Ehrlich unveils his priorities on environment

He pledges to activists he will be protector of bay

Businessmen, farmers to play role

Governor to name DNR, agriculture heads today

January 21, 2003|By Tim Craig | Tim Craig,SUN STAFF

Declaring a truce with the state's environmental community, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. pledged yesterday to be a vociferous protector of the Chesapeake Bay even as he expands the role that farmers, watermen and sportsmen will play in state government.

The first test of Ehrlich's environmental priorities and policies will occur today when he formally names his nominees to head the Department of Natural Resources and the Department of Agriculture.

Ehrlich has selected former state delegate and Grasonville dentist C. Ronald Franks as DNR secretary. For agriculture, he has picked Lewis R. Riley, a chicken farmer who held the post under former Gov. Parris N. Glendening.

In his speech to 400 environmental activists in Annapolis, Ehrlich pledged that they will be an equal partner in his quest to protect the state's resources.

But the Republican warned he will pay equal attention to groups -- such as businessmen -- that felt shunned by Glendening and the Democratic administration's aggressive environmental policies.

"It's become a cliche that in Maryland politics that the bay is the environmental issue," Ehrlich said at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation Environmental Legislative Summit. "What is not said often enough and is equally important is economic issues. When you combine economics and environmental aspects of the health of the bay, it literally is the future of this state."

Speaking to a community that worked last fall to elect his opponent, Ehrlich pledged he would find state and federal money to upgrade the state's wastewater and water treatment plants to help clean the bay.

Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele said the administration proposes spending $91 million next year to upgrade sewage and water treatment plants and $23.4 million to reduce phosphorus and nitrogen runoff.

On a related issue, Ehrlich said he will convene a summit this year to examine how the state's nutrient management program is working and whether it can be amended to relieve the concerns of some farmers.

The unveiling of Ehrlich's environmental initiatives comes as legislative leaders debate what impact the governor's budget will have on the environment.

Although the budget includes a 1 percent cut to the Department of Natural Resources and a 3 percent cut to the Maryland Department of the Environment, some lawmakers said they are pleased Ehrlich didn't make deeper cuts to environmental programs, as had been feared.

"From the budget standpoint, he has not treated the environment unfairly," said House Speaker Michael E. Busch, an Anne Arundel County Democrat who noted Ehrlich included funding for some of Glendening's environmental priorities.

But Sen. Brian E. Frosh, the Senate's leading environmental advocate, charged Ehrlich's budget could ultimately lead to deep cuts in environmental enforcement.

Frosh said the plan wildly inflates how much federal aid the state will receive next year, and if those funds don't materialize, he predicted, the administration will have to slash enforcement.

"What they're saying is that it's open season for polluters," said Frosh, chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.

During his speech, Ehrlich said he would not immediately seek to combine the departments of natural resources and environment, although he held out the possibility of doing so in the future.

Environmental leaders and grass-roots activists generally praised Ehrlich's speech yesterday, but they said they are waiting to hear more before making a final judgment on his commitment to their cause.

"I think he certainly understands the issue and certainly understands what needs to be done," said William C. Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. "If he can deliver, we will be his biggest supporters."

After the speech, the executive director of the Maryland League of Conservation Voters -- which ran television ads during the campaign attacking Ehrlich's record -- gave the governor "a peace offering."

Sue Brown, the director, handed Ehrlich a basket that included a Dr. Seuss children's book with an environmental theme for his son, a book for himself titled A Primer on Sustainable Building and a 60- watt fluorescent light bulb (no comment on why the light bulb).

Brown and other environmental activists said they were generally satisfied with Ehrlich's decision to nominate Riley as agriculture secretary. Riley, a former Republican state senator from Wicomico County, served as agriculture secretary from 1994 to 1997.

But the activists said they have some concerns about Franks getting the top spot at DNR. While in the General Assembly from 1991 to 1995, Franks earned a rating of 20 out of 100 on issues of importance to the Maryland League of Conversation Voters. Franks consistently voted for bills that would have weakened pesticide and wetlands regulations, Brown said.

"Certainly we hope we can talk to him about some of the votes he has taken in the past," Brown said.

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