The political environment

The president and the governor, neither a favorite of conservation activists, have surprised some critics.

Ehrlich: After a shaky start, some recent moves have pleased opponents.

December 14, 2003|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

FROM THE TIME Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. began assembling his administration, the message to environmentalists seemed clear.

"The tables have turned in some ways," the governor's chief spokesman declared. "Some so-called (environmental) advocacy groups are upset they are being left out, but most business advocacy groups have complained they have been shut out the last eight years."

The new Republican administration didn't hesitate to dive into battle, putting forward Lynn Y. Buhl for environmental secretary only to see her defeated in a high-profile Senate fight.

The bitterness seemed sure to linger, as Ehrlich and top aides vowed not to forget how environmental advocacy groups had embarrassed them.

Yet Ehrlich's record after his first year in office is far more complicated than might be expected from his earliest days.

Sure, the administration has not proposed anything as environmentally ambitious as former Gov. Parris N. Glendening's Smart Growth initiative or the protection of sensitive coastal lands sought by former Gov. Harry R. Hughes.

Nor has Ehrlich backed away from his preference for roads over mass transit, most specifically his support of the Intercounty Connector.

Land-preservation dollars have dropped substantially, and the governor says he intends future spending to "concentrate on land with regard to its sensitivity to the bay, to prioritize better." And Ehrlich vetoed a bill that would have set higher energy efficiency standards for many appliances.

"Really, the two times that he's had the opportunity to do something positive for the environment, he's blown it," said Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat and the Senate's leading environmental advocate. "One was signing the energy efficiency bill, and the other [was appointing] a secretary who was going to be a real steward for the environment."

However, a series of policy decisions over the past several months have won support from activists. In at least a couple of instances, those actions sparked disappointment from people who hoped Ehrlich might go further in undoing what they call over-regulation.

'More balanced'

"What he seems to be trying to do is bring a more balanced approach, which a lot of people thought was lacking," said longtime GOP strategist Kevin Igoe. "People on both sides are sometimes going to be unhappy."

Ehrlich's only major policy break from President Bush's policies has centered on regulatory changes concerning air pollution. Maryland has joined with other Northeast states to sue the federal government, alleging that new rules hurt efforts to cut pollution in this region.

The governor is thinking of restoring the Cabinet-level position of Chesapeake Bay coordinator, and he's won tentative support for planned reforms to encourage the cleanup and reuse of polluted industrial properties. Environmental advocates also applauded his pick of former state Sen. Martin G. Madden to head the commission overseeing critical areas along the bay.

1998 law disliked

This month, administration officials laid out proposed changes to regulations on agricultural-nutrient pollution. The 1998 law angered many farmers, who felt overwhelmed by the paperwork and enraged by a "right of entry" agreement they had to sign giving unfettered access to inspect their operations.

"There were some farmers who wanted to see the law taken off the books, or at least wanted to see it get toned down a lot," said Ned Sayre, a Harford County cattle farmer and Maryland Farm Bureau member. "But I think people realized that's just not realistic. That kind of law just won't pass."

In fact, while the farm community wasn't thrilled, bay advocates and the General Assembly's environmental leaders said they support what they've seen so far on the runoff restriction changes. "We want to keep the farmers in business, but at the same time we want to protect the bay," said Sen. Paula C. Hollinger, a Baltimore County Democrat and chairwoman of the committee overseeing environmental laws.

Hollinger said that when she's met with Ehrlich administration officials who deal with environmental regulations, she's been blunt about what kinds of bills might have a chance of winning passage in her committee: "I'm green and my committee is green. They need to keep that in mind."

That strong environmental bent of the Democratic-controlled Assembly keeps in check any rolling back of laws. When presenting the runoff changes, an assistant secretary conceded last week that the administration had to think in terms of what is "saleable" to the legislature.

'It's kind of sad'

"It's kind of sad if what we're measuring the environment on is that we haven't rolled back the laws," said Susan Brown, executive director of the Maryland League of Conservation Voters. "People are interested in seeing what kind of environmental platform and agenda this governor is going to push."

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