Repub­li­can Mid-Shore law­mak­ers re­flect on leg­isla­tive ses­sion

Dorchester Star - - News - By JOSH BOLLINGER jbollinger@star­

EAS­TON — De­spite some some wins and losses dur­ing this past Mary­land Gen­eral As­sem­bly ses­sion, held Jan. 11 through April 10, Mid-Shore law­mak­ers said the Eastern Shore fared well this year.

“If you look across the Shore through­out the del­e­ga­tion, I think we’ve had a very strong year,” said Del. Johnny Mautz, R-37B-Tal­bot. “I thought ever ybody worked very well to­gether.”

Mautz, Del. Chris Adams, R-37B-Wi­comico, and Sen. Ad­die Eckardt, R-37-Mid-Shore, worked to­gether on sev­eral bills that have a di­rect im­pact to the Shore and its res­i­dents, in an ef­fort to bol­ster the Shore’s in­fra­struc­ture.

For in­stance, a hous­ing pack­age was put to­gether this year, af­ter is­sues in Tal­bot County with af­ford­able hous­ing and is­sues in Dorch­ester County with blighted prop­er­ties came to the fore­front.

“We have been work­ing with folks in those towns with re­gard to how you deal with blighted prop­er­ties and you get those prop­er­ties off the tax rolls, es­pe­cially if they’ve been in tax sales mul­ti­ple times,” Eckardt said.

The law­mak­ers put to­gether a bill that ex­pe­dites fore­clo­sures, and also a “land bank” bill that gives com­mu­ni­ties, or­ga­ni­za­tions and mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties and coun­ties the op­por­tu­nity to pool re­sources, deal with blighted prop­er­ties and turn them around to get them off the tax sale, she said.

“It has been a tool that has re­ally ren­o­vated a lot of blighted com­mu­ni­ties across the coun­try,” she said.

“I don’t think any of our coun­ties re­ally want to be in the land busi­ness, and this way it gives them an op­por­tu­nity to part­ner with another or­ga­ni­za­tion where they could lever­age more pri­vate fund­ing to be able to do that, move it, so you get more di­ver­si­fi­ca­tion in your in­vestors in your com­mu­nity to be able to move prop­er­ties,” Eckardt said.

The three also spent time work­ing on a bill that would al­low more lo­cal­i­ties — 33 mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties and 55 projects — to tap into $70 mil­lion in the Bay Restora­tion Fund for state-man­dated up­grades to their waste­water treat­ment plants — money that pre­vi­ously wasn’t avail­able for that spe­cific use for these smaller mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties.

It was an ex­am­ple of lo­cal pol­i­tics break­ing through to the state level, Adams said. The idea be­hind it came from Pre­ston, which was grap­pling with hav­ing to pay a half mil­lion dol­lars on the backs of its tax­pay­ers to up­grade its waste­water treat­ment plant, when it’s man­dated by state law to do so.

“Not only was it good pol­icy for Pre­ston and the cit­i­zens, our con­stituents, but it also, in my opin­ion, achieves one of the more im­por­tant goals for the en­vi­ron­men­tal groups, which is to im­prove the health of the Ch­e­sa­peake Bay,” Adams said. “I can think of few ways more rel­e­vant to clean the Bay than to clean the streams and the wa­ters where a lot of these mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties are lo­cated.”

“The Town of Pre­ston, it’s a great story of lo­cal gov­ern­ment rais­ing an is­sue, and watch­ing Del. Mautz, my­self and Sen. Eckardt team up to de­liver a so­lu­tion that truly does help the Bay, but doesn’t im­pact our cit­i­zens fi­nan­cially. It’s ex­cit­ing to be part of that process to go through the leg­is­la­ture and gar­ner sup­port,” Adams said.

The bill was pop­u­lar in the leg­is­la­ture and even with en­vi­ron­men­tal groups like the Ch­e­sa­peake Bay Foun­da­tion, which lent its sup­port for the bill. There was, how­ever, one hic­cup with it when a law­maker held it from go­ing for­ward, on the ba­sis that towns in his district al­ready had up­graded their waste­water treat­ment plants and they wanted retroac­tive fi­nan­cial sup­port for those projects.

“It was con­tam­i­nat­ing our bill,” said Eckardt, who then went to the law­maker hold­ing it and worked out a sep­a­rate bill to ad­dress their needs, and helped se­cure lan­guage in the state bud­get for them. Both mea­sures passed this year.

The three Mid-Shore leg­is­la­tors also worked to­gether on Eastern Shore in­ter­net con­nec­tiv­ity is­sues.

“Con­nec­tiv­ity is a huge prob­lem na­tion­wide for ru­ral ar­eas, and the mar­ket is driven by pop­u­la­tion,” Mautz said. “So if you’ve got pop­u­la­tion, you’ve got the ser­vice, and we’re never go­ing to have the pop­u­la­tion. Even­tu­ally we will, but we’re still not go­ing to be caught up with the western shore, as far as the num­bers, and that drives in­vest­ment.”

Cell­phone and in­ter­net ser­vice can be spotty on the Eastern Shore, es­pe­cially in the more ru­ral ar­eas like the Bay Hun­dred area of Tal­bot County, for ex­am­ple, which is an area where con­stituents reached out to Mautz for an­swers.

The in­ter­net con­nec­tiv­ity bill was put to­gether to help lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties find fed­eral grant money to help with con­nec­tiv­ity is­sues. It cre­ates a task force that will work to find that fed­eral money while lo­cal­i­ties con­tinue to work on their needs.

But there still are chal­lenges ahead for the Shore, they said.

Mautz said the seafood in­dus­try “is in peril right now” for a num­ber of rea­sons, “but it’s in­creas­ingly more and more dif­fi­cult for the in­dus­try to sur­vive.”

Eckardt said wa­ter­men have been ne­glected at the state level.

“They’ve been talk­ing for years about rea­son­able so­lu­tions and yet are never heard, and they have rea­son­able, prac­ti­cal so­lu­tions. But they’re per­ceived to be kind of a rene­gade group that cause trou­ble,” she said.

“And their in­ter­ests are di­vided,” Mautz said. “Be­cause the times are so dif­fi­cult and the Bay is di­vided into re­gions and each part of the Bay kind of func­tions dif­fer­ently and op­er­ates dif­fer­ently, they wind up be­ing pit­ted against one another, and they’re fight­ing or try­ing to coun­ter­bal­ance other in­flu­ences, and when they’re di­vided, they can’t do that.”

This past ses­sion, there was a fight over oys­ter sanc­tu­ar­ies. The state Oys­ter Ad­vi­sor y Com­mis­sion rec­om­mended open­ing some poorly per­form­ing sanc­tu­ar­ies to a lim­ited har­vest on a ro­ta­tional ba­sis, but Democrats in the leg­is­la­ture blocked the mea­sure by sub­mit­ting a bill that doesn’t al­low that to hap­pen un­til a study on the oys­ter pop­u­la­tion in the Bay is re­leased next year.

Wa­ter­men say the poorly per­form­ing ar­eas could ben­e­fit from be­ing worked, knock­ing the silt off oys­ters that haven’t moved in years to spur spawn­ing. But the en­vi­ron­men­tal com­mu­nity lob­bied hard against the ro­ta­tional har­vest pro­posal, on the ba­sis that oys­ters are good for the Bay and

that they say the sanc­tu­ar­ies should not be touched. The study bill even­tu­ally was passed.

Adams re­lated what’s hap­pen­ing in the seafood com­mu­nity to what oc­curred in the agri­cul­ture com­mu­nity sev­eral years ago, when the agri­cul­ture in­dus­try “was com­pletely un­der as­sault.”

Now, af­ter a big push from ru­ral law­mak­ers, ur­ban law­mak­ers are start­ing to un­der­stand how im­por­tant agri­cul­ture is to the ru­ral econ­omy, and that the reg­u­la­tions be­ing passed down didn’t have a good re­turn on in­vest­ment, Adams said.

“The wa­ter­men are hav­ing the same po­lit­i­cal fight that the farm­ing com­mu­nity had three years ago, now, and it comes down to an is­sue of re­spect,” Adams said.

“The wa­ter­men de­pend on a clean Ch­e­sa­peake Bay for their fish­ery. I mean, clearly they want oys­ter sus­tain­abil­ity; ev­ery­body wants this,” Adams said. “These are the same themes wa­ter­men say they want and en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists, but yet bills come in time af­ter time that don’t al­low, or the leg­is­la­ture doesn’t al­low, the right kind of in­put to make its way into law.”

“It’s al­ways the ham­mer down on the in­dus­try, and un­for­tu­nately for us, as an Eastern Shore Del­e­ga­tion, when you’re deal­ing with Mont­gomery County and Prince Ge­orge’s County that can’t re­late to the busi­ness part, the his­tor­i­cal part of what these in­dus­tries mean to the Shore, it’s a func­tional flaw in how pol­i­tics gets done in An­napo­lis,” he said.

But with the seafood in­dus­try be­ing di­vided how it is, Mautz said as far as try­ing to em­u­late what hap­pened in the agri­cul­tural com­mu­nity, where the poul­try in­dus­try is run by a hand­ful of ma­jor play­ers who are or­ga­nized, “that’s very dif­fer­ent.”

Some­thing both Mautz and Eckardt said was dis­ap­point­ing this year was how Gov. Larry Ho­gan’s Con­gres­sional re­dis­trict­ing re­form bill turned out. The bill was de­signed to make an in­de­pen­dent com­mis­sion re­draw Mary­land’s Con­gres­sional dis­tricts, which the gov­er­nor has said many times are among the most ger­ry­man­dered in the coun­try.

Demo­cratic lead­ers turned the bill into a statewide com­pact, mean­ing five sur­round­ing states have to agree in­de­pen­dently to re­draw district lines, and Eckardt said it pre­cents any­thing from hap­pen­ing un­til 2032, and “no­body’s go­ing to spend this kind of time and en­ergy do­ing that, so they’ve just suf­fi­ciently put that to bed.”

“One of the big­gest chal­lenges in our po­lit­i­cal sys­tem na­tion­wide is ger­ry­man­der­ing. Who is rep­re­sent­ing our peo­ple, why do you have to pre­serve a cer­tain po­lit­i­cal group?” Mautz said.

“There ought to be some other stan­dards in­volved in draw­ing these dis­tricts, and not all Repub­li­cans will think that’s great news, but I think most cit­i­zens will think it’s great news,” he said. “Some­one has got to stand up and take the lead on where we’re go­ing as a gov­ern­ment, and it’s sup­posed to be for the best in­ter­ests of the peo­ple.”

But over­all, Eckardt and Adams found the re­cent Gen­eral As­sem­bly to be dis­tracted by the re­cent pres­i­den­tial elec­tion. They said some Democrats spent much of the ses­sion re­act­ing to poli­cies dis­cussed at the fed­eral level and try­ing to pin Ho­gan along­side Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump.

“It was dis­tract the gov­er­nor from where he was go­ing and paint him very closely aligned with what was hap­pen­ing on at the fed­eral level,” Eckardt said. “You com­bine that with a lot of the new peo­ple in the leg­is­la­ture from three years ago, who may not have the big­ger pic­ture of where we’ve been and where we are go­ing, so it’s easy to steer off course, and I think that was ac­tu­ally what was go­ing on.”

It was a con­cern Adams had go­ing into the leg­isla­tive ses­sion, “that the Demo­cratic Party would be one to as­sert them­selves, and I was con­cerned that the is­sues that we brought up would not ben­e­fit the av­er­age Mary­lan­ders, and I found that to be some­what true.”

Adams said the leg­is­la­ture spent a lot of time “fight­ing is­sues that aren’t even mak­ing them­selves pre­sent yet,” like with the pos­si­ble re­peal of the Af­ford­able Care Act or changes to the Dodd–Frank Wall Street Re­form and Con­sumer Pro­tec­tion Act — both of which res­o­lu­tions were sub­mit­ted this year that re­sisted those fed­eral ef­forts, when no changes ac­tu­ally had been made yet.

“In one way, I’m ver y con­cerned be­cause this was the leg­is­la­ture look­ing at the 2018 elec­tion, try­ing to at­tach fed­eral is­sues to our gov­er­nor. I saw that as wasted time, in many ways,” Adams said. “It surely didn’t af­fect or ben­e­fit the av­er­age Mary­lan­der when that hap­pened. On the other hand, I’m proud to be part of a cau­cus that, led by our gov­er­nor, who ab­so­lutely fo­cused on Mary­lan­ders in 2017, not the elec­tion in 2018.”

But Mautz said the pol­i­tics of An­napo­lis “are what they are.”

“The (Demo­cratic) ma­jor­ity, while it’s run­ning the state or in­flu­enc­ing the state, set­ting state pol­icy, they’re also a po­lit­i­cal party so they’re go­ing to use that to their po­lit­i­cal ad­van­tage,” Mautz said.

Mautz said Ho­gan has a lot of power in the state, even with a Demo­crat-con­trolled leg­is­la­ture — that he’s still able to in­flu­ence pol­icy de­spite hav­ing to work with the opposite party that has fun­da­men­tal po­lit­i­cal dif­fer­ences.

“While they might not be huge, they are mon­u­men­tal, in that he over­came an over­whelm­ing ma­jor­ity that can over­ride his veto in less than 24 hours and he was still able to af­fect the process, even on a cou­ple high level po­lit­i­cal is­sues,” Mautz said. “In the past, those are things that would have zinged right through and gone into law.”




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