CHESTERTOWN — Members of the Eastern Shore’s General Assembly delegation were on hand during the Tuesday Kent County Commissioners meeting to discuss how the 2021 session might look this time around among other topics.
Key concerns also discussed by the commissioners and the delegation might be familiar to most living in Kent County — school funding and restrictions placed on watermen.
Del. Jay Jacobs, R-36-Kent, said he’s not sure entirely what the 2021 session will look like and probably won’t know until January.
The session will likely be shortened with some parts held virtually, Del. Jeff Ghrist, R-36-Caroline, added. The logistics of public participation are still up in the air, which he said is concerning for getting input on potential bills for issues like criminal justice.
Committee hearings will likely be held virtually though votes will be taken in person, Jacobs said.
“They don’t know. They’ve got plan A, B and C going right now,” Jacobs said. “We’re not going to know much before January.”
Outlining measures the assembly is taking to discourage the spread of COVID-19, state Sen. Steve Hershey, R-36-Upper Shore, said there will likely be plexiglass enclosures around each guest on the Senate floor. However, he raised concerns about transparency during committee bill hearings because of COVID-19 restrictions.
“We’ve certainly heard it could be a shortened session and that we could get some priority legislation through, get the budget passed — that’s really the only thing we are constitutionally obligated to do,” Hershey said. “Whether the session ended all together ... or put into recess and started up later in the year, those are options as well.”
Commissioner Bob Jacob, who said he has been named the executive commissioner on the education subcommittee within the Maryland Association of Counties, brought up unequal funding for public schools as an issue he would like to see go before the assembly.
“It seems like every year when it comes to this funding formula, Kent County always gets looked at ... and they always say, ‘We’re going to take care of Kent County.’ And they never take care of us,” Jacob said.
He outlined the familiar argument that Kent County’s seemingly high median income means less money is allocated from the state for public education here.
“I really think we’ve been getting the short end of the stick here for 20 something years in the amount of money we’re paying for our students compared to what other counties are paying for students,” the commissioner said.
Further, Jacob was critical of the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future House bill because it did not address school funding in Kent County, he said. The bill was passed in the General Assembly, “adding $1.1 billion in new funding to strengthen our schools over the next few years,” as marylandblueprint.org states.
“I just think, instead of going to Annapolis and talking about it and having these promises made to us that never seem to come through, we need to actually put something in writing and just see what happens with it,” Jacob said. “I think we have to do something different than we’ve done in past years,”
Ghrist said he “wholeheartedly agreed” with the commissioner’s points. He also praised County Administrator Shelley Heller for taking the lead on school funding during the 2020 session on behalf of the MACo.
Ghrist said nothing substantial was done to help Kent County during the 2020 session.
“I think there’s a lot more work that needs to be done, but I don’t think there was a clear cut answer,” Ghrist said.
Hershey agreed saying there was a lot of conversation specifically about Kent County, but not much to show for it. He said Senate President Bill Ferguson did speak to him about school funding here and that Ferguson said Kent County “fell between the cracks” within Blueprint for Maryland’s Future.
Rather than push a bill, Hershey suggested the county try to get MACo “on board with something that would make the change.” He said that would help get the support of other counties. Hershey said he intends to go back to the senate president to make sure Kent County’s funding problems will be addressed.
Commissioner Ron Fithian asked that the delegation address new buoys limiting where watermen can crab at the mouth of the Sassafrass River. He said watermen have crabbed that area for years.
“There’s no rhyme or reason why you should do that,” Fithian said. “It just makes no sense why you would change something like that after it’s been in place for 30 years.”
Jacobs agreed, saying the decision to change the buoys “came out of nowhere” and that it was perhaps made unfairly. The delegate said it was likely made by those lobbying the Department of Natural Resources for environmental protection of the area.
“I can tell you there’s been a lot of pressure on DNR on this issue, but they’re dug in. They don’t want to change it,” he said.