Legislative Digest, Hydraulic Clam Dredging A Hot Issue In Annapolis

OCEAN CITY – In this week’s legislative digest, the House of Delegates begins the “right to die” debate, a bill focused on the Coastal Bays aims to put the “hydraulic” back into clam dredging, a Senate bill aims to give municipalities a little more muscle to fight “blight” and the governor shows that he is a big supporter of the arts.

Hydraulic Clam Dredging Bill Introduced In House

Local delegates Mary Beth Carozza (R-District 38C) and Charles Otto (R-District 38A) have co-sponsored House Bill 916 that would authorize the use of hydraulic dredging to catch hard-shell clams between the Verrazano Bridge and the Maryland-Virginia state line. The bill would also limit the length of the “tooth bar” on the hydraulic dredge to 28 inches.  In addition, the bill would establish daily catch limits (4,000 per licensee, 8,000 per vessel) and specify a season for hard-shell clam catching (Nov. 1-March 31).

Opponents, such as the Maryland Saltwater Sportfishing Association, say allowing this type of dredging would damage the already struggling sea grasses in the Coastal Bays and increase turbidity, which is essentially the murkiness or cloudiness of the water.

“It was proven years ago that the clams were nearly depleted and the methods used to harvest had caused lasting damage,” said representatives from the MSSA in a statement this week. “After years of commercial clamming being closed, both the grasses and clams are starting to recover. Do we want to start depleting these important bivalves again and further destroy our sea floor and natural grasses?”

Delegate Jay A. Jacobs (R-District 36) is the primary sponsor on the bill.

In 2015, he introduced a similar bill that would allow power dredging of oyster beds just north of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. That bill was withdrawn after an unfavorable the Environment and Transportation Committee and was withdrawn.

Jacobs is an Eastern Shore native and former Mayor of Rock Hall and has long been an advocate for watermen and farming.

Critics say the bill could struggle to get out of committee, however, pointing to the fact that there are only Republican co-sponsors on the bill. Furthermore, the MSSA statement criticizes the proposed catch limits, which would allow each vessel to harvest up to 100,000 pounds per year, calling them “extremely high” and would “deplete our clams, destroy our waterways and our way of life.”

A public hearing on the bill will be held in Annapolis on Feb. 26 in front of the House Environment and Transportation Committee.

Record Funding For Arts?

Governor Larry Hogan is backing the arts in the state of Maryland in a big way. Hogan proposed $20.3 million in funding for the Maryland State Arts Council, which would significantly boost support to hundreds of arts organizations, local arts councils, and community development grants in all 24 Maryland counties.

“The arts are not only an important economic generator in Maryland, they are also essential to educating children, spurring creativity and innovation and maintaining our overall quality of life,” Hogan said.

The funding marks a potential $700,000 increase from last year and Hogan’s budget also introduces a measure to permanently transfer $2 million from the special fund for Preservation of Cultural Arts to the Art Council’s yearly appropriation.

“The first lady and I have a deep connection to the arts and believe an investment in the arts is an investment in Maryland’s future,” said Hogan.

Right-To-Die Debate Takes Center Stage

A panel from the House of Delegates will meet on Feb. 19 to discuss a bill (HB0404) that would allow terminally ill patients to take life-ending medication.  A similar bill, often called the “death with dignity” bill, was proposed last session, but was struck down before a vote was even cast on it. Maryland was one of 15 states that considered right to die legislation, but to date, only Oregon, Washington and Vermont have statutes that allow terminal patients to ask for medication that would hasten their death.  California has passed such legislation, but it hasn’t taken effect yet. Right-to-die advocates didn’t expect Maryland to be the next state to approve such legislation, but those advocates received a bit of a boost as Maryland House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) said last October that he would support a law to legalize aid in dying in Maryland as long as the bill had “proper restrictions and guidelines.”

Delegate Shane E. Pendergrass (D-Howard County) is the lead sponsor of the bill in the House and Senator Ronald N. Young (D-Frederick County) is the lead sponsor of the corresponding senate version of the bill, SB0418.

Voting Back To Paper

The Maryland State Board of Elections recently announced that when you cast your early vote in the Maryland primary in April, you will be doing it on a paper ballot.

“Because of the number of candidates on this election’s ballot, I was concerned that voters may not easily be able to find their candidate of choice”, said state administrator Linda H. Lamone. “When we heard from voters having trouble making selections and navigating in contests with many candidates, we thought that hand marking paper ballots was the best option.”

The move to get Maryland back to paper ballots has been a slow one since the General Assembly passed legislation to transition from the touchscreen technology that voters had used since 2002, back to paper ballots.  Due to lack of funding for voter outreach education, the new digital scanner machines that the paper ballots will be fed into after a person casts their vote are finally ready for action this April.

However, each polling place will have a special touch-screen kiosk for people with disabilities.

Ironically, the move back to paper ballots in this election had a lot to do with the sheer number of people running for elected office in Maryland, in addition to the Presidential race.

Simply put, to see all of the candidates in certain races, a voter would have to scroll back and forth between two screens, and the state board of elections deemed that to be potentially too confusing, and some candidates threatened legal action for being placed on the second or third touch screens.  The other concern critics say, is that this new way of casting a vote could create delays at polling places, but, all things considered, state officials called the move back to paper ballots the fairest and most reasonable solution.

Assateague Included In President’s Budget

While it may be considered a minor line item in President Barack Obama’s final budget, which includes $4.1 trillion in spending for FY 2017, Assateague Island National  Seashore stands to benefit from at least $600,000 of that money for a restoration project that would dredge more sand from the area near the Ocean City Inlet navigation channel and placing the sand back on the Island just south of the Inlet.

This work will be done to mitigate the impacts on erosion caused the by Inlet and its jetties, according to the US Army Corps of Engineers.  The money allotted for the Assateague dredging is wrapped into the Army Corp’s $109.3 million budget.

Bills Aims To Fight ‘Blight’

Senator John Astle (D-Annapolis) has sponsored legislation that will give municipalities throughout the state a way to monitor and potentially punish the owners of vacant or blighted buildings.

Senate Bill 248 would create registries of vacant buildings and form remediation funds from a special tax rate that would fund repairs for the blighted buildings.

Towns like Snow Hill, Berlin and Cambridge could benefit from a bill like this as they have long struggled with convincing owners to repair their vacant or dilapidated structures.

The bill outlines that violators would be charged with a misdemeanor and could face fines up to $1,000.  If passed, the bill would take effect Oct. 1.

About The Author: Bryan Russo

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Bryan Russo returned to The Dispatch in 2015 to serve as News Editor after working as a staff writer from 2007-2010 covering the Ocean City news beat. In between, Russo worked as the Coastal Reporter for NPR-member station WAMU 88.5FM in Washington DC and WRAU 88.3 FM on the Delmarva Peninsula. He was the host of a weekly multi-award winning public affairs show “Coastal Connection.” During his five years in public radio, Russo’s work won 19 Associated Press Awards and 2 Edward R. Murrow Awards and was heard on various national programs like NPR’s All Things Considered, Morning Edition, APM’s Marketplace and the BBC. Russo also worked for the Associated Press (Philadelphia Bureau) covering the NHL and the NBA and is a critically acclaimed singer/songwriter and composer.