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State legislators from SOMD talk bills for 2021

With the 2021 General Assembly in Annapolis just around the corner, Southern Maryland News checked in with local state legislators to share some of the bills they plan to support or monitor this year, touching on topics including COVID-19 relief, education and police reform.

Sen. Jack Bailey (R-St. Mary’s, Calvert) told Southern Maryland News this week the General Assembly, which kicks off its 90-day session on Jan. 13, “is not operating as it ever has before.” Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, bill testimony will be virtual, he said. Even with more pre-filed bills in the Maryland Senate than ever before, he noted they will only be on the floor Wednesdays and Fridays rather than five days a week. He also mentioned legislators will be tested for the virus twice a week.

As far as big issues this year, the senator noted the Kirwan Commission, a 26-member panel made up of legislators, educators, business people and county leaders, has been working to rewrite the current state education funding formula that has been used for about two decades to more equitably disperse state funds to school systems.

The commission has recommended a $3.8 billion increase in spending to be phased in over a decade. About half of the increase would come from county and city governments and the remainder from the state.

Bailey said he supports the governor’s vetoes, including the decision to veto the Kirwan bill because of “prevailing circumstances,” adding he “couldn’t believe any of his colleagues would vote for the one largest tax increase” during the pandemic.

The senator said one of his biggest priorities this year will be COVID-19 relief.

“It needs to be that way for the unemployed, small businesses and landlords,” he said, claiming he supports a package that will help people locally.

Another priority, Bailey mentioned, is police reformation. He claimed it’s important “that we have accountability and responsibility for everyone.” One bill the senator is proposing, SB99, would incorporate law enforcement officers and first responders into existing protections of the Maryland hate crime laws.

“This will protect the people who are protecting us,” he said.

Bailey also discussed, SB268, which would alter the definition of a crime of violence to include sexual abuse of a minor when the offender is an adult and the child is under 16 years of age. Another bill, SB333, would require sexual offenders be on lifetime supervision.

“It’s very important once predators are identified that we keep track of that and we make sure they do not commit the crime again,” he said.

A local bill, SB239, would prohibit the possession of tobacco products on public and non-public school property in St. Mary’s County, legislation which Bailey pointed out is supported by the Southern Maryland delegation as well as the St. Mary’s commissioners, school board, state’s attorney and sheriff’s office.

Need to get ‘the economy hitting on all cylinders’

Del. Gerald “Jerry” Clark (R-Calvert, St. Mary’s) said this week that state legislators are likely going to override Gov. Larry Hogan’s veto of the Kirwan education bill and, if so, legislators “are going to have to figure out how to pay for it.”

Clark stated that “public feedback, the governor’s budget and revenues” will be “big contributing factors in how the [Kirwan bill] is pushed out.”

Regarding COVID-19, Clark noted the governor “has been putting money into funds all along” to assist restaurants, renters and others.

“We need to get the economy hitting on all cylinders,” he said, noting that it may not happen until next year. He noted when the 2021 session starts next week, those 2020 bills that were delayed due to COVID-19 “will be heard quickly.”

Other bills Clark expects to see will most likely touch on environmental issues, such as recycling, deposits and composting, as well as justice areas like the Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights.

Although there will be no physical access allowed to the public and lobbyists to the state house, hearing rooms and legislative offices, Clark mentioned “you can still make an appointment and go see a legislator.” As for the resignation of former senator Thomas V. Mike Miller announced just before Christmas, Clark said he is going to miss “his institutional knowledge.”

‘Children need to be educated’

Although some lawmakers are weary of the Kirwan education bill, Sen. Arthur Ellis (D-Charles) said he’ll be working to override the governor’s veto and, in turn, “educate the next generation of leaders.”

While many claim there is no money for the bill, Ellis pointed out the state budget deficit is much smaller than they thought it would be.

“It might be a little rocky next year but we’ll see … children need to be educated properly,” he claimed.

When Ellis was asked about other legislative priorities for the region, one of the first things he mentioned was COVID-19 relief, especially bills that would “rein in penalties or fees for paying bills late … during a time of national and state emergency.”

Transportation is also a priority in Southern Maryland, he said, adding he will support funding for an 18.7-mile long light rail which would stretch from Branch Avenue in Prince George’s County to White Plains in Charles County, just south of the area’s largest community, Waldorf.

“When COVID-19 ends, traffic will get bad again,” he said, noting the project would improve the entire region.

The senator stated criminal justice reform will be a big issue this year as well, and said he plans to push for more accountability among police departments in Maryland.

“We want to reinforce good practices and find techniques to make agencies more responsive to the community,” Ellis said. “Citizens should be more confident [law enforcement] is there to serve and protect. … We definitely need law enforcement.”

One of the senator’s proposed bills, regarding maternal health, would support a pilot program in several counties to employ doulas, who support women during childbirth but do not have formal obstetrics training, with Medicaid reimbursing providers for mothers who cannot afford them.

African American and Latino mothers are two to three times more likely to experience complications during pregnancy and birth, Ellis pointed out, and doulas often can communicate for mothers who may not be confident in dealing with medical personnel.

Another bill discussed by Ellis addresses trash on Maryland highways. The legislation would require the State Highway Administration to cut the grass twice a month during growing season and to pick up litter once a month, weather-permitting, making the region “more welcoming to visitors,” thus providing the state with more money.

The senator said he is “looking forward to this session” and encouraged the public to reach out to him with any questions or concerns.

Reform on ‘top of people’s radar’

Del. C.T Wilson (D-Charles) said on Monday that COVID-19 will make the year “the most difficult of his political career” as the state is left with a “horrible fiscal deficit.” The delegate said one of his priorities in the upcoming legislative session will be making sure the COVID-19 vaccine is properly distributed. While he claimed Southern Maryland is often left out, his focus will be on having it readily available to residents.

Police reform is at “the top of people’s radar,” the delegate said, claiming “there is no denying there is a gap in trust” between law enforcement and the community. Wilson said he is introducing a bill which would require officers, when pulling someone over or addressing a civilian, to introduce themselves by name and badge number, as well as explain the reason for the stop.

“We’re reminding people you’re there to serve them,” he said.

Even though Wilson expects there to be challenges brought on by a largely virtual legislative session, one positive element is citizens at large can get more involved as more access to what’s going on in Annapolis will be available to watch online.

Staff writer Marty Madden contributed to this story. Twitter: @MadisonSoMdNews

Overdoses increase amid pandemic, but aren't as deadly
  • Updated

Drug overdose rates continued to climb amid the COVID-19 pandemic, but those that turn fatal have decreased throughout Southern Maryland last year, according to police and health officials.

St. Mary’s Sheriff Tim Cameron (R) said he has a few suspicions for the uptick in drug overdoses last year, but noted the common denominator for most of the ones that turn fatal is fentanyl.

In St. Mary’s, where there were 212 non-fatal overdoses in 2020 as opposed to 190 in 2019 and 195 in 2018, per the sheriff’s office and health department’s data, a total of 28 overdoses were fatal this year, and four are under review by the medical examiner.

Those reviews could put 2020’s final count in St. Mary’s County above last year’s final count of 28.

“Social distancing, it’s evidence-based to prevent COVID-19, but it prevents that human connection for [drug] treatment, and around you, you have the economy collapsing,” Cameron said, when asked if COVID-19 influenced 2020’s numbers. “There are just so many things that could go into that.”

A total of 75% of the fatal overdoses in 2020 involved fentanyl, according to the sheriff’s office.

The drugs involved in overdoses in 2020 were mostly cocktails including fentanyl “in almost every case, with the exception of just a few,” as it is easy to mix with most other drugs, the sheriff said.

“There is not a drug that is not included in this” list of drug cocktails that lead to overdose deaths, he said.

In Calvert, police reported a total of 132 overdoses in 2020, 22 of which were fatal in 2020. In 2019, there were 130 overdoses, 28 of which were fatal, and in 2018, there were 127 overdoses, 27 of which were fatal.

Prince Frederick and Chesapeake Beach had the most overdoses all three years, according to data which Calvert posts online. Of the 132 overdoses in Calvert in 2020, 92 mainly involved heroin.

In Charles, there were 139 non-fatal overdoses in 2020, and 20 fatal, compared to 112 non-fatal and 24 fatal the prior year, Charles County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Diane Richardson said.

“In general, we are seeing more overdoses, but less or the same number of deaths,” Doris McDonald, the behavioral health director for the Calvert health department, said. McDonald attributed the decrease in deaths to harm reduction strategies, including the availability of naloxone, also known as Narcan, which can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose.

Joseph Windsor, the drug intelligence program coordinator for the Calvert County Sheriff’s Office, said the county had seen a “huge spike in non-fatal overdose incidents” in the third quarter of 2020, which was July through September, with a total of 44 incidents.

Windsor attributed that bump to COVID-19 restrictions being loosened compared to the previous quarter, and said the bump was visible throughout the state. In Maryland during the third quarter, the number of fatal incidents decreased from the second quarter by 7.7%, and non-fatal overdoses increased by 19%.

He also said naloxone use by citizens had increased, but fentanyl’s presence in other drugs, such as cocaine and heroin, had also increased.

Cameron said the opioid epidemic began with the “pill epidemic,” before drug users moved on to heroin because “the pills were so expensive and hard to get.”

Now, heroin users are encountering fentanyl more often and overdoses continue to increase each year, largely due to fentanyl.

This year, Cameron said COVID-19 will impact that increase.

“One, economically, it’s not the same, [and] two, socially, it’s just not the same” in 2020, he said.

Cameron said Southern Maryland was still uniquely positioned to handle drug treatment, compared to much of the rest of the state, as there are many treatment centers in the area, and St. Mary’s corrections offers low-level offenders links to drug treatment.

Soon, he said, St. Mary’s may be able to host day reporting, for those accused of or serving sentences for non-violent drug crimes, to check in with staff and take drug tests daily, but not stay in a traditional correctional facility.

Twitter: @DanSoMdNews

Southern Md. birding group offers pandemic hobby

Looking for a safe, new hobby to pick up during the COVID-19 pandemic? While birding is the perfect quarantine activity, the tri-county area is full of the resources one would need to get started, thanks to the Southern Maryland Audubon Society and several birding programs in the region.

Tiffany Farrell, president of the local birding group, claimed it’s been a strange year for them as the pandemic changed the way they operate. Typically, she said, members would go on birding field trips and hold monthly meetings — “the bread and butter” of the group — but organized trips were no longer feasible as it was difficult to ensure proper social distancing.

With the extra time on their hands, a new website was developed over the summer, which includes a lot more information than before, such as how to set up a nest box, directions on what to do when one finds an injured bird and what to take along when going birding. Meetings were also made virtual and can be accessed by signing up for the Audubon Society’s newsletter, which provides a link to join the periodic meetings.

Farrell mentioned an eagle nest camera, set up at Port Tobacco River Park in Charles County, is just starting to show some activity for the season. The resident pair of birds, Chandler and Hope, can be observed through the camera, which provides live footage available on the park’s website.

The Christmas Bird Count was still on this season, she said. Considered one of the longest running citizen research projects, the count consists of teams going to specific areas and identifying as many birds as they can. With the pandemic, Farrell expected teams to be smaller with people traveling in pairs rather than larger groups.

At this point, the group’s president said she was unsure about being able to do the annual “owl prowl,” scheduled for February, as it depends on the state of the pandemic at that time.

“We’ve been working hard to find new activities,” Farrell said. “A lot is going on but its different this year.”

SMAS partnered with the Maryland Bird Conservation Partnership, she said, to bring new programs into the region, one being the Maryland Farmland Raptor Program, which aims to help farmers realize the benefits of having birds on their property. Brochures with information on local birds have been created to share with farmers to encourage the use of nest boxes for species such as the barn owl and the American kestrel.

Another project launched this year is the Maryland and D.C. breeding bird atlas, Farrell mentioned. The long-term project will last for five years and asks birders to look for signs of breeding birds, such as the carrying of nesting materials, feeding or the sound of baby chicks.

Lynne Wheeler, past president of SMAS and current member chair, said the breeding bird atlas is a “beautiful project … While bird counts are fast and furious.” She pointed out with the breeding bird atlas, people can take their time witnessing and studying birds.

“The project gave me sanity,” this year, she said, as COVID-19 restricted a number of other leisure activities.

Wheeler said “birding can be all encompassing” as it overlaps with most other outdoor activities. Now is a great time to start, she said.

“You can be a backyard birder or you can grow with it … you can make birding what you want it to be,” she said, adding, once one “gets into it” they really become educated about the environment and the importance of a healthy habitat.

Southern Maryland is a great place to bird because it features “all the bird habitats,” such as forests, shorelines, fields and farms. County parks are a good starting place for beginners, Wheeler claimed, and said an online birding guide of all Southern Maryland Trails are available on their website. “Feel free to contact us and we can help out with your flight path.”

James Tyler Bell, a resident of Wildewood, and his wife have been birding in Southern Maryland for 30 years. Today, Bell is the St. Mary’s County coordinator for the breeding bird atlas, a position he decided to take after retiring this year. While COVID-19 “shut everything down,” he said the project has been much more local for him, as it became more geographically centered with people not traveling far. He claimed it made the experience more intense, since he got very familiar with the birds around his home.

“Birding is a good activity to do on your own,” Bell said, especially in an era with the internet where most of the information one would need is so readily available. He added it can be an inexpensive hobby, too, while all you need are “binoculars and a field guide and you’re good to go.”

For more information about the Southern Maryland Audubon Society, visit www.somdaudubon.org/.

Twitter: @MadisonSoMdNews

Police probe tires dumped off Hermanville Road

Hermanville resident Stephanie Haines is tired of the litter.

Police are investigating the disposal of hundreds of tires into a stream off the side of the residential road last week, following what they said were “multiple” reports of the tires being disposed in two locations in southern St. Mary’s County.

As late as Tuesday afternoon, the vast rubber piles were strewn about past the guardrail off Hermanville Road, on private property alongside a disposed-of mattress, beer cans and a television set, with many tires rolling into a small creek connected to the St. Mary’s River.

“We want charges pressed,” Haines, a retired teacher from Ridge Elementary School who owns part of the private property where the tires were dumped, said on Wednesday morning, just after the tires had been removed from the property. “But who knows if they’ll find the goofball who did it.”

Having lived off Hermanville for four decades, Haines said there have been littered tires before, but she has never seen the amount that was dumped the week of Christmas, which she discovered while on a walk after the holiday.

“We sometimes get a few tires, and you fish them out,” she said, adding the hundreds of tires were “pretty disgusting.”

The St. Mary’s County Department of Public Works and the Maryland Department of the Environment are also cooperating in the littering investigation. The public works department came by and picked up the tires on Wednesday morning, Haines said.

“It’s just disgraceful to see someone dump all that trash down there,” St. Mary’s River Watershed Association Director Bob Lewis, who was also called to the scene of the dump last week, said, adding the amount of tires shows the dump originated from a commercial source.

“That means people like you and I are paying to have those dumped over the guard rail,” he said.

Lewis estimated about 200 tires were disposed of there. Haines estimated there were several hundred tires on her property.

“It’s a bad thing to have happened,” John Dietrick, the county’s public works director, said.

“It pollutes chemically and environmentally” being in the waterway, he said. “We want to take care of this beautiful county.”

Dietrick said the county had produced an action plan for the removal of the tires after they had been discovered last week.

Scrap tires can be taken to St. Andrew’s Landfill in California, where they are collected and hauled to a processing facility. Up to five passenger car tires are free, and commercial haulers pay $158 per ton of tires, according to the department of public works’ website.

Sheriff’s office spokesperson Cpl. Julie Yingling said police are investigating the massive pile of litter, which joined another recent tire dump off Whitaker Road in St. Inigoes that police are also investigating after multiple callers made reports.

Those with information on the tire dumping are asked to contact Dfc. Matthew Beyer at 301-475-4200, ext. 78005, or email at matthew.beyer@stmarysmd.com.

Twitter: @DanSoMdNews