The votes came on the same day the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced it will place new controls on thousands of large livestock and poultry farms to reduce the flow of animal wastes into the nation's waterways. Most Maryland farms are too small to fall under the proposed federal regulations.
The Senate bill would start mandating nutrient management plans a year earlier than the House version, and would provide for fines of up to $2,500 per day for farmers who don't comply.
"I think the farmers in Washington County and throughout the state are the best stewards of their land, the best environmentalists alive. We're forcing something on them that is unnecessary, that I believe is offensive to them and will cause innumerable farms throughout the state to go out of business," said Sen. Donald F. Munson, R-Washington, who voted against the Senate bill along with Sen. John W. Derr, R-Frederick/Washington.
The House version is more sympathetic to farmers, with its later deadline and fines capped at $1,500 per year.
Del. D. Bruce Poole, D-Washington, said the House bill recognizes the need to help the environment without being so harsh on farmers that it forces them to sell their land for development.
"We sort of have to walk that balancing line," Poole said.
Many farmers and rural lawmakers originally had pushed for legislation that had no mandates, but found themselves backing the House bill as the lesser of two evils.
"I had to compromise on it," said Del. J. Anita Stup, R-Frederick/Washington.
Both bills grant religious exclusions from the regulations to Mennonite farmers, who run more than half the farms in Washington County.
Farm runoff has been linked to pollution in the Chesapeake Bay and some scientists have said the high levels of nutrients in the bay led to last summer's Pfiesteria outbreak that killed thousands of fish and caused some people to become ill.
As a result, the Pfiesteria issue has become the biggest environmental issue of the legislative session, pitting farmers who don't want additional government restrictions imposed on them against environmentalists who insist restrictions and mandates are necessary to clean the bay.
Munson said his vote shouldn't be interpreted to mean he is against clean water, but he questioned the seriousness of the environmental threat.
"On a scale of 1 to 10, the Pfiesteria problem is a .5," he said.
Even though the House bill is being labeled a compromise between a more restrictive plan offered by Gov. Parris N. Glendening and legislation favored by rural lawmakers sensitive to farmers' concerns, Munson said he doesn't like that one either.
"I intend to vote against it as long as it has mandated aspects in it," he said.
He and other lawmakers probably will get another shot at the legislation after a conference committee attempts to negotiate a compromise between the House and Senate bills before the annual 90-day session ends April 13.
Said Stup: "That's where the real vote is, so stay tuned."