ANNAPOLIS – In a Zoom call Friday, Jan. 14, U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin expressed solidarity with the Eastern Shore Delegation, calling them “team Maryland” and explaining what local opportunities could arise from federal programs, including the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill.
“We share responsibility,” Cardin said, referring to his counterpart, U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen, who he’s met with in several meetings dealing with “critical” Eastern Shore issues.
The first issue the senator mentioned was the unexpectedly low number of H-2B visas available for the second half of FY 2022. The visas, which provide businesses access to seasonal labor in certain non-agricultural roles, are regularly acquired by oyster, crab, and other seafood-related businesses, a significant industry on the Eastern Shore.
Generally, the H-2B guest worker program has an annual cap of 66,000 visas, which are split evenly between the first and second half of the fiscal year. However, under the Harris/Pingree amendment to the annual Department of Homeland Security appropriations bill, the secretary of homeland security is authorized to release more to meet the demands of seasonal businesses if he determines there aren’t enough American workers to fill the positions.
Because of labor shortages, earlier this month, the DHS made 22,000 additional H-2B visas available. The number was decried as unacceptable by Eastern Shore business owners and lawmakers, including U.S. Rep Andy Harris, R-Md.-1st, who co-authored the amendment with Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine-1st.
In regards to the Eastern Shore, Cardin said there’s “no higher priority” for the Maryland Delegation than H-2Bs.
“We were extremely disappointed by the announcement made by the administration on the initial allocation,” Cardin said Friday. “It was not fair to the Eastern Shore. It was not fair to this country and our delegation has so noted that we’re working very hard to get that rectified.”
Citing the need for reform, Cardin said he, Van Hollen and Harris “are working very aggressively” on the issue and have already secured bipartisan support in the Senate.
“We want to work together,” Cardin added. “We want to bring our state and nation together in trying to move our country forward.”
Beyond the recent visa issue, the senator recapped the federal government’s initiatives on pandemic relief and infrastructure, both of which he said brought “unprecedented” amounts of money into Maryland. And he also highlighted the effect earmarks — the practice of directing funds to specific projects, which was banned in 2011 and reinstated last year — could have on Eastern Shore projects.
Though this year’s slate of earmarks will not be secured until an FY 2022 omnibus appropriations bill is passed, Cardin said that in his office’s initial markups from the Appropriations Committee, the Eastern Shore received about $51 million in earmarks.
According to Cardin’s Appropriations Advisor Mike Thomas, some of those projects include:
$37.5 million for first year of mid-Bay construction to relocate and maximize use of dredged material. The project will restore and expand approximately 2,000 acres of island habitat.
$5.75 million to the Army Corps of Engineers for Section 510 Chesapeake Bay Plan Outreach and Training.
$2.889 million for construction of Federalsburg Choptank Community Health Center (joint with Van Hollen).
$1.4 million for 411 Kitchen in Cambridge to redevelop the Phillips Packing House for a regional kitchen training site.
$500,000 for the City of Cambridge to replace the city’s highest priority sewer lines in a low-income neighborhood on Willis Street.
$150,000 for the Supporting Oyster Aquaculture and Restoration Program in Maryland.
Similarly, of the more than $6 billion allocated to Maryland from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, Cardin said $4 billion will be directed to roads and highways; $409 million will go to bridge repairs; and at least $100 million will go towards upping broadband services in underserved and rural areas.
The senator, whose website describes the Chesapeake Bay as “the economic, historical and cultural heart of Maryland,” also mentioned that the infrastructure bill directs $238 million towards Bay restoration funds. However, because the Bay Bridge has an independent funding source with tolls, Cardin said funding for the Chesapeake Bay Crossing Study was not guaranteed in the bill, though it could come from available flexible or competitive funds.
Of Maryland’s 10 elected officials in the federal government, Harris was the only one to vote against the bipartisan infrastructure bill.