Strapped fisheries agency facing legislative hack job

Visiting the Maryland GeneralAssembly is like havinga front-row seat atShort Attention Span Theater.Lawmakers hope you don't rememberwhat they did to you lastyear and count on you not rememberingtwo years ago.

Otherwise, how do you explainthe proposal to slash $1 millionfrom the Fisheries Service budget?Remember -- there's that word-- recreational anglers by andlarge supported a move to nearlydouble many license fees to infusethe cash-strapped Fisheries Servicewith some financial juice. Thegovernor agreed to supply matchingmoney. And state lawmakers authorizeda task force to conduct a top-to-bottomreview of policies and management practices.Well, the task force work is done. Biologists,researchers and data crunchers werehired last year.

Now House and Senate members areconsidering whether to hack away at theFisheries Service budget while at the sametime considering a bill to make the licenseincreases permanent.

That's a double helping of stick-'em-upwith a side order of "and your watch, too."Or, as Fisheries chief Tom O'Connellputs it: "If this budget cut is made, we'll beright back where we started from. ... It's notfair to the license holders who ponied upthe money to help us."

In fiscal year 2008, the entire Departmentof Natural Resources (which includes Fisheries)received about $75 million in generalfunds from state lawmakers. Next year, it isscheduled to get $45 million, or about41 percent less. In this fiscal year, theadministration cut 68 positions, 54 withpeople 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 ofstate government -- becomes adepartment in name only?

Yes, times are tough. Yes, everyoneis being forced to do more withless. But DNR has never recoveredfrom the cuts ginned up by theGlendening administration andapproved by lawmakers eventhough many agencies have beenrestored.

"We're beyond the point wherewe can cut around the edges," saysFrank Dawson, DNR assistantsecretary for aquatic resources."The $1 million represents all thethings we need to do. The fishingcommunity came forward. Thegovernor provided the match.That's the kind of relationship youwant to have."

Angler and conservation groups havetestified against the Fisheries Service cuts.That might not be enough. Lawmakers ofall stripes -- the ushers at Short AttentionSpan Theater -- need to know that youknow what they're doing. Their phonenumbers and e-mail addresses are

Poaching punishment, on iceThe second act of SAS Theater shouldconcern every hunter and animal lover.Why would a state Senate committee killa bill that punishes poachers?

Sponsored by Sen. John C. Astle -- witha House version sponsored by Del. BarbaraFrush -- the proposal would allowDNR to suspend for up to five years thehunting license or privileges of anyoneconvicted of a state or federal poachingviolation and would require the agency totake action against serial offenders.

It follows the lines of last year's law thatlowered the boom on fish, oyster and crabpoachers.

Current law allows a judge to suspend ahunting license but not hunting privileges.That means a poacher may continue tohunt on private property, like the familyfarm, where a license is not needed,regardless of court action.

How is that punishment? How is that fairto law-abiding hunters? How is that OK?Of course, it is not.

The problem is real, and the proposedremedy is right down the middle of theroad, as you might expect when you getAstle, an avid hunter, and Frush, anenthusiastic supporter of animal rights, toagree.

Natural Resources Police officers say thebill makes chasing bad guys a little easierfor the understaffed force. If DNR yankssomeone's hunting privileges and an officersees that person's vehicle parked alonga rural road during hunting season, it'sworth 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, Healthand Environmental Affairs Committeevoted unanimously to kill it. Those whodecided to give poachers a pass (and youdidn't think we'd notice) were: Chairwoman

Joan Carter Conway, Vice ChairmanRoy Dyson, Richard Colburn, DavidHarrington, Andrew Harris, MichaelLenett, Paul Pinsky, Edward Reilly andJames Rosapepe. Their phone numbersand e-mail addresses are at:

What gives with Dyson, a longtimesupporter of the NRP and hunting opportunities?And where is the Maryland LegislativeSportsmen's Caucus, which supportedthe fish poaching bill last year? Doessomebody owe somebody something?House Bill 636, sponsored by Frush andWestern Maryland Del. Wendell Beitzel,has had a hearing, and a subcommittee latelast week endorsed it. A message needs tobe sent to game poachers, too. Let's hope theHouse comes through and the Senatereconsiders.

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