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TOP STORY, April 14, 2015

Bills slanted against ag fall by wayside

 

By BRUCE HOTCHKISS
Senior Editor

 

ANNAPOLIS, Md. — As the gavel came down on the 2015 session of the Maryland General Assembly, leaders of the agricultural industry in the state had good reason for a quiet celebration.
With the opening of the session in early January, and a spate of bills which were seen as anti-agriculture, particularly those aimed at the poultry industry, there was considerable concern whether, within the newly-elected body of lawmakers there was enough pro-ag sentiment to shield the industry.
“I’m not sure we have enough votes out there to hold our ground,” said one veteran lobbyist for agriculture.
As it turned out, however, bill after bill which had drawn the opposition of the leading farm organizations was either withdrawn by its sponsor or either died or was held in committee.
“After early concerns about the introduction of many harmful bills, the 2015 General Assembly session proved quite successful for Maryland farmers,” said Colby Ferguson, director of government affars for the Maryland Farm Bureau.
The highlights, he continued, include the expansion of the Farmstead Cheese Program, the authorization for a person to plant, grow, harvest, possess, process, sell or buy industrial hemp in the state, and a Calvert and St. Mary’s county signage program on state and federal roads.
“Standing along with other Maryland ag organizations,” Ferguson explained, “we were able to fend off unfriendly ag bills such as the Agriculture Sales & Use Tax Exemption Repeal and the Bay Tax Equity Act (AKA Chicken Tax). In addition, bills to ban antimicrobials from livestock and poultry feed along with a ban on Neonicotinoid pesticides all died in committee.”
Bill Satterfield, executive director of the Delmarva Poultry Industry Inc. and key members of the organization had their hands full with several pieces of legislation that were viewed as potentially fatal to the industry on the peninsula.
“A number of troubling bills were introduced and fortunately, none of them were passed,” Satterfield said, “thanks to the work of a lot of our members. We spent a lot of time getting to know new members of the General Assembly and to reach out, along with our members, to legislators on committees dealing with bills of concern to us.”
From the office of Gov. Larry Hogan came the assessment that “the agriculture community fared well this session.”
“Agriculture advocates worked closely with the administration during negotiations on the PMT and helped craft a fair compromise,” said Erin Montgomery, Hogan’s press secretary.
The most harmful legislation to agriculture was defeated, including a repeal of the agriculture sales and use tax exemption and the chicken tax. Hogan” said, Montgonery assured, “will continue to stand up for farmers, and the agric ulture community will always have a seat at the table as we consider legislation that impacts their livelihood.”
Lynne Hoot, executive director of the Maryand Grain Producers Association and other farm groups in the state, looked back on the session with less applause and enthusiam.
“Working together as always,” she said, “the agricultural community had big wins in the legislative session, but sadly no gains.” 
Hoot explained that “our task for the session was primarily to kill legislation damaging to farmers.”
In the course of that effort, she continued, farm leaders and spokesmen found themselves “listening to our adversaries show little respect and zero understanding of agriculture and the strong stewardship ethic that exists among farmers.”
Elsewhere, a coalition of scientists, beekeepers and farmers working with public health, food and environmental advocates today said while they were disappointed that the Pollinator Protection Act (Senate Bill 163/House Bill 605) did not pass this legislative session, they have built momentum to restrict neonicotinoid (aka “neonics”) pesticides next year.
The House of Delegates’ Environment and Transportation Committee intends to study scientific research concerning how neonic pesticides affect bees, wildlife, aquatic life and human health over the summer.
“This was the first time Maryland officials considered legislation to restrict these harmful, bee-killing pesticides, and we made considerable progress — in spite of opposition from the powerful chemical and agricultural industry lobbies,” said Delegate Anne Healey (District 22), who sponsored the bill along with Sen. Nathan-Pulliam (District 22).
Maryland League of Conservation Voters had organized more than 10,000 emails and almost 1,000 phone calls to legislators, urging the protection of “our quality of life and our natural resources.”
“We are pleased,” the group said in a statement, “that agriculture finally has the tools necessary to reduce phosphorous in the Bay with a set of regulations for the Phosphorous Management Tool.”