The Green Banner Dips for a While

COMMENT

January 22, 1995|By LIZ ATWOOD

The usual bright green hue of Anne Arundel's General Assembly delegation has faded this year.

The county that once led the state in environmental causes now has almost no voice on the General Assembly's environmental committees.

I say "almost" because Del. George B. Owings III, a Democrat whose Calvert County district includes four Anne Arundel precincts, still sits on the House Environmental Matters Committee, but he scores low with environmentalists.

And no one from the county sits on the Senate environmental subcommittee once chaired by Gerald W. Winegrad of Annapolis.

Everyone knew it would be different when Mr. Winegrad retired. More than any legislator, he set Maryland's environmental agenda during a 16-year career in the Maryland General Assembly.

During his first term in the House of Delegates, the state's high-ranking politicians dismissed him and his cause as unsubstantial. But he didn't give up. He ran for the state Senate, and became much more influential, helping win passage of the Chesapeake Bay Critical Area law, protections for nontidal wetlands, a ban on phosphates in the bay and a fund to protect wildlife. He was chairman of the Senate's environmental matters subcommittee when he grew tired of politics and quit.

When he announced his retirement last year, environmentalists tried to remain optimistic. Mr. Winegrad's retirement, they surmised, would give other environmental advocates a chance to emerge. And last fall, several environmental champions tried.

Steve Carr, an environmental consultant and a lobbyist for the Severn River Association, ran for the House of Delegates, but lost in the Democratic primary. John Eldridge, a young politician who promised to take up the green banner, lost in the general election.

Still, Anne Arundel environmentalists had hope. Del. Marsha Perry, who had served seven years on the House environmental committee, was re-elected. And Virginia Clagett, a Democratic county councilwoman who built her political career on environmental and farm land preservation, won election to the House of Delegates.

But when the General Assembly's leaders began to organize their committees a few weeks ago, it became clear that Anne Arundel would not retain its influence in environmental issues.

Ms. Perry attempted to become vice chair of the House Environmental Matters Committee. But frustrated over what she believed was a conservative turn in the committee, she resigned and took another assignment.

Ms. Clagett wanted only to serve on the environmental committee and continue the work she had started as a NTC councilwoman, but legislative leaders instead put her on the Commerce and Government Matters Committee.

Meanwhile, the powers in the legislature offered an environmental assignment to Victoria Schade, a young Republican delegate with a background in retail sales, but she declined because she wasn't interested in environmental issues.

That still leaves Mr. Owings on the committee, but environmentalists say he's really a tobacco proponent, not a true greenie. The Maryland League of Conservation Voters gave him a lackluster rating of 20 percent for 1991-1994.

So who's going to look after the trout in Jabez Branch and the oysters struggling in the Severn River? Who will speak for the county residents whose wells are contaminated with pesticide and who are threatened by leaking landfills?

Anne Arundel has 432 miles of shoreline and more property abutting the Chesapeake Bay than any other jurisdiction. The county continues to struggle with development and has one of the highest cancer rates in Maryland.

But despite having so much to lose or gain from environmental legislation, Anne Arundel will spend this session on the sidelines environmental debate.

Ms. Perry and Ms. Clagett say they remain committed to the environment and believe that their exclusion from the environmental committee may carry some tactical advantages.

Under the arcane rules of the House of Delegates, committee members are not allowed to criticize their chairmen or legislation generated from their committees.

Outside of the committee, Ms. Perry and Ms. Clagett will be able to resist any efforts to weaken existing environmental laws.

No major environmental initiatives are expected this year. The voters seem to have tired of the issue. Where it was once a primary concern in Anne Arundel, residents now say they are more worried about schools and crime.

Ms. Clagett said she intends to bide her time and spend this year learning the mysteries of state lawmaking. Maybe next year, she said, she will win appointment to an environmental committee and give Anne Arundel a green voice in the legislature -- again.

Liz Atwood is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.

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