Legislators drafting alternate water bill Rural lawmakers develop softer version of governor's proposal

January 28, 1998|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

Rural legislators led by a powerful committee chairman are drafting an alternate version of Gov. Parris N. Glendening's program for dealing with Pfiesteria in hopes of forcing the administration to compromise with farm interests.

Del. Ronald A. Guns, chairman of the House Environmental Matters Committee, said yesterday that the lawmakers plan to introduce legislation that would include most of the governor's water quality plan while dropping certain provisions most ardently sought by environmentalists.

The Cecil County Democrat said the rural legislators' bill would not include Glendening's proposed requirement that farmers adopt plans to control the runoff of soil nutrients into the water.

"We'd rather look at targets and see if we can reach some goals," said Guns. He said the alternative bill would favor a voluntary approach, omitting the governor's proposed penalties for farmers who don't follow nutrient management plansand stretching the timetable for bringing farmers under such plans.

The rural legislators' effort is the second step in a legislative tango that began with the introduction of Glendening's bill Monday night.

In separate interviews yesterday, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. both predicted the General Assembly would pass legislation to deal with the nutrient pollution that scientists have tentatively linked with toxic Pfiesteria outbreaks.

Both presiding officers stressed the importance of coming to grips with the fish-killing microbes that prompted the closing of three Eastern Shore waterways last summer -- incidents that led to serious losses for the state's seafood industry.

"It's highly likely we'll complete it, but I can't tell you the pain we'll have to go through to get there," said Taylor. "It could be considerable."

The Cumberland Democrat praised Guns' effort to forge a rural consensus as "very helpful."

Guns' effort has attracted some formidable allies, including the chairmen of the two powerful capital budget subcommittees that dole out money for legislators' pet projects: Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, a Charles County Democrat, and Del. Norman H. Conway, a Wicomico County Democrat.

Members of the farm interests' group have been stressing their willingness to work with Glendening and avoiding the heated rhetoric employed by advocates for the state's chicken industry, which would bear the brunt of the governor's proposed run-off controls.

Conway said the group is trying to balance the interests of farmers and water quality. He said he's confident that a voluntary approach can be effective in bringing farmers under nutrient management plans.

"You'll always have a few hard core, but I think peer pressure within the agriculture community may bring that along," he said.

But environmental groups said they would hold out for tougher requirements, such as those in the Glendening bill.

"Asking the companies to do it voluntarily hasn't worked, so why write it into law if it's not going to work?" said Tom Grasso, Maryland executive director for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. "The litmus test for us is making sure the program works."

But Miller said both sides are going to have to give ground. He predicted the Senate will pass a diluted version of the governor's bill by about mid-February.

The Senate president said he expects the bill to become even "lighter" after Guns is finished with it in the House committee.

The Prince George's County Democrat said he expects that in the end, the issue will be resolved in much the same way Glendening's Smart Growth anti-sprawl initiative was settled last year.

He said the two presiding officers and Joseph C. Bryce, Glendening's chief legislative officer, would meet behind closed doors with Guns, representing rural interests, and Montgomery County Sen. Brian E. Frosh, an advocate for environmentalists, and reach a compromise.

Taylor, who said he is keeping an open mind on the question of mandatory controls, agreed with Miller's scenario. "We will come together on a program," he said.

Pub Date: 1/28/98

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