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.'