Strapped fisheries agency facing legislative hack job
Sean Welsh of Cumberland helps his 4-year-old son, Shane, fish at the Battie Mixon fishing pond, named for an Allegany County game warden, along the C&O Canal in Oldtown. (AP photo / March 9, 2010)
Otherwise, how do you explain the proposal to slash $1 million from the Fisheries Service budget? Remember -- there's that word -- recreational anglers by and large supported a move to nearly double many license fees to infuse the cash-strapped Fisheries Service with some financial juice. The governor agreed to supply matching money. And state lawmakers authorized a task force to conduct a top-to-bottom review of policies and management practices. Well, the task force work is done. Biologists, researchers and data crunchers were hired last year.
Now House and Senate members are considering whether to hack away at the Fisheries Service budget while at the same time considering a bill to make the license increases permanent.
That's a double helping of stick-'em-up with a side order of "and your watch, too." Or, as Fisheries chief Tom O'Connell puts it: "If this budget cut is made, we'll be right back where we started from. ... It's not fair to the license holders who ponied up the money to help us."
In fiscal year 2008, the entire Department of Natural Resources (which includes Fisheries) received about $75 million in general funds from state lawmakers. Next year, it is scheduled to get $45 million, or about 41 percent less. In this fiscal year, the administration cut 68 positions, 54 with people in them. Over the past three years, the workforce has shrunk 19 percent. How much more can they cut before DNR -- a tiny agency in the overall scheme of state government -- becomes a department in name only?
Yes, times are tough. Yes, everyone is being forced to do more with less. But DNR has never recovered from the cuts ginned up by the Glendening administration and approved by lawmakers even though many agencies have been restored.
"We're beyond the point where we can cut around the edges," says Frank Dawson, DNR assistant secretary for aquatic resources. "The $1 million represents all the things we need to do. The fishing community came forward. The governor provided the match. That's the kind of relationship you want to have."
Angler and conservation groups have testified against the Fisheries Service cuts. That might not be enough. Lawmakers of all stripes -- the ushers at Short Attention Span Theater -- need to know that you know what they're doing. Their phone numbers and e-mail addresses are at: mlis.state.md.us.
Poaching punishment, on ice The second act of SAS Theater should concern every hunter and animal lover. Why would a state Senate committee kill a bill that punishes poachers?
Sponsored by Sen. John C. Astle -- with a House version sponsored by Del. Barbara Frush -- the proposal would allow DNR to suspend for up to five years the hunting license or privileges of anyone convicted of a state or federal poaching violation and would require the agency to take action against serial offenders.
It follows the lines of last year's law that lowered the boom on fish, oyster and crab poachers.
Current law allows a judge to suspend a hunting license but not hunting privileges. That means a poacher may continue to hunt on private property, like the family farm, where a license is not needed, regardless of court action.
How is that punishment? How is that fair to law-abiding hunters? How is that OK? Of course, it is not.
The problem is real, and the proposed remedy is right down the middle of the road, as you might expect when you get Astle, an avid hunter, and Frush, an enthusiastic supporter of animal rights, to agree.
Natural Resources Police officers say the bill makes chasing bad guys a little easier for the understaffed force. If DNR yanks someone's hunting privileges and an officer sees that person's vehicle parked along a rural road during hunting season, it's worth a look-see.
So the bill would seem to be a slam dunk, right?
But that's not what happened here. Senate Bill 362 had a hearing last month. On Feb. 26, the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee voted unanimously to kill it. Those who decided to give poachers a pass (and you didn't think we'd notice) were: Chairwoman
Joan Carter Conway, Vice Chairman Roy Dyson, Richard Colburn, David Harrington, Andrew Harris, Michael Lenett, Paul Pinsky, Edward Reilly and James Rosapepe. Their phone numbers and e-mail addresses are at: mlis.state .md.us
What gives with Dyson, a longtime supporter of the NRP and hunting opportunities? And where is the Maryland Legislative Sportsmen's Caucus, which supported the fish poaching bill last year? Does somebody owe somebody something? House Bill 636, sponsored by Frush and Western Maryland Del. Wendell Beitzel, has had a hearing, and a subcommittee late last week endorsed it. A message needs to be sent to game poachers, too. Let's hope the House comes through and the Senate reconsiders.