Say What? Maryland Legislators Score Well with Environmentalists & Businesses

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Environmentalists and business groups generally give very different ratings of Maryland legislators based on their votes. But in scorecards just released by the Maryland League of Conservation Voters and Maryland Business for Responsive Government almost all Annapolis lawmakers improved their scores with both groups.

Democrats, as usual, scored much higher on the environment and Republicans scored significantly better on business issues.

“This year, Maryland legislators earned significantly higher scores for their environmental votes than in years past,” said Marcia Verploegen Lewis, chair of Maryland LCV. “We believe this is because of our work in educating legislators over the years about these urgent issues and the bipartisan support for these priorities in Maryland.”

“Generally, the legislature assumed a more moderate stance this year on issues that affect business and jobs in Maryland,” said MBRG President Duane Carey. “We have a long way to go, but we are giving credit to the General Assembly for avoiding tax increases and publicly acknowledging the need to improve our business climate.”

LCV used four votes to rate the legislators related to fracking, climate change and changing the rain tax (stormwater fee) mandate. Senate Democrats earned an average score of 95% (most scored 100%), Senate Republicans averaged 46%, as did House Republicans. House Democrats averaged 99%.

Here is the complete LCV scorecard.

Business group operates differently

The business group operates very differently from the League of Conservation Voters, which actively lobbies lawmakers on bills it favors. LCV took great pride that its members made 1,000 phone calls and sent 10,000 emails to legislators advocating for and against legislation.

MBRG does not lobby or identify legislation it backs, and sometime uses little noticed legislation to make an assessment, such as its opposition to the expansion of punitive damages for drunk driving lawsuits. MBRG opposes any attempt to weaken “Maryland’s appropriately stringent standard for awarding punitive damages” in any kind of lawsuit, it said in its 2015 Roll Call report.

In that report, based on eight Senate votes and 11 votes in the House, nine senators and 34 delegates, all Republicans, scored 100%, while seven Democratic senators scored below 30%.

Perhaps most telling are the top scorers for veteran Democrats who have served more than four years, four-term Del. Eric Bromwell of Baltimore County with lifetime MBRG score of 59% (71% in 2015) and five-term Sen. James Ed DeGrange of Anne Arundel County with a score of 68% (60% in 2015).

Somewhat reflecting the shift in State House politics or just the votes MBRG chose this year, both longtime Democratic presiding officers of the Senate and House improved their scores from last year.

Senate President Mike Miller of Calvert and Prince George’s counties went up from 25% to 60% with a lifetime cumulative score of 55%. House Speaker Michael Busch went up from 30% to 43% with a cumulative score of 47%.

Two Republican delegates in their second four-year terms scored 100% — Kathy Afzali of Frederick County and House Minority Whip Kathy Szeliga of Baltimore and Harford counties. Republican Sen. Ed Reilly of Anne Arundel County was the top Senate veteran with 98%.

By Len Lazarick

Education: Schools Must Choose More Standardized Tests in the Fall

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Maryland public school systems will weigh this summer whether to add more standardized testing for 11th grade students in an effort to conform to a new state law that kicks in during the 2015-2016 academic year.

They face a choice of whether to add two Common Core-aligned tests to assess college and career readiness, or use scores from one of several already established college entrance exams like the SAT. It’s also possible students who take a college placement exam could be exempt from taking PARCC in school systems who elect to use it.

“Local systems will have to identify by September/October if they will use PARCC tests or a different assessment for determination of college and career readiness,” said Maryland State Department of Education spokesman William Reinhard.

A state law passed in 2013 requires all 11th graders be tested for college readiness in English language arts, literacy and mathematics by the end of 2015-2016 school year.

State board votes

“Each district will determine what test they will use,” said State Superintendent of Schools Lillian Lowery at the June 23 State Board of Education (SBOE) meeting.

While the 2013 law calls for college placement scores to determine readiness, state education board members approved the use of the PARCC English 11 and PARCC Algebra II assessments — for students enrolled in those courses — last week.

The board voted 8-0-2. Andrew Smarick, a Hogan appointee, and board member Larry Giammo abstained from voting.

“I want more information,” Smarick said. “I’m in favor of giving [local school systems] more discretion over assessment decisions at the high school level, but there are a lot of ripples from testing decisions.”

The 2016 state education budget includes $913,200 for the PARCC English 11 and $837,100 for the PARCC Algebra II assessments, totaling $1,750,300. If school systems choose not to use the PARCC tests, there will be no state funding to cover the alternate tests.

The estimated PARCC test costs were based on all eligible students within the state. Any unused funding will be returned to the state education budget, Reinhard said.

Educators happy

A spokesman from the Maryland State Education Association (MSEA), which represents 71,000 educators in Maryland, said they were happy the State Board gave county school systems a choice in using the PARCC assessments.

“In too many instances, tests are mandated before their effectiveness is proven,” said MSEA spokesman Adam Mendelson.

However, Mendelson also noted that educators were continuing to monitor the amount of testing taking place and will continue to fight for restoring time for more student learning.

“While the effect of this decision by the State Board remains to be seen, increases on top of the already large testing burden facing our students would be a step in the wrong direction.”

SAT can replace PARCC

Students in school systems who choose to use the PARCC tests may still take the SAT or another college placement exam. Students taking the SAT, for example, could be exempted from taking the PARCC tests if they score at a certain level, said MSDE Deputy State Superintendent Dr. Jack Smith.

“Indeed, it is likely that students interested in going to a four-year college will do this,” said MSDE spokesman William Reinhard.

Last year, he said 41,620 out of 59,018 graduating seniors — about 70% — had taken the SAT in Maryland.

State law does not require students to pass the exams in order to advance to the 12th grade. However, students who do not achieve the minimum scores will be required to enroll in a transition course in their senior year.

PARCC English 9 and PARCC geometry tests were also approved for use in schools for students enrolled in those classes. The PARCC geometry test could replace the mandatory middle school math 8 test for middle school students taking geometry. Smith estimates some 5,000 middle school students take geometry.

“We think the student should take a course reflecting the course they are in, not a different test because the federal government says a test has to exist,” Smith said. “It’s all about making it more effective and more efficient.”

English 9 tests could be used by some school systems to gauge where a student is academically and make determinations for the future. It would not, however, replace any required tests, Smith said.

The state education department budgeted $989,000 for the geometry test and $989,000 for the English 9 test. The state education department, however, does not expect that all school systems will use all four of the newly approved PARCC tests next year.

“English 9, I would predict, maybe no one will use at all next year,” Smith said.

By Glynis Kazanjian

 

Gov. Larry Hogan Announces Cancer Diagnosis

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For weeks, we’ve been anticipating a major announcement from Gov. Larry Hogan up or down on the Purple Line. But as his family filed into the State House reception room Monday afternoon, even from afar, it was clear this announcement was not about mass transit.

As is typical with this tight-lipped administration, word had not leaked about the shocking news that the governor had a very virulent form of cancer (lymphoma) that was eating him up from within. There had even been some misinformation about a bug he caught in Korea on a trade trip.

Five months to the day since he took office, Hogan was again confronted with the awful and unexpected as he had been with the Baltimore uprising in April. This time the disruption was more personal, and he confronted it in the same way; plain, direct, forceful and with considerably more humor than could be expected. The state of emergency this time was his own.

He lightened the scary announcement by joking he had “much, much better odds” at beating the big C than he had beating Anthony Brown last year.

Believing he can win

Hogan may have been one of the few people early on to actually believe he could defeat Brown. But having seen that resolve carry him on an improbable path to victory, defeating this disease seems less improbable.

Even as spoke of this battle, and the 18 weeks of aggressive treatment, he stayed on political message. You probably won’t see it on most of the TV clips, since it sounds like a loop of his campaign speech, but you can see it here in the video, as he talks about the odds in this fight being better than the odds on repealing the rain tax, delivering tax relief, reining in state spending without tax increases or reducing tolls.

Given those odds, this guy does not expect to lose this fight.

Choosing Rutherford

Hogan’s decision to choose Boyd Rutherford as lieutenant governor looks even wiser in this perspective of a man who will need a good second-in-command to run the government when he is ill. As secretary of the Department of General Services in the Ehrlich administration, Rutherford acquired a wide knowledge of state government, and attended scores of meetings of the Board of Public Works that he will be chairing more often. Low-key, steady and less political, Rutherford seems a good complement to a governor always in a campaign mode.

Hogan insists he will continue to work at running the government. Yes, he’ll lose his hair — adding to the growing collection of photos of Hogan in hats — and lose some weight. It’s likely that on some days the governor will look like death warmed over.

But he has promises to keep, and he made this last promise.

“I won’t just beat this disease. I’ll be a better and stronger person and governor when we get to the other side of it.”

If he does overcome the Big C, the big Ds of Mike Miller and Mike Busch won’t look so formidable.

By Len Lazarick

Concerns Mount on Pennsylvania Nitrogen Pollution Coming Into the Bay

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U.S. senators from Maryland and Pennsylvania are raising concerns over the nitrogen levels in the Susquehanna River, which in turn threatens the health of the Chesapeake Bay. They are calling on the U.S. Department of Agriculture to increase aid to watershed states.

In a letter sent last week to U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Maryland Senator Ben Cardin and Pennsylvania Senator Bob Casey Jr., both Democrats, suggested inadequate federal resources are causing shortfalls in Pennsylvania’s nitrogen reduction through the federally mandated Watershed Implementation Plan (WIP).

“The USDA must live up to the leadership role it’s been given in our region by providing improved financial and technical resources necessary for the Susquehanna River Basin and Chesapeake Bay Watershed farmers to meet the goals of the state WIPs,” said the letter.

Through quoting the 2009 Chesapeake Bay Executive Order, Cardin and Casey outlined the secretary’s duty to concentrate federal programs within priority areas located in Chesapeake Bay counties.

“We expect USDA to fulfill its legal duty to provide greater resources to farmers in the Susquehanna River Basin and Chesapeake Bay Watershed,” they stated.

Nitrogen Reduction Falling Short

The senators’ unease arose from the 2014 Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint, which calls for greater nitrogen reductions.

While Pennsylvania has met some goals, on-track to reduce phosphorous and sediment pollution by 60% in 2017, nitrogen levels remain a problem.

“Pennsylvania has made progress in the agriculture and wastewater sectors to ensure implementation is occurring, even though all its milestone commitments were not achieved,” said the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in its February 2015 assessment. “However, projected reductions for nitrogen would be substantially behind schedule.”

Farmers’ Efforts Unrecognized?

The Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, representing 60,000 farms and rural families across the state, believes the EPA’s computer calculations misrepresent pollution reduction efforts along the Susquehanna.

The EPA measured only federal cost-share programs going into effect, also known as Best Management Practices (BMP).

But BMP programs like riparian buffers, vegetated buffers, contour strips and no-till farming are in many cases fully paid for and implemented by farmers themselves, therefore not measured in the report, according to the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau.

“One of the top frustrations among Pennsylvania farmers located in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed has been the lack of credit they receive for all of the efforts they’ve taken to reduce runoff and soil erosion,” said Mark O’Neill, director of media and strategic communications.

The farm bureau would welcome additional federal funding for technical assistance, in order to help the farmers paying for BMP programs, he said.

Pollutants in the Susquehanna

Screen Shot 2015-06-03 at 8.02.01 AM

The Susquehanna River stretches 464 miles through Pennsylvania, New York and Maryland, picking up nitrogen, phosphorous and sediment along its way. It provides half of the freshwater flowing into the Chesapeake Bay,

As of 2009, the EPA estimated Pennsylvania to be the source of nearly half the nitrogen running into the bay (44%). The Susquehanna was estimated to be carrying 46% of all nitrogen entering the bay.

Earlier this month the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission (PFBC) and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service confirmed a cancerous tumor found on the lip of a small-mouth bass caught on the river last year.

The PFCB press release indicated finding cancerous tumors in fish is extremely rare.

Groups like the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) and PFCB believe this case will draw attention to their concern over the health of the lower 98 miles of the river, claiming it is “compromised,” and needs a restoration plan.

According to the Bay Foundation, about 19,000 miles of Pennsylvania’s rivers and streams are impaired.

“As we continue to study the river, we find young-of-year and now adult bass with sores, lesions and more recently a cancerous tumor,” said Pa. Fish and Boat Commission Executive Director John Arway. “We’ve known the river has been sick since 2005, when we first started seeing lesions on the smallmouth. Now we have more evidence to further the case for impairment.”

While agriculture is not the only contributing factor for an unhealthy bay, it is a large contributor.

“Sediment and nutrient runoff from farm fields and suburban and urban lawns and hard surfaces are two of three leading sources of stream impairment,” said CBF Pennsylvania Executive Director Harry Campbell.

2017 Programs to Meet 2025 Standards

The Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL), was created in 2010 to put the bay on a “pollution diet.” The plan requires states contributing to the watershed reduce their overall nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment pollution output.

To meet its overall TMDL allocations, Pennsylvania has committed to achieving approximately 75% of its necessary nutrient and sediment reductions from the agricultural sector.

“We are committed to helping our farmers and committed to helping reduce the amount of pollution that reaches the Susquehanna River Basin and Chesapeake Bay Watershed,” said Cardin, who is a senior member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. “We can do both effectively, with the right resources.”

TMDL programs are required to be in place by 2017, in order to have reduced overall pollution by 60% in 2025.

By Rebecca Lessner

 

 

New Law Aims to Protect Oyster Farms from Poachers

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As oyster farming grows in Maryland, legislators moved to protect the product that protects the Chesapeake Bay by enacting HB 287, to help leaseholders of aquaculture plots — oyster beds suspended in open water cages — to recoup damages from poachers.

Those caught poaching would be subject to pay three times the cost of their illegal harvest directly to aquaculture farmers, who are collectively leasing 4,000 acres of the Maryland Bay.

“The state of Maryland has a long history with getting this industry up and running and it’s about ready to take off, as long as we don’t kill it,” said Bill Sponsor Del. Tony O’Donnell, R-Calvert and St. Mary’s.

According to O’Donnell, smaller aquaculture farmers are being hit hard when poachers damage their plots.

Through Submerged Land Leases as well as Water Column Leases from the state, farmers are able to legally grow and harvest oysters on dedicated plots in the Chesapeake Bay. There are currently 319 oyster aquaculture leaseholders within the state, according to the Department of Natural Resources.

Oysters not only filter bay waters, but also are a key anchor in the ecosystem, creating a foundation for bay grasses, which in turn shelter grass shrimp, rockfish and crabs.

Screen Shot 2015-05-27 at 7.04.49 AMIn 2010, Maryland opened 600,000 new acres of the Chesapeake Bay to be leased for oyster harvesting since the current leases were maxed out.

DNR has been accepting new applicants for aquaculture plots since the expansion. Just last year, the value for aquaculture equaled $3 million and the wild harvest exceeded $14 million.

Since industry is growth is new, the Natural Resources Police (NRP) are still focusing primarily on enforcing oyster protection around “sanctuaries,” state protected oyster-beds that are not harvested.

While officers will respond to calls from aqua-farmers, they are not patrolling aquaculture areas as heavily they do oyster-sanctuaries.

Repeat offenders

Natural resources police boat by AccessDNR on Flickr
Natural Resources Police boat by AccessDNR on Flickr Creative Commons License

Candy Thompson, public information officer for Maryland NRP, said the department recognized a need for a crackdown on poaching two years ago, with the implementation of the Maritime Law Enforcement Information Network. This radar works around the clock to monitor commercial fishing practices.

The radar sends an alert to NRP officers whenever a trespasser enters a restricted zone. Thompson compared the system to a “Swiss Army knife,” having more uses than originally intended, including watching oyster sanctuaries. The radar can be used to track poachers outside of sanctuaries, but officers only respond when they get a complaint of poaching.

Earlier this season, Adam Rodney Antes, 32, of Nanticoke, was intercepted by the Natural Resources Police (NRP) in Somerset County while poaching oysters on protected land.

Antes had two bushels of undersized oysters on board his boat, if found guilty of charges he faces a maximum penalty of $8,000. NRP reported this as the third oyster-related charge Antes has received in the last year.

The market price of oysters fluctuates, sometimes the profits of poaching can outweigh the fines. Because of this poachers charged are often repeat offenders.

According to the 2014 Oyster Season Enforcement Report, NRP issued 131 citations and 160 warnings for various oyster violations last year.

Now, aquaculture farmers are also experiencing the effects of poaching.

“These growers cannot lock their doors when they leave their business at the end of the day,” said O’Donnell. “The NRP does not have the personnel to watch them all the time.”

According to O’Donnell, his constituents say the Natural Resources Police are stretched too thin, unable to boat to the oyster bed before the poachers have left.

Now, if the farmer is able to capture video footage and the poacher is caught afterwards by the NRP, they are liable to the leaseholder for damages three times the value of the shellfish harvested, restoration costs and attorney fees.

Oyster Restoration = Bay Restoration

O’Donnell believes helping aquaculture growth in Maryland will also help clean up the bay, as oysters filter phosphorous and nitrogen out of its waters.

“Science has shown that one average oyster can filter fifty gallons of water a day, yet we often forget that as an oyster grows larger, its filtering capabilities increase exponentially,” said the Coastal Conservation Association Maryland (CCA MD) in a letter to DNR.

In order to help these oysters grow larger and increase their population across the bay, conservation advocacy groups are using volunteer programs.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) has been using volunteers to protect baby oysters, called “spat,” in oyster gardens until they are able to mature. Each volunteer grows 1,000 to 2,000 spat in wire mesh cages, suspended from piers into the Bay, over a nine-month period.

In June, the full-grown oysters are returned to CBF, who will then plant the mature oysters in sanctuary reefs. Volunteers who want to continue gardening will pick up a new round of spat, beginning the process again.

With help from oyster gardeners, CBF planted 29 million juvenile oysters throughout the bay last year, with 23.8 million in Maryland.

By Rebecca Lessner

Analysts See ‘Hard Core’ Liberal Democrats Running for U.S. Senate

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Democratic primary voters should find little difference in political ideology between the two candidates running to replace retiring Sen. Barbara Mikulski, according to outside analysts.

Both U.S. Reps. Donna Edwards and Chris Van Hollen are ranked “hard core liberals” by On The Issues, a political website that analyzes policy issues supported by federal, state and local politicians.

Both Edwards and Van Hollen are considered reliable Democrats, who vote with their party 100% of the time, according to The Sunlight Foundation, a national, non-partisan organization that focuses on transparency and accountability in government and politics.

Edwards, of Maryland’s 4th Congressional District, is considered one of the most liberal members in the House of Representatives, ranking among the top 10% of all members, according to GovTrack.us, a government transparency website that tracks legislation in Congress and legislators’ voting records. She is also considered the most liberal of Maryland’s eight-member congressional delegation.

While both politicians share very similar political views, Van Hollen is considered slightly to the right of Edwards because of his willingness to work across the aisle with Republicans.

Sponsoring bills with Republicans

In the 113th Congress, which ran from January 2013 to January 2015, 29% of the 325 bills Van Hollen cosponsored were introduced by someone other than a Democrat, and 37% of bills in which Van Hollen was lead sponsor had Republican co-sponsors.

In contrast, Edwards, has a 0% rating for writing legislation that was also co-sponsored by a Republican, and she is tied for sixth lowest among all House Democrats for co-sponsoring bipartisan legislation.

“Edwards tends to gather co-sponsors only on one side of the aisle,” GovTrack reported.

In a potential larger field of candidates, though, both Edwards and Van Hollen would be considered to the left of center. Prospects like Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger, 2nd congressional district, of Baltimore County and Rep. John Delaney, 6th, of Montgomery County and western Maryland, are shown to be a little more bipartisan.

Ruppersberger ranks the highest amongst Maryland’s delegation for co-sponsoring legislation across the aisle. In the 113th Congress, 46% of the bills Ruppersberger co-sponsored were with members from parties other than Democrats; Delaney came in second at 34%.

“What’s interesting about bringing a Ruppersberger and Delaney dynamic [is], it introduces a more moderate candidate to a Maryland that recently rejected Anthony Brown,” said Mileah Kromer, director of the Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center at Goucher College.

Rep. Elijah Cummings, 7th, ranking member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, and Rep. John Sarbanes, 3rd, have also been reported as considering running for Mikulski’s seat.

Most progressive to most conservative

On a spectrum of most progressive to most conservative, Edwards, Cummings, Van Hollen and Sarbanes – in that order – are considered the most liberal, according to GovTrack, while Delaney and Ruppersberger are considered more moderate.

“Make no mistake about it, Delaney and Ruppersberger are still Democrats,” Kromer said. “They’re just more moderate Democrats.”

According to OpenCongress, an affiliate of the Sunlight Foundation, Ruppersberger votes with his party 94% of the time and Delaney votes with party 85% of the time.

Still blue state

Kromer, who oversees political polls produced by Goucher every spring and fall, said while she thinks there’s an outside chance voters could elect a Republican to the Senate, she still thinks Maryland is a blue state.

“While you hear a lot of talk that Maryland is a purple state now, I don’t think we’ve gotten to that point,” Kromer said. “It’s still a blue state, but I think it will be interesting to see what type of blue state candidate will rise up through the Democratic party.”

Kromer believes the difference between a liberal candidate versus a moderate candidate will boil down to the type of initiatives the senator would throw their weight behind.

“There are two different ways to look at it,” Kromer said. “Does it matter in terms of party line vote, probably not. The difference is, the things they emphasize will be different. A more progressive candidate like Edwards or Van Hollen might throw their weight behind or spearhead different initiatives than a Ruppersberger or Delaney.”

For example, Ruppersberger, who is rated as a “populist leaning liberal” instead of a “hard core liberal,” does not support amnesty for illegal aliens.

Delaney comes from a business background with a history of creating thousands of jobs as chief executive of financial services companies he has founded and taken public.

“It will be interesting to see who Maryland prefers to send,” Kromer said.

By Glynis Kazanjian

Freshman Legislators finds State House not as Partisan as Expected

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The largest freshmen class in 20 years came in swinging at the State House this session, taking over the General Assembly with a “new wave” of bipartisanship.

“It’s just an exciting time to bring fresh, new ideas. I think the body as a whole has been pretty receptive to them,” said Del. Marice Morales, D-Montgomery.

The 57 new delegates and 11 new senators aren’t being shy with their bills. While some thought they would hold off and test the waters, they soon found themselves diving in.

Screen Shot 2015-03-03 at 10.03.16 AM“I meant to introduce maybe only three or four bills, but then over the course of the first month different advocates and senators were looking for crossfiles and sponsors for their legislation. I decided it would be fun to be collaborative,” said Del. David Moon, D-Montgomery County. “So now I have more bills than I intended.”

Sen. Steve Waugh, R-Calvert and St. Mary’s, said his past as a Marine helped him adapt to the legislative process.

After being stationed all over the world and becoming the chief of Combat Operations at Central Command Combined Air Forces, Waugh found that after “running air forces for about a dozen Nations and about 30 countries,” getting dropped into new experiences doesn’t phase him anymore.

At first Waugh was going to stick with an old Navy saying, “Never change the set of the sail the first thirty minutes into the watch,” but he soon changed his tune, “I got a lot of irons in fire, but I like running fast.”

A bipartisan year

Waugh found the amount of bipartisanship in the State House largely contributes to the fast paced process.

“Annapolis is nothing at all like a Sunday morning talk show,” said Waugh. He found a “lack of acrimony and a lack of partisanship so far.”

Morales_Platt
Delegates Andrew Platt and Marice Morales, two freshman Montgomery County Democrats.

Moon echoed these observations. “The hilarity of reading the partisan bickering in the newspaper is very much not how people actually engage with each other here.”

“Our politics might be different but we’re all very personally agreeable, it certainly helps on a lot of issues,” said Del. Andrew Platt, D-Montgomery.

The freshman focus is on getting to know fellow party-mates or legislators across the aisle. Often having dinner and lunch with them to keep up “a constant dialogue over issues,” said Platt.

“Everything is about leveraging relationships…I think about how everything works on the big scheme of things,” said Del. Cory McCray, D-Baltimore City.

Sen. Johnny Ray Salling, R-Baltimore County, has found that both parties have been open to him.

“They let me know the ins and outs, be careful here, protocol. We all have our points, we all have our bills we’re looking at, but we get to know each other’s point of view,” said Salling.

Sen. Bob Cassilly, R-Harford County, found the sincerity of bipartisanship to be overwhelming.

“We often disagree intensely on matters of policy but that appears to rarely interfere with personal relationships and mutual respect,” said Cassilly.

Rushed beginnings

Perhaps one challenge they weren’t expecting was the first-week rush, according to Del. Brett Wilson, R-Washington County.

“The mad scramble right at the beginning was a little unexpected just because there are so many new folks this year,” said Wilson.

Wilson received his office assignment the week before session. After sorting through a “grab bag” of furniture, his staff was finally able to settle in, all except for his business cards, he said amused.

“They won’t print anything with your name on it until you actually get sworn in, because they don’t want to waste the paper,” Wilson said.

However, the Speaker of the House Michael Busch and Senate President Mike Miller have been a great help “nurturing us through the process,” Platt said.

There wasn’t as much hazing as some freshmen were expecting.

“I think there may have been a few attempts to put us in our place and remind us that we are first-year legislators, but there are so many of us…I expected a little more, not that I am asking for more hazing,” Morales said.

“We were told about the pool on the fourth floor, but that was just a joke,” Platt said.

Overall, freshmen are ready to serve their constituents.

Freshmen embrace the work

McCray has found that his “blue-collar” background has helped him stay grounded.

After serving 13-years as an electrician with Baltimore’s IBEW District 24 Union, McCray is introducing three bills this session, one focusing on union apprenticeships.

“These three bills are very satisfying in reference to coming down here and making sure you serve the purpose that you started with,” said McCray. “Just making sure that you’re making everyday count and I feel really, really good about that.”

“You read a bill and think you understand it. Then you listen to testimony and it opens up a whole other way of thinking to take into consideration,” said Del. Deborah Rey, R-St. Mary’s County.

As a working mom with a young son, Del. Brooke Lierman, D-Baltimore City, finds the schedule challenging.

“I think for any working parent, balancing work and making sure we see our family is important to keep us grounded.”

Indeed, the 90-day legislative session has been described as “intense” and “crazy” across the board. However, Lierman along with all the freshmen are saying they love the process.

“I am learning so much, it’s amazing, I never thought my brain could hold this much information. But I love it, it’s so interesting, so engaging,” said Lierman. “My constituents sent me here for a reason and I want to be sure I am holding up my end of the bargain and doing good work for them and the people of Maryland.”

And despite the “mad rush”, Wilson has “enjoyed every day of it.”

The theme at the freshmen welcoming party, which has a top-secret date, will be “the wave.”

By Rebecca Lessner

 

Health Advocates Want MD to Stop Taxing Bottled Water

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Health advocates moved to make water the “default drink of Maryland” by submitting a bill that would repeal the 6% sales tax on bottled water.

Some health foundations spoke before the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee in support of SB 574 on Wednesday, where legislators identified the elephant in the room — a possible general fund loss of $20 million annually.

The estimates vary agency to agency because of the lack of data collection on bottled water sales. According to the bill’s fiscal note, “the decrease may range between $7 million and $20 million annually.”

The Comptroller’s Office estimated the exemption could reduce general fund revenues by $7 million based on 2012 bottled water sales data provided by the International Bottled Water Association.

However, according to Sugar Free Kids Maryland and the American Heart Association, the question isn’t what the state will lose but what the state will gain by reducing the number of “sick kids” in Maryland.

“We are becoming sicker than we can afford to be in our state,” said Nikki Highsmith Vernick, president of the Horizon Foundation in Columbia.

“The direct and indirect cost to Maryland’s economy to be approximately $11.5 billion annually from the impact of obesity,” said Vernick.

The foundations hope to encourage the purchase of water over other sugary drinks by making bottled water more affordable, especially to lower income families who are counting pennies in their budgets.

Currently, the state does not consider water a tax-exempt “food,” according to the Department of Legislative services.

Other healthy choices are already exempt by the sales tax, including food sold in grocery stores, excluding certain prepared foods, and vending machine sales of milk, fresh fruit and yogurt.

“We already give an exemption to most food products in this state…and it seems to me water deserves not to be taxed, as it is a staple of life.” said Sen. Guy Guzzone, D-Howard, sponsor of the bill.

“Bottled water is regulated by both federal and state laws as a food product,” said Patrick Donoho, president of the Maryland Retailers Association.

“During natural or manmade events we are strongly recommended by government agencies to go out and purchase bottled water…so if the government is telling us to buy it, why should we tax it?” said Donoho.

While there was no panel of opposition to the bill, Sugar Free Kids Maryland Executive Director Robi Rawl wondered why the American Beverage Association had not joined them in support.

“We find that intriguing, since most of the companies that are a part of the American Beverage Association, such as Coke and Pepsi, also produce bottled water. So we’re curious as to why they are not coming out in support of this bill as it also supports their products,” said Rawl.

Ellen Valentino, chair of the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Beverage Association, came to the committee hearing to comment but not take sides.

“Know that we are here and we are committed to the health and wellness phase…there are facts to deliberate on,” said Valentino.

Valentino continued on to say that health-conscious changes her companies were making included listing calorie count on beverages, which is something that is not required and was done “because the moms wanted it.”

Maryland is one of 17 states with a sales tax on water, and it is also one of the top 4 states that taxes water at a higher rate than other food and drink, said Rawl.

By Rebecca Lessner

Lawmakers Review Charter School Laws as Hogan Pushes for More

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Three reports focusing on public charter schools could spur changes to the system, just as newly inaugurated Gov. Larry Hogan takes office with a promise to expand the use of charter schools in Maryland.

The Senate Education, Health & Environmental Affairs committee hosted a briefing Thursday on a charter school report submitted by the Maryland State Department of Education.

Consultants from the University of Baltimore’s Schaefer Center for Public Policy identified ways in which Maryland can improve the charter school program already in place based off of current charter-school performance levels. But legislative staff questioned the validity of the report.

The MSDE report highlighted charter schools’ ability to open creative, learning opportunities through a diversity of programming such as language classes or different approaches. It also called for changes to the school’s lottery system and funding structure.

The attendance level for charter schools has been explosive. It grew from 196 students at the enactment of Maryland Charter School laws in 2003 to an estimated 20,000 students in 10 years.

“Charter Schools are one of the most innovative learning opportunities in our system, they have kept families from leaving Baltimore City,” David Stone, vice chairman of Baltimore City Public Schools, told the Senate committee.

Maryland charter schools law ranked last in country

Shortly following the MSDE report, a roundup of scores was posted by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools in January giving a dismal rating to Maryland for the 2013-2014 year. Maryland ranked in last place, 43rd out of the 42 states and the District of Columbia, who have enacted public charter school laws through their state legislature (eight states are yet to implement charter school laws).

Maryland was judged according to the National Alliances model state law outline.

“While some states fell in the rankings simply because other states enacted stronger laws, it is important to note that these changes represent progress for the overall movement, not black eyes for any set of states,” stated Nina Rees and Todd Ziebarth, President and Vice President of NAPCS.

The third report came in last week, when Legislative Services sent a letter to the Senate and House, calling into question the quality of Maryland State Department of Education’s fact checking and data collection authenticity.

Proposed charter schools approved on case-by-case basis

In Maryland, like many states, there is no “cap” on the number of charter schools allowed to start up each year. A unique feature of Maryland law, seen as regressive by outsiders, is the use of waivers and required approval from local school boards to start up these charters.

Currently under Maryland law, charter schools must first appeal for new locations at the local school board level and, if refused, they may bring it to the state level. Last year, 28 appeals were denied at the local level while 18 were dismissed at the state level. In the end, six to seven cases were able to move forward successfully, looking forward to their start in the coming year.

In the Senate’s Education, Health & Environmental Affairs committee briefing on Thursday, a panel representing MSDE spoke of how these dismissals are a “case by case” decision.

New board would fast-track charter school expansion

Overall the MSDE report asks members of the General Assembly, if they should choose to expand the charter school program, to create a “State-level Independent Chartering Board”, and more funds, either on the state or local level, to help cover the per-pupil allotment of new students entering the school.

If the Independent Chartering Board were to be created, it would potentially put Maryland on a faster route to expansion of charter schools and raise Maryland’s status in the ranking of states implementing charter laws.

There are some discrepancies over whether Maryland’s strict laws requiring charter schools to go through school boards for approval has kept Maryland schools from experiencing financial difficulties, as found in other states with “loose” charter school laws.

Also not covered by state or local funding is the facilities’ expenses, which creates a struggle for charter schools in obtaining property for the location of new schools. The rest of the operation for charter schools is state funded. With every new addition of a charter school, the local school board must find the funds to support it.

Total schools choices greeted with skepticism

The Senate committee questioned the MSDE report’s “total schools” used as the groundwork for determining success rates. Carol Beck, the Director for the Office of School Innovation at the Maryland State Department of Education, told the committee that the total schools number was “47 public charter schools in five jurisdictions totaling an estimated 18,000 k-12 .” This number does not include 11 schools closed due to underperformance issues.

Vice Chairman Sen. Paul Pinsky asked MSDE during the committee briefing to consider these school closures in their data report. The National Alliance’s report used an estimated 21,397 students, which included an estimated 52 schools during the 2014-2014 school year, a total that differs MSDE’s data by 3,397 pupils.

The Department of Legislative Services, which received and analyzed the submitted MSDE study, called for House Speaker Michael Busch and Senate President Mike Miller to give the findings of the MSDE report “only as much weight as the paucity of data and analysis deserves.”

DLS finds report lacking

DLS Policy Director Warren Deschenaux found that the MSDE report also only “partially answered” 13 out of 14 questions asked by the legislature. The 14th question was “unmet,” meaning ignored altogether, because the University of Baltimore could not locate enough data to answer.

The legislative staff questioned this statement by saying the data “may or may not have been truly unavailable.”

During the committee briefing, the panel stressed that decisions on charter schools should be “parent driven, not market driven,” and that parents are “engaged enough in their child’s futures to make a choice” to switch to charter.

Much of the data collected in the MSDE report was found to be gathered from public forums and interviews “in lieu of using Maryland data,” as stated in the Department of Legislative Services review. Overall, the MSDE report was lengthy and based on facts that were supported by “stakeholder interviews.” Legislative Services comments that “this anecdotal information is no substitute for data and analysis.”

Committee members asked that MSDE answer more questions and said the report would face further scrutiny.

Still, enrollment continues to climb for charter schools in Maryland as the school’s stack up lengthy waitlists and rely on lottery drawings to determine admittance.

By Rebecca Lessner