Maryland's most bizarre creature discovered in Annapolis

March 19, 2011

There's nothing like a stroll through the halls of Annapolis to make you wonder how we've managed to survive this long.

Legislativus horribilis is a creature with no backbone or vision. It is most often seen with a single moistened digit extended skyward to check for wind patterns. Often found running in circles or huddled in groups, it emits an unpleasant whining sound that ceases only at midnight on the 90th day of its lifecycle.

Last week the beast was in full rut.

Legislativus horribilis sided with Virginia over Maryland interests, dissed its natural resources law enforcement community and contemplated pilfering legacy money earmarked for land acquisition to plug holes elsewhere.

Is there anything it can't do?

Let's start with the shameful behavior of the House Environmental Matters Committee on a bill that would remove Maryland from the marketplace for heart healthy Omega-3 products made from menhaden.

You've got to hand it to Omega Protein Inc., the company that targets Chesapeake Bay menhaden while they're in the Virginia part of the estuary. The company packed the hearing room with union members in yellow T-shirts bused up from its Reedville, Va., operation, and stuffed lawmakers full of Virginia half-truths that always play well in the Old Dominion. (It's funny that a company in a right-to-work state would cower behind union workers).

Menhaden, a filter feeder that cleans the bay and serves as a primary food for striped bass, is in steep decline. Stocks have declined 88 percent in the last 25 years. A 2010 stock assessment indicated that overfishing had occurred in 32 of the last 54 years. Thirteen of 15 East Coast states, including Maryland, have banned Omega Protein's fleet. Next week, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission is expected to review its management plan.

The bill by Dels. Peter Murphy and David Rudolph would put our state off-limits for products made from ground-up menhaden by Omega Protein. HB 1142 wouldn't prevent other states from doing as they please. It wouldn't bar Marylanders from buying Omega-3 products made with other sources, such as anchovies and algae.

But committee members Cheryl Glenn, Jay Jacobs and Anthony O'Donnell, to name three, just couldn't get their heads around the simple concept and pandered to the Virginia crowd.

"This is the wrong time to make such a drastic approach to this industry," Glenn said.

Hmmm. Menhaden aren't doing well. Striped bass are sick. The bay is a cesspool.

When is it the right time, delegate? Would it be so bad if Maryland said, "Omega Protein, we won't be party to your game?"

Luckily, right across the street, a Senate committee was hearing testimony on a bill to add 207 Natural Resources Police officers by 2021, bringing the total to 435.

The department is down 50 percent over the last decade. There are just 151 officers in the field. Recreational anglers and watermen agree that there aren't enough cops to keep poachers from stealing fish and oysters at will.

"They can't go on like this," said Sen. Roy Dyson, the bill's sponsor.

Yet over the last four years, Martin O'Malley has followed in the footsteps of Parris Glendening and Robert Ehrlich and done little but mouth cheap platitudes. So officers continue to work alone on the water and in the woods, knowing back up is often two or three counties away.

"A drunk at night in a boat on Eastern Bay is an entirely different situation than a stop by the side of the road," Sgt. Lisa Nyland, a 26-year veteran who is nearing retirement, testified.

But once again lawmakers were told this isn't the right time to be protecting our natural resources or providing back-up for officers. Rebecca Burner of the Department of Budget and Management testified against the bill because it would set "a dangerous precedent" by helping one agency while others deal with budget cuts.

"Everyone," she said, "is suffering with the same problem. We're all in this together."

Great, give her a badge and a gun. That's one position filled.

Seriously, when is the right time to fix this festering problem. After a funeral with bagpipes?

Finally, the Department of Legislative Services is urging lawmakers to transfer Program Open Space funds to the General Fund and replace them with a much smaller fixed annual stipend. It would be the second raiding of POS in recent years.

The 70-year-old program acquires land for the public using the tax on real estate sales. It's how we pay for parks, wetlands, wildlife areas and playgrounds in a semi-painless way. In return, we get public land that doesn't become shopping centers, subdivisions or industrial parks.

Of course, this is no time to be setting aside land for future generations.

Just ask Legislativus horribilis.

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