When budget cuts slice too deep

ON THE BAY

Politics: The bay can't afford to have environmental programs bear the brunt of revenue shortfalls.

March 08, 2002|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

WITH THE legislature seeking several hundred million dollars in budget cuts to make up revenue shortfalls, you expect some belt tightening all around, including environmental programs.

But you don't expect the blood bath shaping up in the Senate, whacking money from land conservation, Smart Growth and pollution control programs all out of proportion to their tiny (less than 3 percent) share of the state budget.

Legislative proposals would take nearly half the $105 million budgeted for Program Open Space, the heart of the state's effort to preserve forests, farms and wetlands from rampant sprawl.

They would take tens of millions more from an array of Smart Growth programs, designed to redevelop existing urban areas and to preserve rural areas.

They would hit programs to help farmers reduce polluted runoff to the Chesapeake - agriculture being one of the largest and most stubborn sources of bay pollution.

You understand that legislators are hard-pressed by competing, worthy interests, from education to health care. But there is also a less worthy element - political payback - in targeting so many green programs, with many legislators angry at Gov. Parris N. Glendening for submitting a budget well beyond revenue estimates.

"This stuff [environmental programs] is really what the governor sees as his legacy. ... It's where the money is," Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, chairwoman of the Budget and Taxation Committee, said last week.

Certainly the cuts will zing Glendening, the strongest environmentalist ever to serve as Maryland's governor. But is that worth reneging on our struggling commitment to restore the bay?

Hurting the gov hurts everyone who wants clean water and the survival of farming, forests, watermen and wetlands in what is the nation's fifth most-densely populated state.

How the legislature handles the environment this year is one of those critical junctures we'll look back on in a decade or two, when we reckon the success or failure of our efforts to restore the bay.

I've been doing just that - looking back at the last decade or two - in revising a textbook I did on saving the bay (Turning the Tide, Island Press, 1991).

A central theme of the revision is why, after nearly 20 years of an acclaimed restoration effort, nothing like a systemwide comeback of the bay has happened. What's been lacking?

Two indictments of past progress come from almost everyone I interview across the bay watershed, in Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania: lack of leadership and failure to put our money where our mouth is.

In this legislative session, we are seeing ample demonstrations of both.

A prime example is the huge cuts to Program Open Space, which since its creation in 1969 has bought prime hunting lands, scenic vistas, urban bikeways, old-growth forests, waterfront parks and secluded trout streams throughout Maryland.

The program was never meant as a rainy day reserve, a savings account for dipping into every time budgets get tight. It was dedicated to one purpose - keeping open-space preservation on a par with the loss of open space to development.

Its genius lies in its funding source - a transfer tax assessed every time real estate is sold in the state, adding a few hundred bucks to the cost of an average home.

The faster development proceeds, the faster the program generates money to save farmland and open space from development.

Keep in mind that open space is far more than just an amenity for hikers and hunters. Forests and wetlands absorb huge quantities of pollution from air and from runoff from farms and development, before it reaches the bay.

Baywide, and for free, forests keep more polluting nitrogen out of waterways - at least 90 million pounds a year - than the sewage treatment on which we spend hundreds of millions annually.

The program has been poached by legislators before. In 1985, they began diverting to general funds half of the $60 million to $90 million a year.

It took until 1997 to restore it to full funding for land protection. That 12-year hiatus lost $470 million from environmental protection. And now the politicians are raiding it again.

It defrauds a major bay agreement that legislative leaders were crowing about only a year ago - a commitment to preserve by 2010, with Virginia and Pennsylvania, 20 percent of the land in the 41 million-acre bay watershed.

Many more examples of hugging the bay while picking its pocket abound in the shortsighted cuts proposed by the legislature.

Tell your state representatives that environmental programs should bear no more than their share (a few percent) of budget cuts. Program Open Space should only be cut with a promise to pay it back in better times.

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