ANNAPOLIS – Southern Maryland lawmakers this week wrapped up the “kind of session that you’d like to leave and face the voters” — unless the voters are farmers.
The region’s legislators said that farmers got a bad deal in the General Assembly session that ended Monday, with new measures on nutrient management and lawsuits against big tobacco companies.
“We’ve got to find a way to quit hurting the agricultural community,” said Del. Anthony O’Donnell, R-Calvert.
But while they worried about the farmers, legislators applauded the 5 percent income tax cut approved this year, the $222 million set aside for school construction and a plan to expand Medicaid coverage to thousands of children without access to health care now.
“It’s the kind of session that you’d like to leave and face the voters,” said Del. George Owings, D-Calvert.
School construction and the income tax cut were helped by a $260 million state budget surplus, which legislators said made it easier to dish out funds.
Other wins for Southern Maryland included a $750,000 grant for economic development in Indian Head, $400,000 for planning and operation of the Southern Maryland Higher Education Center and improvements along Route 235.
But there were losses in the session and they fell “on the shoulders of agriculture,” said Del. Samuel Linton, D-Charles.
“I don’t think there’s a farmer in the state that will agree on the legislation actions of the pfiesteria agreement and tobacco,” Linton said.
The pfiesteria agreement calls for mandatory controls on farm runoff and reductions in nitrogen and phosphorus in chicken manure. Farmers will be fined if they fail to comply by 2003 for nitrogen runoff and 2005 for phosphorous runoff.
The restrictions are aimed at blocking another outbreak of the toxic microbe Pfiesteria piscicida, which scientists believe was triggered by nutrient-rich runoff from farms last summer.
“We have a responsibility to our pride and joy … the Chesapeake Bay, but we also have an obligation to protect our farmlands,” said Del. John Wood, D-St. Mary’s.
He said the pfiesteria legislation was a compromise between concern for farmers and care for the state’s waterways and that neither farmers nor environmentalists were completely satisfied.
“I think we struck something we can live with at least for the moment,” Owings said.
Sen. Thomas Middleton, D-Charles, said he hopes farmers will see the legislation as a way to help the environment, though he recognizes farmers will not greet the new measures with open arms.
“Behind the regulations is a real commitment to help the farmers,” Middleton said.
He could not say the same about the tobacco bill, which he said will have a “negative impact” on Maryland tobacco farmers.
The bill, passed on the last day of the session, overturns a circuit ruling that said the state must individually sue for each of thousands of Medicaid patients who claimed to have been harmed by tobacco products over the years.
The bill would let the state instead use “statistical evidence” of smoking-related diseases and costs in its $3 billion case against tobacco companies, which seeks to recover Medicaid funds spent on those illnesses.
O’Donnell called the bill a “vilification” of the tobacco industry and said it further shows that the “the farming community in Maryland is under attack.”
Linton called the measure “inappropriate” since it changes the law while the case is still pending. “I’ve never seen that,” he said.
If the state wins its case, the law will allow part of the settlement to go to tobacco farmers for alternative crops and tobacco buy-outs, Middleton said.
Southern Maryland lawmakers predicted that pfiesteria and tobacco issues will be major issues in this fall’s elections and will be back again in the 1999 General Assembly session.