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Gov. Hogan takes a stand against oysters

I've served as a Maryland state lawmaker for 30 years now, and I learned one lesson about our state government early on: We legislators may make policy, but governors do the governing. They — and not us — have the responsibility for running programs and applying our state's laws.

That's why all of us in the General Assembly want to hear from officials in a governor's administration whenever we start contemplating setting a new, or changing an old, policy. We want to know whether the governor supports or opposes the policies we have under review — and why.

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We may not always agree with the positions governors take. But we value their perspective. And I'm sure that governors have appreciated the opportunity to let lawmakers know where they stand before the legislature acts.

That's why I'm so mystified by how Gov. Larry Hogan has gone about his governing business. In the last three legislative sessions, Governor Hogan has directed his administration to generally avoid taking positions on proposed legislation in Annapolis.

Agencies like the Department of the Environment and the Department of Natural Resources, instead of coming right out and saying whether they support or oppose pending legislation, have typically only provided "information letters" and left lawmakers clueless about where they stand.

I have never seen any previous governor — including Governor Hogan's Republican predecessor Bob Ehrlich — behave this way.

Legislators like myself regularly look to state agencies for policy guidance when we try to evaluate the testimony we receive from supporters and opponents of the various bills that come before us. We respect the practical experience state officials have gained. We want to know whatever position the state — representing the public's interest — has chosen to take.

Why does the Hogan administration abdicate this responsibility to take positions? I don't know, but one thing I do know: It's a lot easier to defend your record in office if you have nothing in writing that you have to defend.

The Hogan administration has been avoiding taking positions so routinely that I was shocked to come across testimony from the administration this year that took an explicit position. The issue involved oyster poaching, and, at first glance, seeing the Hogan administration actually spell out a specific position left me feeling pleased.

But then I started to read a bit further and listen to more testimony. I soon realized I had plenty more reason to feel shocked than I had originally thought.

The little oyster bill turned out to be legislation that proposed to reduce the penalty for oyster waterman who "knowingly" poach oysters from restricted areas using certain oyster gear.

Our state's oyster supply, keep in mind, is currently running at only 1 percent of its historic high. We really need oysters. They serve as a "filter" and help clean the Chesapeake Bay. Two hundred years ago, our state's plentiful oysters could filter the water of the entire bay in just three days. Today, we don't have enough oysters to satisfy our state's oyster lovers, let alone enough to clean the bay.

So there we lawmakers were, actually considering — on the advice of Governor Hogan's Department of Natural Resources — reducing the penalty for poaching oysters.

Reducing those penalties made no sense to me. But at least I knew, on this one issue, where the administration stood. I'd now really like to know where the Hogan administration stands on issues across the board. And if the governor should decide to stand on the side of public policy that serves the best interests of the people of Maryland, all the better.

Paul G. Pinsky, a Democrat, serves in the Maryland State Senate as vice-chairman of the Education, Health and Environment Committee. His email is paul.pinsky@senate.state.md.us.

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