Maryland Legislative Roundup 2023
By Evan Isaacson
Maryland’s 2023 legislative session did not end with quite the bang as the 2022 session. There was no generational climate legislation, nor a major transformational shift in the way water pollution is regulated. Yet, given the relatively low expectations that many legislative and policy advocates were given, this session delivered more than was bargained for.
To start, it is worth noting that perhaps the biggest legislative win is one that is not on anyone’s mind today. Governor Moore’s first budget finished what last year’s major water pollution permitting and compliance bill started by providing 43 new jobs for positions like permit writers and inspectors in the Water and Science Administration with the Maryland Department of the Environment (“MDE”). This massive infusion of resources not only gives effect to last year’s potentially revolutionary bill (without the appropriation of budgetary resources, the law is barely worth the paper it’s printed on), but it also instills fresh energy and manpower at this long overworked and under-resourced agency.
The budget isn’t nearly as visible or exciting as any particular piece of legislation, but it is even more critical. As they say, the budget is a reflection of your policy priorities. Governor Moore and Secretary of the Environment Serena McIlwain have spoken loudly and repeatedly about the importance of enforcing environmental laws, and this clearly shows that they mean it. In addition to the 43 new positions to give effect to last year’s law, there were other provisions written into the budget directing MDE to fill its vacancies and report on its efforts to raise additional funds by resetting its antiquated fee structure. This amounts to very good news for all of us, regardless of what anyone’s specific environmental concerns or priorities are.
If the budget was the legislative win flying under the radar, perhaps the opposite was the big Forest Conservation Act reform effort. CLA applauds the sponsors and the many, many advocates around the state who worked collectively and forcefully to push the General Assembly to pass this much-needed legislation. Unfortunately, but probably predictably, the bill was weakened before final passage, and there is still much to learn in the days ahead about just what the bill will ultimately do. But there is no doubt that it represents a major step forward for water quality, climate resilience, biodiversity, and overall quality of life in Maryland. Forest cover is one of the best predictors of high water quality, so protecting more of Maryland’s forests from the relentless push to develop our scarce natural resources will have significant future benefits for water quality in Maryland’s portion of the Bay watershed.
CLA is proud to announce that one of our top legislative priorities for this session – a bill to address construction site runoff – is sitting on the Governor’s desk awaiting signature today. Like the Forest Conservation Act reform bill, this one was heavily amended and at various points in session looked close to failing. The bill started as a way to (a) require MDE permit writers to write individual Clean Water Act permits for larger construction projects at more sensitive ecological sites; and (b) stiffen the penalties for allowing mud, sediment, and construction site pollution to flow into our waterways. Both of these key features were eliminated from the final bill.
Instead of individual permits for certain sites, the amended bill now requires MDE to at least provide greater public notice and attention from permit writers for these sites. And while the enforcement provisions were entirely stricken from the bill, the sponsors snatched victory from the jaws of defeat by inserting new provisions that will adapt Maryland’s construction site regulatory program to our changing climate. The bill as passed will require MDE to work with a bevy of experts and stakeholders to update the technical manual that governs construction site pollution controls every 5 years. This is no small thing and ultimately, it amounted to a final bill that was perhaps as valuable as the one that was introduced, despite the several weakening amendments. CLA thanks the sponsors and our partners at Arundel Rivers Federation for incredible leadership. Bills this technical do not pass without sponsors who take the time to understand the issue in-depth and explain the need for changes to the other legislators.
Another bill that represents the culmination of years of efforts, led by our partners at the Center for Progressive Reform, is the Private Well Safety Act of 2023. Like the aforementioned legislation, this bill was weakened after significant amendments, primarily to remove language that would have created a fund to help those affected by contaminated domestic water supplies. Nevertheless, the new law builds upon another recent private well safety law and creates what amounts to a new regulatory program that will provide much-needed transparency to renters, prospective homebuyers, local health officials, and the broader public about what exactly is in their water. The new law should protect tens of thousands of Marylanders, particularly in our rural areas.
CLA was presently surprised earlier in the session to learn about a very potent bill that was introduced to charter a new state unit dedicated to prosecuting environmental and natural resource crimes. While Maryland’s Office of the Attorney General has long housed an Environmental Crimes Unit to work with MDE and the public to investigate and prosecute violations of Maryland’s environmental criminal laws, that unit was not codified in law and, like so many other units of State government, had been allowed to languish with insufficient staff and budgetary resources. The new law not only expands the focus to also cover natural resource law crimes but calls out the need to provide an adequate number of attorneys and law enforcement officers to make this new unit successful. Having new inspectors and attorneys solely dedicated to prosecuting our most egregious environmental and natural resource violations could have dramatic ripple effects that ultimately deter a significant amount of pollution in the first place.
Last fall, CLA was proud to release a report with the Chesapeake Bay Commission on an issue known as extended producer responsibility. The report examined policy considerations to address the proper disposal of plastics packaging, creating better and more effective recycling systems while lessening the burden of pollution on the Bay. The Commission’s Vice Chair, Delegate Sara Love, along with Commission member Senator Sarah Elfreth, sponsored legislation in this 2023 session to enact one of the nation’s only extended producer responsibility laws. This major new environmental law has the potential to significantly reduce trash reaching the Bay and the mushrooming environmental and health problem of microplastic pollution.
Finally, it is important to note just a few of the important environmental bills that did not become law. CLA worked with our partners at Blue Water Baltimore to strategize a way to slowly build climate resilience into Maryland’s built environment, particularly our urban areas. Blue Water Baltimore worked tirelessly to build a coalition and find a sponsor for a bill designed to require Maryland’s 10 largest counties to install a meaningful amount of green stormwater infrastructure each year that will reduce toxic runoff and mitigate flood risk in our urban communities. Such a requirement would slowly but surely turn our vast expanses of pavement into a spongier environment capable of keeping up with the worsening precipitation trends we’ve been experiencing. Unfortunately, the bill never saw the light of day. The sponsor recognized that the bill was not passable this session – particularly with a hostile reception from the Maryland Association of Counties – but she extracted a commitment from MDE to work with her and the advocates for the prospective bill to begin strategizing ways to accelerate Maryland’s progress toward mitigating stormwater and catalyzing climate resilience. Those meetings have begun, so stay tuned for more on this.
Along those same lines, while this stormwater and climate resilience concept was never introduced as a bill, a similar concept not only got a bill number but passed both houses. Senate Bill 813, titled Comprehensive Flood Management Grant Program – Environmental Justice Funding, would have resulted in a substantial infusion of new capital funding from the state to provide the same sort of stormwater and flood mitigation projects in our urban areas, specifically in places designed to protect the communities suffering most from environmental injustice. The bill authorized $20 million in this flood mitigation program annually, 40% of which the bill required to go to underserved and overburdened communities, as designated by existing state law. Unfortunately, the bill fell just short of the finish line, having passed both houses, but not receiving the final actions needed to move the bill to the Governor for enactment, possibly a victim of pathetic last-minute shenanigans. Thankfully, the Governor’s budget did provide $10 million in the capital budget for this program and we are hopeful that much of that $10 million will find its way toward reducing stormwater pollution and mitigating flood risk in the communities that need that help the most.