As House Pushes Through Dozens of Bills, Lawmakers Temporarily Fall Down a Deep Well

Del. Lauren C. Arikan (R-Hrford), left, questions Del. Regina T. Boyce (D-Baltimore City) Monday about a House bill on contaminants in well water. Screen shot.

On a day when the House of Delegates pushed through dozens of bills in a mad dash to pass legislation before the end of the General Assembly’s crossover day — a key deadline in the legislative session for bills to survive — the longest debate on the House floor Monday was over a fairly obscure measure dealing with contamination of well water.

The hour-long debate, which came in two segments, was part of a four-hour floor proceeding in the House that saw delegates pass legislation to ease the burden of Marylanders facing debilitating medical debt, a bill to compensate for half a century worth of redlining in real estate and banking practices, and measures to hold the Hogan administration accountable for promises made on major transportation projects.

The water contamination legislation, sponsored by Del. Vaughn M. Stewart III (D-Montgomery) would require landlords whose rental properties have well water, rather than water supplied by a municipal service, to test for a series of contaminants every three years, and lays out a series of steps necessary to remediate any problems.

The bill as originally written would also have established a program within the Maryland Department of the Environment to manage and address contamination in well water, which would have been funded by a transfer tax imposed on residential properties with well water that change hands. But those provisions of the bill were removed through an amendment made in the House Environment and Transportation Committee.

Bill supporters characterized the legislation as a measure that would help ensure that tenants get clean drinking water but would also be beneficial to landlords.

“This protects the tenant, but just as significantly, it protects the landlord, in case there are contaminants and the tenant decides to sue,” said Del. Regina T. Boyce (D-Baltimore City), who served as the floor leader for the legislation.

But Republicans suggested that the legislation was onerous and raised a substantial number of questions. They wondered if the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency provided enough guidelines to determine what contaminants would be covered by the legislation and how to mitigate there presence in a water well.

Del. Christopher T. Adams (R-Lower Shore) proposed an amendment stating that the bill would not take effect without greater guidance from state and federal environmental regulators.

“We’re really not sure this bill accomplishes what we’re after,” he said.

Boyce said the test kits to check whether there are contaminants in well water are fairly inexpensive — as little as $24 on Amazon. She also said that after the bill had been in committee, most landlords were supporting it.

“But they didn’t ask for it,” Adams said.

Del. Lauren C. Arikan (R-Harford) said she and her family have high levels of nitrates in their well water, and use reverse osmosis on their sinks to protect themselves from the cumulative ill effects, which she said could be “like eating 16,000 hot dogs.” But she argued that the short-term rental properties they own should not be covered by the legislation because the tenants are not there for long and are not absorbing the impact of the nitrates over an extended period.

Del. Jheanelle K. Wilkins (D-Montgomery), serving in her role as House parliamentarian, rose to forestall Arikan’s line of inquiry.

“It seems to be a personal conversation about a personal situation,” she warned.

Adams’ amendment failed on a 42-89 vote.

Del. John R. “Johnny” Mautz IV (R-Middle Shore) then rose to propose an amendment that well tests be required “every five to seven years.”

House Environment and Transportation Chairman Kumar P. Barve (D-Montgomery) was incredulous.

“Isn’t that like saying the drinking age should be 18 to 21 years old?” he wondered.

Mautz seemed sheepish. “Well, it’s an Eastern Shore-type amendment,” he explained. “You know how we do things.”

The amendment failed, 37-93.

When the bill came up for a final vote a little later in the day, Del. Mark N. Fisher (R-Calvert) expressed frustration with the overall tenor of the debate and said there was a paternalism to the bill from the Democrats who had introduced it.

“Of course the people in those areas are stewards of their wells, of course they’re stewards of the drinking water,” he said. “It’s just one bill after another coming after us in the rural areas.”

The bill passed 91-44.

Medical Debt Protection Measure Passes Unanimously

The House gave its unanimous approval to a bill that would help protect former patients from aggressive debt collection actions by the state’s hospitals.

A broad coalition of organizations, under the banner End Medical Debt Maryland, supports House Bill 565, sponsored by Del. Lorig Charkoudian (D-Montgomery), which backers say would reduce the number of people who are driven into bankruptcy by hospital lawsuits.

They claim that hospitals have done a poor job of determining which of their patients are eligible for free and reduced-cost care. And they claim that lawsuits and referrals to collections agencies increase stress for people suffering from illness and financial concerns.

Despite the opposition of the Maryland Hospital Association, the bill passed the House 134-0.

Boosting affordable housing in redlined neighborhoods

An effort to improve affordable housing development in historically redlined neighborhoods was among the flurry of bills passed by the House Monday.

House Bill 1239, sponsored by Del. Brooke E. Lierman (D-Baltimore City), would create a funding program to incentivize development in historically redlined neighborhoods by helping affordable housing developers overcome “appraisal gaps,” or the cost difference between rehabilitating and selling a house.

According to the affordable housing policy group Local Housing Solutions, appraisal gaps create a “cycle of deteriorating housing stock and community disinvestment.” As passed by the House, the proposal doesn’t include mandated state funding for the appraisal gap program – a $4 million annual appropriation was cut from the bill.

Some Republicans questioned whether such a program was necessary, with Del. Jefferson L. Ghrist (R-Upper Shore) wondering whether developers actually need supplemental state funding to turn a profit. Lierman, however, said rising construction costs and an already existing lack of development point to the need for such a program.

Lierman said that although redlining has been illegal for some time, neighborhoods across the state have suffered from “decades of disinvestment” and a lack of development as a result of the practice.

“We haven’t come close to overcoming the negative after effects of redlining,” Barve said.

The bill ultimately passed the House with bipartisan support in a 111-22 vote.

Southern Maryland transit study closer to reality

The House gave final approval to a measure that would fund a transit study in Southern Maryland. The bill, HB 414, from Del. Debra M. Davis (D-Charles), would require the governor to allocate $25 million, over a five-year period, toward design, engineering work and an environmental review of a possible transit system in the MD Route 5/U.S. Route 301 corridor.

Many Southern Maryland lawmakers want a light rail line in the 18.7-mile stretch between the Branch Avenue Metro station in Prince George’s County and Waldorf and White Plains in Charles County, but the bill does not mandate that the system be rail. Others argue that a Bus Rapid Transit system is more realistic and would bring relief sooner.

The measure requires that the project qualify for federal matching funds. The vote was 97-37.

House to MDOT: Keep your promises on highway plan

The House approved overwhelmingly a measure to require Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) and the state Department of Transportation to abide by the “promises” they have made on a controversial highway project.

The measure, House Bill 67, sponsored by Del. Marc Korman (D-Montgomery), would require the governor and his successor to keep a slew of public pledges that he and Transportation Secretary Greg Slater have made over the last two years on the widening of Interstates 495 and 270 in Montgomery County.

It was approved on a vote of 101-35, without debate.

A Republican lawmaker from the Eastern Shore who opposed the bill but didn’t get to the microphone in time said during a subsequent discussion that the measure should not include a Project Labor Agreement — a measure to require union workers to build the roadway. He also claimed, without evidence, that Maryland’s highways are less safe than Virginia’s.

In another measure related to the Hogan administration’s proposal to widen the interstates, the House on a 96-39 vote passed HB 485, a measure from Del. Jared Solomon (D-Montgomery) to create an oversight board for the proposed public-private partnership that the governor envisions funding the highway and operating the express toll lanes to pay for the project.

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Josh Kurtz
Co-founder and Editor Josh Kurtz is the leading chronicler of Maryland politics and government. He began covering the State House in 1995 for The Gazette newspapers, and has been writing about state and local politics ever since. He later became an editor at Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper, and spent eight years at E&E News, an online subscription-only publisher of news websites covering energy and environmental issues. For seven of those years, he led a staff of 20 reporters at E&E Daily, which covers energy and environmental policy on Capitol Hill and in national politics. For 6 1/2 years he wrote a weekly column on state politics for Center Maryland and has written for several other Maryland publications as well. Kurtz has given speeches and appeared on TV and radio shows about Maryland politics through the years.
Bruce DePuyt
Bruce DePuyt spent nearly three decades on local television, including 14 years as executive producer and host of News Talk on NewsChannel 8 in the Washington, D.C., area. He has served as reporter, anchor and producer/host of 21 This Week in Montgomery County and as reporter/anchor at NBC affiliate WVIR-TV in Charlottesville, VA. He's a regular contributor to WTOP (103.5 FM) and frequently moderates community and political events.
Bennett Leckrone
Leckrone is a December 2019 graduate of the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University. He has interned at The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Columbus Dispatch, PennLive.com, The Dayton Daily News and The Troy Daily News. Leckrone is a Report for America corps member.