Glendening defends environment programs

Cuts of $101 million in land, nature projects eyed by legislators

March 01, 2002|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

Gov. Parris N. Glendening launched yesterday a vocal defense of the Smart Growth and environmental programs he considers his legacy, as state lawmakers edged closer to decisions about where to cut the state budget.

Legislative analysts have identified at least $101 million in cuts to more than a dozen environmental and natural resources areas, including land-buying programs, Chesapeake Bay oyster restoration and neighborhood business development, the governor said.

"If any significant portion of these cuts go through, it will be a tremendous backslide," Glendening said during a news conference on bay protection. "Once our natural resources are gone, they are gone forever."

Glendening's comments marked his first public statement about the legislative budget process since he returned from surgery to remove a scalp melanoma last month.

Aides to the governor said later that he has been meeting with top lawmakers all week, trying to protect the areas he is most concerned about: higher education, the environment and programs that aid the state's neediest residents.

"Now is when you fight for your priorities," said Michael E. Morrill, a Glendening spokesman.

The governor alluded to the meetings, saying that leading lawmakers seem committed to cuts in environmental areas. "They say, `We understand. We're supportive. We'll pick it up in two years,'" he said. "Protecting the land is not merely a luxury. It's a necessity."

The lobbying effort underscores the difficulty facing the state in crafting a budget in a faltering economy.

The $22.2 billion spending plan Glendening unveiled in January delayed the final stage of a five-year, 10 percent income tax reduction, tapped hundreds of millions of dollars in reserves and transferred unused money from dozens of accounts.

The budget also contains a $1 billion gap between revenues and expenditures, which Glendening fills largely with one-time money.

But lawmakers have pledged to follow through with the income tax reduction, meaning they have to cut at least $177 million in programs. Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, who is chairwoman of the Senate Budget and Finance Committee, said yesterday that she is looking for more than twice that amount: $400 million in program cuts, which legislative analysts have identified.

Hoffman said environmental programs are a likely target.

"One of the things that governors try to do is to create legacies, and this stuff is really what the governor sees as his legacy," she said. "That's where the governor has put in so many resources. It's where the money is.

"We haven't made any decisions yet," Hoffman said, emphasizing that the budget needs to reach a balance between programs that help people and those that help the environment. "You need oysters, but you need to take care of people, too," she said.

The specific cuts recommended by legislative staff include $32.8 million from Program Open Space and $26.3 million from Rural Legacy, both land preservation programs. Also proposed for reduction: $14.3 million from the Community Legacy program, which helps older areas, and elimination of 28 jobs in enforcement of environmental laws.

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