What kind of state will future Marylanders inherit? That question was on the minds of more than 100 people who attended “Charting the Course for Environmental Change in Maryland” on Dec. 9 at Brown Advisory in Fells Point.
State Sen. Sarah K. Elfreth (D-30th) was the keynote speaker at the event, which was sponsored by the Pearlstone Center and the Baltimore Jewish Council.
Following Elfreth’s talk, breakout sessions on the environment were led by Del. Dana M. Stein (D-11th); Del. Brooke Lierman (D-46th); Joelle Novey, director of Interfaith Power & Light; Josh Tulkin, director of the Maryland Sierra Club; Kristen Harbeson, political director of the Maryland League of Conservation Voters; and Steven Hershkowitz, Maryland director of Chesapeake Climate Action Network.
Jmore recently spoke to Elfreth about her views on environmental change. The youngest woman to ever be elected to the State Senate, Elfreth, 31, a native of Barrington, N.J., serves a district that includes Annapolis and southern Anne Arundel County. She serves on the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee and the tristate Chesapeake Bay Commission.
Jmore: What do you think will be the most important environmental issues to come up before the state legislature during the 2020 session?
Elfreth: We made wonderful progress during the last session, but we must continue our work on protecting the Chesapeake Bay. There, oysters are the canary in the coalmine. They help filter the bay and they are good for the economy, but we certainly aren’t protecting them the way we ought to. We are down to only 1 percent of the oyster population.
We need to improve enforcement of a number of wonderful environmental protections on the books in Maryland. We have bill to put an ombudsman in the Office of the Attorney General to handle citizen complaints related to the Department of the Environment, the Department of Natural Resources and the Department of Agriculture. This will be an extra tool for people concerned about runoff from farms, from driveways, as well as over-fishing, diseases and sediment coming into the bay and chocking the oysters to death. People will now have an advocate in the Attorney General’s office.
There are a number of other environmental issues, including credits to better encourage residential solar panels and to encourage renewable energy.
The biggest impediments to making progress on environmental issues?
There are a lot of competing stakeholders on a variety of environmental issues. As it relates to oysters, for example, you have the scientists and advocates on one side and watermen and Gov. [Larry] Hogan on the other side. We need to mitigate the competing issues to find the right balance.
Keep in mind that we see 2,500 pieces of legislation in our 90-day session, so it’s literally impossible to know everything about every topic. My job is to be sure that on the most controversial issues, we’re bringing every stakeholder to the table, hearing everybody out with an eye toward achieving the best balance for the entire state.
Sometimes this can take several years, sometimes it can take place in one session. I feel very confident that this General Assembly has a very keen eye on making progress on the environment.
What will you and likeminded colleagues do to remove these impediments?
Exposing ourselves to people we might disagree with. It’s always important to challenge ourselves to be open-minded and thoughtful. It’s so important that we hear the voices of our constituents when they are being vocal about protecting the environment. It’s a two-way street. It’s incumbent on citizens to tell us what they want. And it’s incumbent on us, whether or not we agree with them, to always listen to our constituents and advocates.
What can citizens do to help Baltimore reach important environmental goals?
Accept the idea that we all have a role to play, every single one of us. Examples: use reusable coffee and water mugs. That alone saves me 150 mugs in three months.
We’re going to have a bill this year about stewardship of properties. There are simple things that we can all do better to live our values in our lives. If you have a waterfront property, create a buffer zone between the property and the water to filter runoff from the water. Have a rain barrel to catch the runoff from your roof before it goes into the street.
Be unabashed in speaking up about your values to people who represent you. In-person meetings are most effective, then phone calls and personal emails. Strive to make personal connections. Come be a part of our process and advocate for those things you care about, so we can understand why constituents advocate whatever they care about.
What other issues are priorities for you in the upcoming legislature?
We are reaching out to the Baltimore Jewish Council, for example, on the child marriage bill. Jmore readers and others are likely to be surprised that it’s legal for a 15-year-old to get married in Maryland under certain circumstances. It’s one of the lowest age floors for marriage in the country. But every evidence-based indicator points to everyone waiting until 18 to get married.
We’ve had a bill for a number of years that we’ve not been successful getting passed, so this year we’ll try to raise the floor to age 17, and then have any 17-year-old who wishes to get married to go through a very thorough review process with a judge, independent of any parent. We want to make sure that a government contract is not holding back young people, particularly young women.
We have more women in this legislature than ever before, so I think we’ll make progress on issues important to women. For example, I’m working with Del. Shelly Hettleman [D-11th] on funding the testing of rape kits, which is very important for people who are seeking justice after being assaulted. Another major issue is access to affordable, quality child care. Many grandparents are the primary caregivers because both parents must work and the cost of child care is too expensive. We need a system set up so that women in particular stay in the economy. It’s a very important issue that we must continue to stay focused upon.
Peter Arnold is a Silver Spring-based freelance writer.