Senate Supports Stoltzfus, Rejects Dredging Ban

ANNAPOLIS – A bill that would prohibit hydraulic dredging
for clams and oysters in the coastal bays, which appeared on its way to almost
certain approval just a week ago, apparently died this week in the Maryland
General Assembly when a veteran local senator exerted his political clout to
get the votes to kill it.

House Bill 964, introduced by Delegates James Mathias and
Norman Conway, both of District 38B, which includes all of Worcester and part
of Wicomico counties, was approved by the entire House by a vote of 109-29 last
week.

The cross-filed Senate Bill 374 appeared to be on the same
course after approval on first reading by the entire Senate, but Senator Lowell
Stoltzfus (R-38), who strongly opposed the measure because of its predicted
impact on the handful of watermen who still dredge the local bays for clams and
oysters, flexed his considerable political muscle this week and got the votes
to kill the bill on the Senate side on second reading by a narrow 26-20 margin.

As a result, the Senate’s disapproval likely means the
death of the bill for another year. There is still an opportunity for the
proponents of the bill to get the legislation back in front of the Senate for
another vote, but with the session winding down and hundreds of other bills
still on lawmakers’ plates, it appears unlikely the Senate will take up the
issue again.

The dynamics of how the hydraulic dredge bill was
apparently killed this week presented an interesting contrast between the
veteran Stoltzfus and the freshman Mathias. Although Conway’s name was on the
House bill as a sponsor, it was Mathias who was out in front on the issue, and
the bill’s apparent defeat illustrates the power of years of alliances and
allegiances forged by Stoltzfus.

When he needed them the most, Stoltzfus was able to call
in some markers and cash in some chips to get the votes needed to kill the
bill. It remains to be seen if Mathias can persuade his allies in the Senate to
get the bill back on the floor for another vote, but for the time being, it
appears Stoltzfus has won the skirmish over a highly charged local issue.

Stoltzfus was hardly celebrating his apparent victory on
the bill this week, but he did express some contentment with his ability to get
the votes needed to halt its progress in the Senate.

“I don’t enjoy killing somebody else’s bill, but at the
same time, I do take some satisfaction in knowing I was able to help the
families that were going to be most affected by this,” he said. “There
certainly isn’t any gloating.”

Instead, Stoltzfus said the apparent victory was
bittersweet, but stood by his motivation for killing the bill, which is the
obvious benefit to the handful of families trying to scratch out a living on
the bays.

“I have mixed feelings about this,” he said. “I’m not
happy about killing a bill, but I am happy for the watermen who were going to
be devastated by this. One woman told me she would likely have to sell her
house.”

Stoltzfus was despondent last week when the bill was
approved by the full House and passed on first reading by the full Senate. Last
week, he said he was “very saddened” and “hugely disappointed” and called the
bill’s apparent passage “the biggest heartache of my session this year.” This week,
he expressed satisfaction the bill’s apparent defeat will allow state
regulatory agencies and the local Maryland Coastal Bays Program to move forward
with their less onerous limited entry policies for dredging in the coastal
bays.

“I’m happy because I think we now have a place to find
some middle ground,” he said. “If the bill stays dead, the DNR can move forward
with its limited entry program.”

The senator cited scientific evidence, including a 2002
study that found the bay bottom recovers rather quickly from the damage caused
by dredging. He also pointed out the law already prohibits dredging within 100
yards of the shoreline and that DNR already delineates where the sea grass beds
are and those areas are already off limits.

For his part, Mathias said the Senate vote was a setback,
but he remains confident the bill can be brought back to the Senate for another
vote. However, it could be difficult with the clock ticking and less than two
weeks now left in the session.

“I remain hopeful we can get this back in front of the
Senate for another vote and I’m confident we can find the four votes needed to
swing it around the other way,” he said. “The problem now is timing. Every day
is like a week now with the session winding down and so many issues still on the
table.”

Mathias said the importance of the bill should not be
overlooked. He also said it was one of the most closely watched and tracked by
the citizens of his district.

“This is a critical bill,” he said. “This is one of the
most critical pieces of legislation for our area this year.”

Mathias remains hopeful the bill can live another day. He
also said the debate sparked by the legislation is healthy for the coastal bays
regardless of what happens with the legislation.

“I’m
hopeful it can be revived,” he said. “I’m hopeful for the water quality benefit
and the health of the coastal bays. This has the added benefit of lifting the
consciousness about the health of the bays.” 

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