoring system based on the eight goals. Based on the scores, major capital projects will be prioritized by the state Department of Transportation for capital funding in each year.

A Couple of My Bills

Pollinator Habitat Plans

As I have previously written, I believe we need to take stronger actions to protect bees and other pollinators.  I introduced a bill that would require state agencies to develop plans for creating and preserving pollinator habitat.  While it was scaled back in committee, the bill will come to the House floor for a vote this coming week. I am pleased to have gotten support to advance the development of better habitat so pollinators will have a better chance to thrive.

Operation and Maintenance of Septic Systems

I also am very pleased that the House passed HB 90 to provide financial relief for lower income residents who have septic systems. As I have worked on issues to reduce pollution going into the Bay, I have often heard that there is a need to keep septic systems in good operating condition. However, for many low income people, having a contract for operation and maintenance (“O&M”) is too expensive. This bill will enable lower income homeowners to receive funds from the Bay Restoration Fund to cover 50% of the cost of an O&M contract. This assistance from the Fund should help to further reduce pollution from entering the waterways in rural areas.

County Issues

Off Track Betting at the Fairgrounds in Timonium

The Baltimore County House delegation heard testimony on a bill that would prevent Off Track Betting (OTB) unless certain conditions are met. This would require a Memorandum of Understanding between the Greater Timonium Community Council, the Maryland Jockey Club and the Maryland State Fair Society that owns the Fairgrounds. This bill came about due to the abysmal failure of the Jockey Club and Fairgrounds Board to notify and work with the community before moving ahead to install 100 OTB TV monitors. Subsequent communications have also been neglectful of the community’s concerns and needs. Negotiations are still on-going and, hopefully, there will be a positive resolution for the Timonium communities.

School Feasibility Studies

Baltimore County has the second oldest set of schools in the state. And, as they age, problems continue to grow.  The Baltimore County Public Schools had feasibility studies performed to determine the needs and costs of extensive renovations at four of the oldest and neediest high schools: Dulaney, Woodlawn, Patapsco and Lansdowne.  Some have questioned whether such expensive renovations should be undertaken or should new schools be built instead. These studies can be found on the BCPS web site, www.bcps.org.

I want to thank the numerous people who contacted me about issues and bills that were discussed in my last newsletter. Thanks, too, to those who reached out to me on other issues before the General Assembly.   It is very helpful to hear, and read, the different viewpoints.  While we may not always agree, your comments are helpful as I make my decisions whether to support a bill.

As always, I can be reached at 410-841-3487 and at Stephen.Lafferty@house.state.md.us.

Best wishes,

Steve