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TOP STORY, Dec. 23, 2014

Md. ag industry seeking foothold with new legislators

 

By JONATHAN CRIBBS

Staff Reporter

 

ANNAPOLIS, Md. — A top priority for Maryland’s agricultural community next year must be to educate the state’s wave of incoming legislators, many of them new to the capital, a top Maryland Farm Bureau official said last week.
Roughly a third of the State House turned over on Election Day, said Colby Ferguson, the Farm Bureau’s government relations director.
Of 141 total delegates, 58 will be freshmen in January, he said, and there are 11 new senators, most of whom were previously delegates.
“There has been a tremendous change,” Ferguson told a small audience at the University of Maryland’s 2014 Agricultural Outlook and Policy Conference on Dec. 16. “It is going to be absolutely paramount that agriculture work and get these delegates out there on tours.”
Maryland’s agriculture community was also unsurprisingly delighted by the stunning election of Republican Gov.-elect Larry Hogan, a businessman from Anne Arundel County.
His win was considered part of a wave of voter dissatisfaction that saw incumbent politicos fall at the federal level, leading to a GOP takeover of the U.S. Senate and a broadening of the party’s control of the U.S. House.
Others said voters exhausted by tax increases and regulations pursued by Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley put Hogan in office.
Many of the state’s delegate seats changed hands due to retiring incumbents, however. Though the Republican Party picked up a number of seats in the House and Senate, it remains far from overtaking the Democratic Party’s firm control of both houses despite the election of Hogan, who’s proclaimed himself a friend of agriculture.
At the Farm Bureau’s annual convention in Ocean City on Dec. 8, Hogan pledged to end what he called a “war on rural Maryland” and said he intended to kill the state’s soon-to-be-adopted Phosphorus Management Tool, which would severely limit the amount of poultry manure many Eastern Shore farmers can apply to their fields. Some farmers have said they fear the new regulation could destroy agriculture on the shore.
But Ferguson urged farmers not to get too excited about Hogan’s election.
Farmers “just feel like there’s been a lot of weight lifted off their shoulders,” he said. “I’m not ready to go to that point.”
The agricultural community also lost several supporters, some of them Democrats such as Del. Norman Conway, D-Salisbury, who has chaired the House Appropriations Committee since 2003. Sen. Roy Dyson, D-Great Mills, vice chairman of the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, was ousted, and Del. Rudy Caine, D-Hebron, a member of the Environmental Matters Committee, retired. Not to mention numerous anticipated cabinet changes, including a new agriculture secretary.
Between 20 and 40 people have applied for that job, Ferguson said.
“I don’t have a clue who it’s going to be. ... It sounds like everybody wants that position,” he said. “I don’t know why you would want that position.”
The agricultural community will also have to wait and see how Hogan deals with the state’s mounting budget deficit, which is projected to be more than $1 billion. The incoming governor is unlikely to kill any existing taxes and will most likely have to reduce state services significantly to control the budgetary hole.
Ferguson closed by saying he believes the agricultural community needs to pursue a constitutional amendment that would say farming is an “allowed use” on land statewide. He said he sees plenty of effort to preserve land as open space, less so from programs seeking to maintain farmable land.
“Do we really want agriculture or do we want open space?” he said. “Just because it’s zoned agriculture doesn’t mean it’s going to stay ag.”