Republican Mid-Shore lawmakers reflect on legislative session
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.”
DEL. JOHNNY MAUTZ
SEN. ADDIE ECKARDT
DEL. CHRIS ADAMS