Rival bills on Pfiesteria survive votes Senate supports curbs on runoff

House favors farmers

Stage set for negotiations

Conference panel might have to resolve the differences

March 04, 1998|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Thomas W. Waldron contributed to this article.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening's plan to combat Pfiesteria survived a key test vote in the Senate yesterday while a rival bill favored by farm interests received preliminary approval in the House.

The chambers could approve their respective bills this week -- setting the stage for make-or-break negotiations on the dominant environmental issue of the 1998 legislative session.

The expected passage of two conflicting bills means the differences apparently will have to be resolved by a six-member conference committee led by Cecil County Del. Ron Guns and Montgomery County Sen. Brian E. Frosh, Democrats from opposite wings of the party.

If the two houses cannot agree on a common approach, the General Assembly could end up passing no bill at all -- a politically risky outcome in view of public concern about the toxic Pfiesteria outbreaks that closed three Eastern Shore waterways last summer.

However, the conservative Guns and liberal Frosh have a track record of finding a way to compromise on difficult, high-profile issues -- as they did with Glendening's Smart Growth initiative last year.

The Senate voted 19-28 yesterday to defeat an amendment that would have made the mandatory farm pollution control plans in Glendening's bill voluntary.

The amendment, by Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, would have required the adoption of nutrient management plans only if Maryland farmers failed to achieve the goals -- ranging from 50 percent compliance in 2000 to 80 percent in 2005.

The runoff of nutrients from farms has been linked to many of the problems of the Chesapeake Bay. Scientists have said there is a high probability that excess nutrients in the water contributed to the Pfiesteria outbreaks.

While rural legislators were unable to take any of the "stick" out of the Senate bill, they succeeded in adding some "carrots" that could help produce a compromise acceptable to agriculture.

One important amendment offered by Sen. John C. Astle, an Annapolis Democrat who supported the rural bloc, would require the governor to provide funding for 110 Soil Conservation District employees -- compared with the current 62 -- to help farmers develop pollution control plans.

The amendment, which carries an estimated cost of $2 million a year, passed 24-22 despite opposition from budget committee leaders. Farmers have complained that budget cuts during the early 1990s have hampered the current voluntary nutrient management program.

Another amendment, adopted with little opposition, triples the amount the state will pay to match the cost to farmers of developing nutrient management plans. The price tag for that provision is $500,000 a year.

Rural senators and their allies spent much of the day offering other amendments that would have weakened the governor's bill. One by one, they were shot down.

The final result left some Eastern Shore senators talking filibuster. Sen. Richard F. Colburn, a conservative Dorchester County Republican, warned that he would speak "for days" against the bill.

But it appears hard-core opponents do not have enough support to avoid a vote to close off debate. Middleton, a Charles County Democrat and a full-time farmer, said he and other moderate senators would oppose a filibuster and might vote for the bill on final consideration.

His remarks came even though his amendment to set voluntary goals had failed. In arguing on its behalf, Middleton told senators that farmers would meet the voluntary goals because "our credibility is on the line."

"We're owed a chance to demonstrate to the citizens of the state of Maryland that we will be there for the environment again," said Middleton.

But Frosh, floor manager of the governor's bill, said the amendment would seriously weaken the legislation.

Farm interests were more successful in the House, where environmentalist opponents of the agriculture-backed bill authored by Gun proposed but then withdrew a series of amendments.

Pub Date: 3/04/98

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