Transportation and energy issues are expected to be the top priorities for lawmakers from Maryland’s more rural western, southern and eastern regions when the legislature reconvenes in January.
“The big issue for us is transportation infrastructure,” said Del. Sally Y. Jameson (D-Dist. 28) of Bryantown, chairwoman of the House Southern Maryland delegation, citing a pair of key bridge repair projects that she and her colleagues want to see funded.
Lawmakers on the Eastern Shore said they also will focus on transportation issues, while Western Maryland representatives will work on generating support for the mining of natural gas through hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.
And some are hoping that the 2013 General Assembly session, set to begin Jan. 9, will be a smoother ride than 2012, which included a high-profile fight for same-sex marriage, a budget stalemate that was left unresolved on Sine Die and no less than two special sessions to wrap up the legislature’s work.
“We’re hoping for a quiet session this year,” said Sen. Thomas McLain Middleton (D-Dist. 28) of Waldorf.
Two major transportation priorities in the state’s southern counties are improvements to the Harry W. Nice Bridge, which connects Charles County to Virginia, and the Thomas Johnson Bridge, which connects Calvert County to St. Mary’s County, Middleton said.
Money for planning each project has been set aside in the six-year budget plans of the Maryland Transportation Authority and State Highway Administration, but construction funding for the renovations has not.
Transportation funding is scarce, but “we’ll make sure Southern Maryland gets its piece of the action,” Middleton said.
Lawmakers also will pursue continued funding to help farmers in the region convert from tobacco to other crops, Middleton said. Such crop conversion efforts have been part of the state’s Cigarette Restitution Fund, its share of a multibillion-dollar settlement between state governments and cigarette manufacturers.
The Dover Bridge, which connects Talbot and Caroline counties, is the major transportation priority on the Eastern Shore, according to Sen. Richard F. Colburn (R-Dist. 37) of Cambridge, chair of the Senate Eastern Shore delegation.
“It’s an outdated, decaying structure,” Colburn said. “It’s the Intercounty Connector for Talbot, South Caroline and North Dorchester.”
The State Highway Administration has budgeted $4 million for engineering a replacement bridge, but no money is targeted for construction.
In general, generating funding for transportation projects is a delicate matter, Colburn said.
Additional taxes on gasoline would be bad for the economy, and large mass transit projects should have a dedicated funding source, such as a regional sales tax, he said.
Rural residents, through statewide tax dollars, end up footing the bill for mass transit that don’t benefit them, said Del. Michael D. Smigiel (R-Dist. 36) of Chesapeake City.
Voting down a proposal for a large offshore wind farm, which Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) once again plans to introduce this year, also will be a priority, Colburn said, adding that the measure would lead to increased electricity bills for residents and the current fiscal climate made federal subsidies unlikely.
“It’s a good environmental cause, but it’s not good legislation, so far,” Colburn said.
There also is likely to be a fight against new regulations requiring more efficient — and expensive — septic systems in new construction, Colburn said.
The new rules, which Colburn said already are having a detrimental effect on the Eastern Shore, are estimated to increase construction costs by about $8,000 per residence.
The No. 1 priority for Western Maryland is removing obstacles to fracking in the Marcellus Shale formation, said Del. Wendell R. Beitzel (R-Dist. 1A) of Accident.
“In my view, it can be done safely with modern techniques,” he said.
The formation is a massive store of natural gas that runs under the Appalachian Mountains through New York, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Allegany and Garrett counties in Western Maryland. In fracking, a water and chemical mixture is pumped underground to release trapped gas.
Environmental concerns, such as the impact on the water supply, have prompted three Montgomery County lawmakers to call for a moratorium on fracking until the practice’s effects can be studied further.
“We can use the economic activity. It presents a real opportunity for us,” Beitzel said.
Del. LeRoy E. Myers Jr. (R-Dist. 1C) of Clear Spring, who chairs the Western Maryland House delegation, said tax revenue generated by drilling could be a windfall for the state.
“It will create good, high-paying jobs,” he said.
A study released earlier this year by the Maryland Petroleum Council projected fracking could generate 1,800 jobs and as much as $732 million in royalties for landowners who lease their property for drilling.
Groups like the nonprofit Environment Maryland have warned that air and water pollution, which has been associated with fracking operations in other states, could lead to millions of dollars in cleanup and health costs.