Sarah Elfreth may be on the cusp of fulfilling a longstanding campaign pledge.

When she first ran for the state Senate in 2018, she promised to counter the ongoing loss of Maryland’s trees with the first major update of the 1991 Forest Conservation Act, setting a no-net-loss standard. It’s been a top priority for Maryland’s leading environmental groups for years.

Now in her second term, she’s the lead sponsor of a bill that sets a statewide net gain as the goal. It does it by focusing on priority forested land near waterways and setting statewide formulas while giving counties the option to come up with their own plans as they also deal with a once-in-generation housing shortage.

Exterior of the Maryland Senate's offices in Annapolis, as seen on Friday, March 31. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

“I’m sure there are people who think we gave away too much, but in the end, it’s an incredibly strong bill that got all of the stakeholders’ support,” said Elfreth, an Annapolis Democrat.

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Never heard about this bill? Maybe you should have. It’s hugely consequential and builds on a number of important changes on the issue within the last six months. But there were almost 1,400 bills introduced in Annapolis this year, and the truth is you just won’t hear anything about most of them.

When the General Assembly wraps up Monday and lawmakers head home, they’ll talk about accomplishments and failures. Headline-grabbing, big bills will feature prominently in that conversation. They dealt with transgender care, abortion access, gun regulations and the way recreational pot will work in Maryland.

Lt. Gov Aruna Miller signs a proclamation declaring March 31, 2023 International Trans Visibility Day in Maryland at a press conference in the Maryland State House on Friday. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

Between all the glory bills, though, lawmakers spend a huge amount of every 90-day session on less splashy matters, like rewriting a 32-year-old law on trees.

Some are hyper-local, such as naming the Route 261 bridge over Fishing Creek in Chesapeake Beach as the Fallen Heroes Fishing Creek Bridge.

Others are, as one lawmaker acknowledged, “boring.” Nobody testified against Frederick County proposals to end a requirement that a “basket of cheer,” alcohol donated for charity auctions, be filled with Maryland products.

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Representatives from Maryland’s biggest cities and counties put in more legislation than others, so of course they have bills that slip through without many taking notice. But a lot of what small counties push in Annapolis fits into that category, too.

Garrett County, as far west from Annapolis as you can go and still be in Maryland, has only two local bills still alive this week. One sets rules requiring the county commission to meet, while another would raise the fee that auctioneers earn at the annual county tax sale from $8 to $10 for each property sold.

Some bills deserve more attention, such as state Sen. Nancy King’s proposal to make it possible for the state and local jurisdictions to tax home amenity rentals.

From left: Sen. Joanne Benson, a Prince George’s County Democrat, and Senate Majority Leader Nancy King, a Montgomery County Democrat, listen to floor debate at the Maryland State House on Monday, March 20, also known as Crossover Day in Annapolis. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

Maryland already taxes money you make on a short-term rental platform like Airbnb. Now people are renting out parts of their homes, like a swimming pool, a dog run, or tennis courts. And some of the platforms for listing your fun stuff specifically point out that Maryland doesn’t tax this rental income.

I didn’t even know you could do this. Now I’m wondering if I can rent out my backyard shed as a wedding venue. It’s got a beer fridge, a nice view of the water if you look between my neighbor’s homes, and a 2004 Craftsman LT2000 lawn tractor bordering on antique status.

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King, a Montgomery County Democrat, is about to close that tax loophole starting July 1.

Another one of these is from Sen. Jill Carter. The Baltimore Democrat is advancing the NyKayla Strawder Memorial Act.

Named for a 15-year-old who was shot to death by a 9-year-old, the bill would require police to file a Certificate of a Child in Need every time a child under 13 is accused of actions that result in death. Police have been complaining about being unable to arrest children 12 and younger because of juvenile justice reforms that Carter championed last year.

Maryland State Senator Jill Carter speaks on cannabis legalization during the legislative Black caucus of Maryland meeting on January 25, 2023 at the House of Delegates. (Kaitlin Newman / The Baltimore Banner)

The certificate prompts the same intervention and services as an arrest, but without a criminal charge. Police shouldn’t need to be forced to do this, but apparently, a change is required. Lots of news media reported on police complaints. The good ones will follow up if Carter’s bill passes.

Del. Mike Rogers, a Democrat from Glen Burnie, steps away from success on an issue close to his heart, designating March 9 as a day to honor a groundbreaking Army unit in World War II, the all-female, all-Black 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion. Against a tide of discrimination, the unit cleared a monumental backlog of mail stuck in England and France and sent it on to front-line troops.

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Rogers, an Army veteran, got the idea when he was at an event honoring the Tuskegee Airmen, the Black airmen who flew combat missions over Europe during World War II.

“What about the ladies? What about the women? What about the Six-Triple-Eight?” he said. “I mean, it’s an incredible story.”

Del. Rachel Muñoz of Severna Park has found herself in an unusual position, a Republican with a hot-button issue that has bipartisan support in a Democratic-led legislature. It would prohibit TikTok on any state IT systems, such as cellphones or computers.

When she introduced it, federal legislation in Washington suddenly had backing from Democrats and Republicans in a Congress where that almost never happens. The week she testified before the House Government Operations Committee, the Biden administration pressed for the Chinese-owned company to spin off its shares or face a possible ban in the United States.

The bill exempts law enforcement, and the University of Maryland has asked for an exemption for its research projects. Muñoz’s concern, echoed by some of those who testified, is that TikTok can capture account and password information from keystrokes on any device carrying the app. Chinese law could require parent company ByteDance to turn over that information.

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“I don’t think there’s a lot of argument about it being used on government devices,” Munoz said. “If we’re talking about personal devices, that’s when we could talk about a matter of freedom of speech.”

Of all these bills, though, Elfreth’s may be the one with the biggest potential impact.

For the last five years, there’s been disagreement on the need for change in the state’s central tree conservation law. Elfreth helped win approval for a study that determined just how much forest has been cut down.

Released in December, the nonprofit Harry R. Hughes Center for Agro-Ecology, which is affiliated with the University of Maryland, determined the state lost about 19,000 acres of trees between 2013 and 2018. Most of that was in Prince George’s and Montgomery counties, where developers are trying to meet demand for housing.

Sen. Guy Guzzone, a Howard County Democrat, speaks during floor debate at the Maryland State House on Monday, March 20, also known as Crossover Day in Annapolis. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

That data proved crucial in winning support for legislation that Elfreth co-sponsored with Democrats Guy Guzzone in the Senate, and Sara Love, Tony Bridges and Dana Stein in the House. Without it, this bill wouldn’t have been possible.

“Basically, what we’re doing is giving local jurisdictions kind of two different ways to achieve a local goal of no net loss,” said Matt Stegman, legal counsel for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

Counties could adopt the state formula included in the bill. Or they could develop their own plan or keep an existing one like Anne Arundel’s — as long as it wins approval from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

The bill also restores the idea of a forest bank, a sort of tree swap sunk by the Democratic attorney general two years ago. The updated law rebalances the relative importance of keeping mature trees against new planting in a bank area while promoting both.

“We wanted to approach this bill from a couple of different angles,” Elfreth said. “Studies show a possible net gain if we’re specific.”

Next year, Elfreth hopes to come back with additional legislation setting financial incentives for preservation. You can’t say no one told you.

rick.hutzell@thebaltimorebanner.com

Rick Hutzell is the Annapolis columnist for The Baltimore Banner. He writes about what's happening today, how we got here and where we're going next. The former editor of Capital Gazette, he led the newspaper to a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the 2018 mass shooting in its newsroom.

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