State Digest

January 17, 2008

Task force issues report on oysters

Maryland should move toward an aquaculture-based oyster industry while at the same time trying to restore natural oyster bars for ecological benefits, according to a task force report.

The Maryland Oyster Commission's 2007 interim report does not call for a moratorium on the harvest of oysters nor for an end to public subsidies for harvest programs. Rather, it says the state should over the next two decades change how it manages oysters.

"People understand that what we've done in the past is not working, and that we do have to take some dramatic steps," said Bill Eichbaum, commission chairman and vice president of the World Wildlife Fund. "We have at least put down benchmarks that are different from what's been done in the past."

The state has convened numerous panels to discuss oyster restoration over the years, and each has tried to balance the ecological benefits of keeping oysters in the water with the economic interests of watermen. The new report says economic and ecological goals for oysters are "mutually incompatible." The oyster population is at 1 percent of its historic levels.

Since 1994, the state and federal government has spent nearly $40 million to restore oysters to the Chesapeake Bay, mostly for programs that then allow watermen to harvest and sell them.

The commission has been meeting about four months and is waiting a major scientific study on oysters before issuing specific recommendations, Eichbaum said.

Rona Kobell

Two legislators want higher alcohol taxes

Del. William A. Bronrott of Montgomery County called Gov. Martin O'Malley's plan to invest $5 million more in drug and alcohol treatment insufficient, and said yesterday that he would ask lawmakers to increase alcohol taxes to pay for more substance abuse programs.

Sen. Jennie M. Forehand said she would sponsor an increase in state beer, wine and liquor taxes, which haven't gone up in decades.

Both Democratic lawmakers plan to propose increasing the beverage taxes to 89 cents per bottle of wine and .750-milliliter container of spirits and to 4 cents per can of beer.

Bronrott has tried and failed to increase the alcohol taxes four times in the past seven years, but he said rising concern about addiction should make an increase more palatable this year.

"More and more people are beginning to connect the dots between all the crimes and violence," he said. "And the common denominator most of the time is untreated alcohol and drug addiction."

The tax increase would generate about $60 million a year, he said.

Maryland has some of the lowest alcohol taxes in the country, but lobbyists for the politically connected industry say the state's sales tax - which increased this month from 5 percent to 6 percent -already amounts to a double tax on alcoholic beverages.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch said he thought there would be scant support among legislators for new taxes this session.

Gadi Dechter

Wider hate-crime law debated in House

Lawmakers debated yesterday how to extend Maryland's hate crimes law to include the display of nooses without running afoul of the First Amendment.

The House Judiciary Committee is considering two bills that would criminalize the hanging of nooses for the purpose of intimidating African-Americans or other protected groups.

Under a bill sponsored by Del. S. Saqib Ali, a Montgomery County Democrat, placing a noose on another person's property would be a hate crime subject to expanded sentencing guidelines.

After a letter by the attorney general's office said the language in Ali's legislation might violate free speech protections in the U.S. Constitution, he amended the bill to replace the word "nooses" with the word "weapons."

Cindy Boersma, legislative director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, told lawmakers that she believes the amendment still falls short of free speech requirements.

Ali and Del. Victor R. Ramirez, a Prince George's County Democrat sponsoring a similar bill, told committee members they would be willing to consider more changes.

Under the state's existing statutes, the person who hung a noose near a black cultural center at the University of Maryland, College Park, could not be charged with a hate crime, Ali said.

Gadi Dechter

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