Agritourism bill clears Senate, but clock is running down

Sen. Arthur Ellis (D-Charles) (Maryland General Assembly)

UPDATE #2: It sounds like the agritourism bill may be dead this year after all due to the early adjournment. Sen. Arthur Ellis (D-Charles), the bill’s lead sponsor in the Senate, provided a statement to TLR on the bill’s status.

“Unfortunately, because [the General Assembly will] shut down this Wednesday, chances are it will not move through the House,” Ellis told TLR. “We’re just out of time.”

Ellis cited the legislature’s efforts to focus on passing emergency legislation — bills that will take effect immediately upon passage — as well as on efforts of the majority party to pass its signature legislation such as the HBCU salary bill and the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future in the remaining two-and-a-half days before the session adjourns.

Although the legislative session will resume in late May, the decision to adjourn sine die means that any legislation not passed by that point will have to be reintroduced and go through the entire legislative review process again.

“We will have to take it up next year early on and try to get all the parties on board to make sure it moves through the entire body,” Ellis said.

“The agritourism bill is a very important bill for Charles County,” Ellis added. “I look forward to really being a big booster for this bill, a big supporter, to make sure it passes.”

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UPDATE #1: In these busy times, events catch up with you fast sometimes. In a press conference around the time that this post was published, the General Assembly announced that it will be adjourning on Wednesday, March 18 and will reconvene in late May. TLR will be keeping an eye on SB432 to see if it makes the cut, but readers should not be surprised if the bill is put on hold until the session resumes to make way for more urgent legislation.

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A bill that would make it easier for Charles County farmers to convert farm buildings for alternative uses passed the Senate unanimously on Saturday, but as the bill crosses over to the House of Delegates it faces a backlog of legislation awaiting action amid concerns that the legislature may have to adjourn early as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Senate Bill 432, “Charles County – Public Safety – Buildings Used for Agritourism,” unanimously passed its third and final Senate reading Saturday evening without debate or discussion, amid a flurry of other bills that had also been approved by their various committees and were ready for final votes in the full Senate to allow them to be considered in the other chamber, a process called crossover.

However, the House of Delegates faces pressure to concentrate on working with the Senate to pass the state budget and to debate legislation related to the Kirwan Commission’s recommendations for education funding while also keeping a weather eye on the COVID-19 pandemic that may force an early adjournment to avoid health risks.

Legislators worked through the weekend to pass as many bills as they could because Monday is crossover day, the last day by which each chamber must send its passed legislation to the other chamber in order to have a realistic chance of passage by the end of the session.

SB432 proposes an amendment to the state’s public safety code that would exempt Charles County farmers from several building code requirements if they want to convert structures on their farms for agritourism functions, provided that occupancy does not exceed 200 people. The state public safety code currently grants such an exemption for 16 counties — well over half the counties in the state — including neighboring St. Mary’s and Calvert counties.

The Charles County Rural Planning and Zoning Task Force, which drafted the bill, argued that the exemption will encourage the growth of agritourism in the county and help farmers stay in business by providing alternative sources of revenue.

Sen. Arthur Ellis (D-Charles) introduced the agritourism bill at the outset of the legislative session in January. It was part of a set of bills endorsed by the entire Charles County delegation that are intended to amend existing law and apply strictly to Charles County. Such bills are commonly called “local courtesy” bills and are typically fast-tracked for passage without opposition, debate, or amendment.

However, as TLR reported last week, the House version of the bill, HB335, was suddenly withdrawn without explanation the day before its first hearing. Typically, when one of a pair of identical bills is pulled, it signals the death of its counterpart in the other chamber.

At the March 4 hearing of the Senate Education, Health, and Environmental Affairs Committee, vice-chair Sen. Cheryl C. Kagan (D-Montgomery) told Ellis that he “may need to do some … real work to see what’s possible to make sure that this [bill] isn’t already dead on arrival.”

“Senator Ellis, let’s … work to make sure we can get you right answers and figure out if you need to do some superhuman work because there’s certainly precedent for this being done around the state,” Kagan said during the hearing.

Despite Ellis’ efforts to keep the agritourism bill alive, the effort may be for nought this year as the House faces a crush of legislation seeking passage before the end of the session, including the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, which proposes pumping $4 billion annually into Maryland’s schools. Democrats are hopeful that they will be able to enact legislation that will fund the blueprint, but the proposal faces serious backlash from Republicans and observers predict an intense struggle to pass even a weakened version. If that ends up being the case, other legislation could end up being sidelined.

By law, the General Assembly must pass the state budget before adjourning. All other legislation is optional. Danielle Gaines of Maryland Matters reports that legislators expect the budget bill to reach the House floor on Sunday or Monday.

Following yesterday’s passage by the Senate, SB432 is currently awaiting a House committee assignment – likely the House Environment and Transportation Committee – through which it will have to pass along with many other bills seeking the committee’s attention. After that, the bill will then have to pass two subsequent readings and, if there are any changes made, a review by the Senate and a conference committee before it is allowed to pass into law.

As of Sunday, assuming there are no delays or postponements, 22 days remain until the session’s final adjournment, called sine die, on Monday, April 6. TLR will continue to monitor the progress of the agritourism bill as well as other legislation that could affect planning and development in Charles County in this year’s General Assembly session.

photo: Sen. Arthur Ellis (D-Charles) (Maryland General Assembly)