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The State We're In

Balancing valid interests — without falling off the tightrope

In 90 days of deliberations since Jan. 11, the 2017 Maryland General Assembly told us a lot about the state we’re in. It’s a message bigger than the sum — and subtraction — of the parts of the hundreds of laws passed or the 2,000-plus bills bypassed this year.
    By their actions, our lawmakers defined Maryland as a sovereign state vis-a-vis the federal government, balancing independence with the interdependence of the union. One place you see that message is the Maryland Defense Act, a Joint Resolution enabling the Maryland Attorney General to sue the federal government for illegal or unconstitutional actions.
    This is a smart step given harm that could come our way from a host of new administration initiatives, from ending long-settled programs to clean up Chesapeake Bay to forcing states and localities to assist with rounding up undocumented immigrants.
    At the same time, our General Assembly defined Maryland as a state that balances commercial interests with human and environmental interests. Keeping both those interests in play is, like tightrope walking, a feat of many tiny acts of adjustment.
    Looking at just a couple of new laws, we see that balancing act play out.
    One starts with oysters, though it’s a lot bigger than oysters or one law alone.
    Everybody wants oysters: They’re good in themselves, they’re good for the Bay, they underwrite Chesapeake culture, they support oystermen and their industry all the way to the table, where they’re good eating.
    How do you get enough oysters to go around, when — as every Marylander knows — we’ve loved them almost to death?
    Oyster sanctuaries are a big part of the current plan, and they’re where the story takes us. If oysters are growing so well in sanctuaries, shouldn’t oystermen — also an endangered species — get some of the bounty? Wouldn’t a harvest every couple of years be a good and fair thing?
    We have competing interests, and each has value and allies.
    Gov. Larry Hogan has sworn to make Maryland a business-friendly state, helping people, oystermen included, make a good living. At the same time, Maryland is committed to the Chesapeake, and that means giving oysters every chance.    
    How do you balance the interests?
    Back and forth, in increments of adjustment.
    This year’s compromise keeps oyster sanctuaries closed to harvest for two more years — until lawmakers and regulators have a sustainable management plan to guide and coordinate every oyster decision.
    That’s good: it takes Maryland a step down the road to planfulness, meaning we try to see choices in their full circle of consequences.
    It’s not so good for the oystermen. If I’m right about the kind of state we Marylanders are in, the balance should be tipped in their favor. Maybe we should encourage Gov. Hogan and our lawmakers to treat oystermen like farmers, who are so well incentivized to balance their livelihood with the good of the Bay — and the economy.
    The same kind of balancing act plays out with wider consequences in Maryland’s new law requiring businesses to give paid sick leave to workers. Lawmakers set the threshold at 15 employees, while the governor says 50. With rhetorical pyrotechnics, he’s promised to veto the lawmaker’s bill, which is still likely to become law.
    Still, the bigger point is that both sides — Republican governor and Democratic-controlled General Assembly — want to balance human needs with corporate interests.
    A state that balances both interests — with give and take on both sides — is a pretty good place to live.

Sandra Olivetti Martin
Editor and publisher
email editor@bayweekly.com, www.sandraolivettimartin.com