Shore delegation anticipates changes
CHESTERTOWN — The Eastern Shore delegation is predicting a lot of change during this year’s 90-day General Assembly session.
State Sen. Steve Hershey, R-36-Upper Shore; Del. Jay Jacobs, R-36-Kent; Del. Steve Arentz, R-36-Queen Anne’s; and Del. Jeff Ghrist, R-36-Caroline, as well as Kent County commissioners Tom Mason and Ron Fithian, attended the annual pre-session legislative breakfast held Jan. 7 at Heron Point.
The breakfast, which is hosted by the Kent County Chamber of Commerce and the League of Women Voters of Kent County, allows elected officials the opportunity to give their take on what the public can expect from the General Assembly.
“I think the big word is going to be ‘change,’” Hershey said. “What we saw in the elections just in November is going to bring an awful lot of change in legislators in the way that we are going to interact.”
Hershey said after the midterm elections, 17 new senators were elected out of 47 total, and 43 new members were voted in out of 141 total in the House of Delegates.
He said it is going to be “a number of new individuals are coming with new ideas and new ways of wanting to get things done.”
He highlighted changes at the leadership level after Senate President Thomas V. “Mike” Miller Jr., the country’s longest serving senate president at 33 years, lost most of his lieutenants in the election.
“He’s getting pushed hard from the far left,” Hershey said. “A lot of changes occurred in their elections.”
Hershey called having new chairmen “a learning process” especially in reference to how the committees will interact with Miller.
“He’s going to have three new committee chairs. As people know in Annapolis, that’s the way things get done. That’s where all the work that we do as far as legislation and bills are concerned. It all goes through the committee process,” Hershey said.
He called former state Sen. Thomas “Mac” Middleton, D28-Charles, a “great friend” to the Eastern Shore because of his support of Chestertown’s hospital. That Middleton was voted out in his primary was “devastating news” to Hershey.
Middleton was chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, leaving questions for some state lawmakers, including Hershey.
“It could be very different. So a lot of people are kind of standing on the outside and wondering how we’re going to operate in Annapolis,” Hershey said.
Jacobs said it’s going to be an interesting session this year.
“We’re going to have to see what kind of ideas the enormous amount of new legislators. A third of my committee are going to be brand-new people,” Jacobs said.
Arentz, who serves on the House Economic Matters Committee, said he has “a little different perspective on things” due to the results of the mid-terms.
“I think in Maryland right now with this last election, we almost have three parties. We have the Republican party, the Democrat party, and then we have this far left party that’s come in here with some of these progressives, if you will, and I think it’s going to be an interesting dynamic in how we work through those issues,” Arentz said.
Arentz said the assembly should be “interesting and it’s going to be fun and it’s almost going to be a shooting match if you will.”
Ghrist said spoke about the shifting dynamic within the assembly. He said he was talking with a Democratic senator who does not know what to expect.
Ghrist called Middleton one of the most effective legislators in the assembly and criticized him being voted out.
“Unfortunately, his district voted him out and voted in a much more progressive Democrat in his place, which to me makes absolutely no sense,” Ghrist said. “After some of these outstanding moderate legislators lost their seats to very, very far left progressives. So we don’t know. The Democrats don’t know what to do. The Republicans really don’t know where we are headed, so time will certainly tell.”
Hershey touched on topical issues facing this session like re-districting, minimum wage, solar energy and health care.
“One of (Gov. Larry Hogan’s) biggest issues that you may have heard about already is he’s talking about redistricting. He wants to get an independent commission to draw the lines as we are coming up with our 2020 census that will occur,” Hershey said, noting that by 2022, the next gubernatorial election, new districts will be drawn.
Hershey said Hogan wants to have “fair” district lines drawn, which he said is “something we can all get behind.”
“We’re 100 percent behind that,” Hershey said. “That’s the way we want to go. We want to see fair districts and make sure that the lines are drawn fairly and make sure we get groups that are contiguous together that are represented by like-minded people.”
Hershey said he is expecting a lot of labor bills, including one to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour.
He said there are pros and cons to raising the minimum wage.
“We feel that hurts a number of businesses, especially in the hospitality tourism businesses, that we represent. We are going to try to find ways that maybe we can zone that or make differences based on geography,” Hershey said.
He said in rural areas, a higher minimum wage “might not be appropriate.”
“Maybe we can get a different type of number of get or get a fair wage that is based on season help,” Hershey said. “We’ll look to see if we can make changes like that.”
As far as renewable energy, Hershey said there is a big push to increase the state’s renewable energy sources to 50 percent by 2030 where as the state is currently at 25 percent by 2020. He said there is push for solar carve out, or a state’s solar-incentive program that provides panel owners with solar renewable energy credits based on the amount of energy they produce.
Hershey said currently the carve out is at 2 or 2½ percent for solar. There is a push to increase the carve out to 14½ percent. He said to get to 14 percent, there would need to be about 45,000 acres of solar.
“We know here in the rural counties that we’ll be targeted for these big, massive solar projects,” Hershey said. “And we’ve fought hard in the past to make sure that counties have some say in the matter as far as zoning and that they’ll have the ability to plan the areas where they will have solar and will not have solar.”
In regards to health care, Hershey said he is looking at getting a “different type of reimbursement schedule” for Chestertown’s hospital. He said currently, Maryland’s hospitals receive money in one lump sum that is divided between all the hospitals.
“If we get any more money, obviously one of the other hospitals would lose money,” Hershey said. “However, we also want to make sure we have the appropriate level of quality medical services provided, so some of the other hospitals are starting to recognize that that would be important.”
Jacobs, who serves on the House Environment and Transportation Committee, said the record rainfall the Shore has experienced during 2018 is impacting the health of the Chesapeake Bay and will be a subject of discussion during the assembly.
“The Bay is really in pretty rough shape,” Jacobs said.
He said the health of the Bay had made a lot of improvements in years past, but this year has taken the health back again. However, he said debris from the Conowingo Dam washing into the Annapolis harbor helped make the western shore leaders aware of issues the Eastern Shore has been dealing with.
“It was good for us. We’ve been talking about this for years. They got to experience it in Annapolis and at Sandy Point, so it will make legislation a little easier for me,” Jacobs said.
He called the reservoir at the Conowingo Dam being filled a very serious problem.
Additionally, he said raw sewage coming out of Baltimore serious is another serious issue.
“It has a huge impact on us as far as quality of the Bay and what it means to farmers meeting goals. I mean, there’s a lot of stuff in play right now environmentally,” Jacobs said. “I’m sure I’ll have some legislation that has to do with the Conowingo and its debris clean up.”
He said the first bill in his committee will be one on the prohibition of dredge oysters.
When asked about a potential third crossing of the Bay landing in Kent County, Jacobs said “we’ll vote it down.”
Jacobs said he also expects to see a big push to legalize recreational marijuana. He said he is not sure what will happen with it, however, because of the change of legislators.
He said he also expects a push to raise the age for purchasing cigarettes from 18 to 21.
“That’s going to be a big push this year. I’m not sure who is going to enforce all that. We’ve got a big push with opioids, and I hope it doesn’t take any police time away patrolling cigarette use,” Jacobs said.
Arentz said he also will focus on health care with regard to the opioid crisis and mental health care in Maryland.
Arentz said Comptroller Peter Franchot is pushing for alcohol regulations to be more friendly to micro-breweries.
Ghrist, who sits on the House Appropriations Committee, said there may be about a $1 billion surplus in revenue. He said the issues is to decide what to do with this money, put it in reserve or spend it now.
State Sen. Steve Hershey, right, R-36-Upper Shore, speaks about what he expects to see during the 90-day Maryland General Assembly session, which began Jan. 9, during the pre-session legislative breakfast held Jan. 7 at Heron Point. Also shown are Del. Jay Jacobs, left, R-36-Kent, and Del. Steve Arentz, R-36-Queen Anne’s.