Below are the legislative highlights for the 1996 Maryland session:
Fisheries management: A bill supported by the Maryland delegation to the Chesapeake Bay Commission that would have required certain non-commercial crabbers to obtain a license failed to pass. It is likely that the proposal will be raised in next year's legislative session.
Dredge Material: The General Assembly approved budget bill language calling for state and federal agencies to work with representatives of the shipping industry to find long-term, environmentally sound strategies for the disposal of dredge material from the shipping channels serving the Port of Baltimore. Existing upper Bay sites are near capacity, spurring the need for other options, including one to dispose of dredge material in the Bay's "deep trough," or center channel. This option is considered controversial because of the unknown impacts on the Bay's living resources.
The budget language highlighted the need for several island restoration projects and short-term, open-water disposal options as a part of a long-term strategy. It requires the Department of Transportation, working with other state agencies, to submit an upper Bay placement plan to the Maryland General Assembly by Sept. 1. The strategy must include the creation of one or more artificial islands and the development of environmentally sound, open-water placement options to handle short-term maintenance dredging. In addition, the department must identify by Jan. 1, 1997, additional sites in the upper Bay to address the anticipated needs of the ports for at least 20 years. If that deadline is not met, the department will be required to fund a study of the deep trough as a potential disposal site.
Invasive Species: A bill establishing a phragmites control program for Maryland was adopted. Phragmites is an invasive plant spreading rapidly throughout tidal and non-tidal wetlands in the Bay watershed, disrupting natural wetland plant communities and the myriad of wildlife species that depend on them. The bill, sponsored by Commission member Del. Michael H. Weir, establishes a cost-sharing program to help private landowners control phragmites. Funds for the program will come from the Tidal and Nontidal Wetlands Compensation Funds, the Wildlife Management and Protection Fund and federal sources.
Open Space Protection: An administration proposal regarding Program Open Space was adopted that delays for one year the full implementation of the "lift-the-cap" formula established under earlier legislation. The lift-the-cap formula was intended to gradually return full funding to the program from realty tax revenues. The revenue cap, currently at 90 percent, was to go to 100 percent in fiscal year 1997. The bill will delay that action for one year.
A bill was adopted which extends a "wildlands" designation to more than 22,000 acres of state land. This bill would generally restrict such activities as logging and mining on designated lands, nearly doubling the acreage of ecosystem protection statewide. After amendments were added to address some concerns of timber and mining interests over the uses of certain tracts of land, the Assembly adopted the bill.
Industrial Revitalization: Several bills were introduced to provide incentives to companies that develop abandoned industrial sites, known as "brownfields." Under the proposals, businesses that agreed to remediate and redevelop contaminated industrial sites would have been afforded low-interest loans and grants and would have been protected from liability or regulatory actions related to the preexisting conditions. The bills did not pass.
Regulatory Standards: A bill was defeated which would have prohibited any state government unit from adopting regulations that are more restrictive than federal standards, unless an economic analysis was conducted to justify the regulation.
Meanwhile, Gov. Parris Glendening signed an executive order requiring that any state agency proposing a regulation more stringent than an applicable federal standard must identify the benefit to public health, safety and welfare, or the environment expected from the regulation. The proposed regulation can be justified if the benefits exceed the costs incurred by the regulated community, if interests special to the state of Maryland are protected, or if protections afforded by federal standards are deemed insufficient.
A bill sponsored by Chesapeake Bay Commission member Del. Charles A. McClenahan was adopted that requires state agencies to perform an economic impact analysis on the effect of new regulations on small businesses. The analysis must be submitted to the Department of Fiscal Service for comment. While the bill does not preclude the enactment of regulations with significant economic impacts, it does provide additional information for public comment and legislative review.