Online licenses in line in Maryland

Saddle up those mouses, gang, we're riding into the 21st century.

Seventeen of your state lawmakers - men and women, Democrats and Republicans, representing Baltimore and 18 counties - have decided it's time to let anglers and hunters in Maryland do what the hook-and-bullet crowd in the majority of states can: buy a license online.


The Department of Natural Resources got behind HB 654 at a hearing last Wednesday. If approved by both houses and signed by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich, it would take effect Oct. 1.

What a vision. Buying fishing licenses for visiting relatives or business associates ahead of time. Being able to print several copies and keep them in your tackle box, on your boat or in your wallet and have a spare in case you misplace it. Pinch me, I'm dreaming.


The International Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies says that since the start of the e-business craze in 1996, Internet licensing has been made available in 40 states, with up to 35 percent of sportsmen using those services.

Maryland budget analysts believe that over time, increased revenue from Internet license sales will offset the operational costs.

The legislative appears to be there. Let's make those mouses roar.

Cops and bobblers

Law of gravity: Stuff rolls downhill.

Law of Annapolis: Natural Resources Police officers are always at the bottom of the hill.

Time and again, if there's a group of state workers most likely to be treated in a manner contrary to the rules of the Geneva Convention, it's the fish and critter cops.

The offenses go back more than 30 years. Cut the budget so there's not enough gas for patrols. Pass stricter game laws, but don't pay for the manpower to enforce them. Force the officers to hold fund-raising events to get new equipment.


This year is no exception.

The Ehrlich budget gurus seem hell-bent on finding some part of the Mandel Commission report on streamlining government to ram through this legislative season. One slice of the report suggests combining Natural Resources Police with the Forest and Park Service rangers.

OK, but what do we get - a crime-fighting machine that assembles picnic tables?

Others, including state lawmakers, police unions and two leading outdoors organizations are asking the same question.

By his own definition, Park Service Superintendent Rick Barton runs a "multi-functional agency," with responsibility for law enforcement, land management, tourism, public works, conservation and recreation.

NRP officers have powers that not only include busting poachers and drunken boaters, but also enforcing any other Maryland law. In that respect, the 135-year-old agency most closely resembles State Police.


No one is running down the work of Park Service staff. Just think back to last fall, when many rangers put themselves at risk to save public property during Isabel and then dedicated long hours to repair storm damage.

"We're not opposed to having the rangers join us," says NRP Cpl. Jack Bailey, an 18-year veteran and president of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 8. "It only makes sense to be going toward one police agency. But we have no idea what our jobs will become."

Imagine the howl from the State House if someone with no knowledge of legislative matters said, "Oh, let's save time and money by combining the House and the Senate. They do the same thing, don't they? We'll work out the details later and get back to you."

Let's hope this merger isn't to put a smiley face on the cover of the Mandel report - four whole months in the making and already largely forgotten.

Don't ask the employees what's going on. No one has told them, even though transfers, promotions and raises have been put on hold until the merger occurs.

A report on the merger prepared in January by Ehrlich budget director Chip DiPaula for the House and Senate budget chairmen notes that the budget office looked at making Natural Resources Police part of the State Police, as well as merging NRP with the State Forests and Parks rangers.


DiPaula's report says combining NRP and the State Police "is not in the state's interest," but the NRP-ranger merger creates "significant efficiencies."

Two questions: Why is it not in the state's best interests? And what would those efficiencies be? The report is silent.

Here's one more question: Why are lawmakers getting the courtesy of a briefing before the effected employees?

Thank goodness, not everyone is buying into the Ministry of Propaganda line.

Del. Norman Conway, a Salisbury Democrat who received the DiPaula report as chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, is co-sponsoring a bill with Joan Cadden, an Anne Arundel Democrat, to make NRP a division of State Police.

"There's a real correlation between what Natural Resources Police and State Police do," says Cadden. "With an acting superintendent for State Police and an acting head of Natural Resources Police, this is the time to do it."


On the Senate side, Democrat Katherine Klausmeier of Baltimore County has filed a similar bill.

"It's the right thing to do," says Klausmeier. "When you're a small part of an organization, you get overlooked sometimes for the good of the big picture. But whether they're stopping a boat on the Chesapeake Bay for narcotics or chasing an armed poacher through the woods, they face scary situations. It's time Natural Resources Police get a voice and are part of an organization with the same mission."

The legislation is backed by the surf-and-turf combo of the Coastal Conservation Commission and the Maryland Sportsmen's Association.

"There is definitely something weird going on when Natural Resources Police have to have a fundraiser to buy equipment vital to their work," says Steve Huettner, president of the MSA. "You don't see State Police having a banquet to raise money for binoculars and radios and GPS units. That's the telling tale."

The NRP is down 37 officers - from an authorized force of 214 - and hasn't had a training academy class in two years. The ranks of Forest and Parks rangers are down eight - from an authorized force of 154.

Instead of having a shotgun wedding, why not build up two professional groups that protect the natural resources? Seems like if we're going to have tourism commercials touting Maryland's scenery and outdoors opportunities, we ought to make sure they'll be here when the tourists arrive.