House OKs Dredge Ban; Insurance Bill Dies

ANNAPOLIS – Several bills of local importance started to
finally move in the General Assembly this week as the session rolled into the
homestretch, including the death of a bill that would have prevented big
insurance carriers such as Allstate from pulling out of coastal areas in the
state, and new life for a bill that would prevent hydraulic dredging for clams
and oysters in the Atlantic coastal bays.

After several weeks of hearings and posturing, the session
heated up this week with significant committee votes on both sides of the
aisle. For example, the Senate Finance Committee this week voted down a bill
that would have forced insurance carriers such as Allstate, Nationwide and
State Farm, for example, to continue to offer homeowner policies in at-risk
coastal areas of the state and the House committee followed suit and withdrew
the legislation.

The bill was cross-filed in the House and Senate in
response to Allstate’s announcement late last year it would no longer offer
homeowner policies in coastal areas of Maryland including Worcester County
because of the perceived risk of sea level rise and dire forecasts of increased
storm activity. Allstate reversed its position at the opening of the General
Assembly when state lawmakers basically told the insurance carrier if it wanted
to write homeowner policies in some areas of Maryland, it could not decide to
not write policies in other so-called at-risk areas.

However, the bill died this week when the Senate Finance
Committee voted down the measure and the House Economic Committee withdrew its
cross-filed bill. With the death of the bill, Allstate and other carriers will
likely follow through on their threat to no longer write homeowner policies in
coastal areas.

Local representatives this week voiced concern over the
bill’s death. For example, Senator Lowell Stoltzfus (R-38), who represents
Worcester County, said it was unfair for big insurance companies to pick and
choose where they want to do business in Maryland.

“It’s unfortunate that bill died,” he said. “I would have
voted for it. If these companies want to do business in Maryland, they should
do it in all of Maryland.”

Delegate Jim Mathias, who also supported the bill, said
the insurance carriers are in the business of taking risks and that includes
writing policies in at-risk areas.

“They shouldn’t be able to have it both ways,” he said.
“They’re in the business of managing risk. It’s not selling ice cream cones or
caramel popcorn. This is what they do.”

Another major piece of legislation that finally moved in
the General Assembly this week was a cross-filed bill that would prevent
hydraulic dredging for oysters and clams in the coastal bays. A similar bill
introduced last year by the late Delegate Bennett Bozman was approved by the
House but died on the Senate floor as the session expired.

This week, the House Economic Matters Committee adopted
the coastal bays dredging prohibition bill on Monday and the Senate Education,
Health and Environmental Affairs committee followed suit on Wednesday.
Yesterday, the bill was approved by the full House by a vote of 110-28, which
will likely cinch the deal for the legislation. The full Senate has not voted
on the bill, but with full House approval and Senate committee approval, it
appears the dredging prohibition will soon become law.

Mathias, who co-sponsored the bill on the House side, was
pleased with the outcome.

“This was another tough issue, but I’m very pleased it
looks like its going to make it through,” he said. “If we’ve learned anything
these last seven years, it’s how much the world has changed. This is good news
for the coastal bays.”

Stoltzfus, on the other hand, was despondent over the news
the dredging bill had been passed by the full House and appeared to be cruising
toward approval by the Senate. Stoltzfus said he had worked out a compromise in
recent weeks that would have continued the Department of Natural Resources
(DNR) limited entry policy for dredging in the coastal bays and allowed the
handful of watermen still working clam and oyster fishery to continue to do so.

Many of those families will feel economic hardship caused
the apparent closure of the coastal bays to clam and oyster dredging.

“This bill has been the biggest heartache of my session
this year,” said Stoltzfus. “I’m hugely disappointed. I had worked out a
compromise where we could have found a balance, but it now appears that
opportunity is lost. I wanted to find some middle ground where we could protect
the bays and allow those families to continue to thrive, but that isn’t going
to happen now.”

While the coastal insurance bill died and the hydraulic
dredging ban moved closer to becoming law, several other bills of local
importance inched closer to the finish line this week. For example, a bill that
would require carbon monoxide detectors in Maryland, which loosely parallels
the ordinance approved by the Ocean City Council last year, sailed through the
House with a 136-0 vote and awaits action by the full House and a Senate
Committee.

Also,
a handful of bills including one which would expand the powers of the Worcester
County Sheriff passed a House committee by a 134-0 vote and a Senate committee
by a 47-0 vote. 

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