`Green' solution to crisis urged

Environment groups' ideas aim to raise state revenue

`Maryland is in a fiscal crunch'

Killing plans for the ICC is one of the suggestions

January 19, 2004|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

Maryland environmental advocacy groups will release a "green" solution to at least part of the state's budget crisis today, outlining a $145 million package of proposals to raise new revenues and cut spending.

The groups' 11 ideas include eliminating what they describe as "environmentally damaging tax loopholes" and increasing the fees charged to companies for pollution oversight programs operated by the Maryland Department of the Environment.

"The budget is obviously a critical place where environmental decisions get made," said Susan Brown, executive director of the Maryland League of Conservation Voters. "We recognize Maryland is in a fiscal crunch, and we think these are ideas that can help Maryland save money and also are good for the environment."

Spokesmen for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and the Department of the Environment declined to comment on most of the recommendations, saying they have not had a chance to review them in detail.

But at least one of the biggest cost-saving suggestions -- killing plans to build the Intercounty Connector in the Washington suburbs -- isn't likely to move the Ehrlich administration.

The governor is pushing the $1.7 billion, 18-mile highway across Montgomery County as a way to relieve traffic congestion and promote economic development between Interstate 95 and Interstate 270. But environmental advocates say the road would destroy forests, streams and wildlife. Their budget report says at least $21 million could be saved by "cutting this wasteful project."

"It would be tough to convince the vast majority of suburban Washington residents that the ICC is a wasted effort," said Henry Fawell, a spokesman for the governor.

The report -- to be released this afternoon in Annapolis during a legislative briefing organized by environmental advocates -- is patterned after similar state and federal budget analyses promoted by the national Green Scissors Campaign.

Groups involved in preparing the report include 1,000 Friends of Maryland, the Audubon Naturalist Society, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Friends of the Earth, the Maryland Conservation Council, the Maryland League of Conservation Voters Education Fund, the Maryland Public Interest Research Foundation and the Maryland chapter of the Sierra Club. The Abell Foundation and the Education Foundation of America also provided financial support.

In a media briefing last week, environmental advocates said they hoped the General Assembly and governor would embrace some of their ideas in an effort to close a projected $736 million revenue shortfall in Maryland's $22 billion budget for next year.

`It is significant'

"We're not balancing the budget here, but it is significant," said Brad Heavner, director of the Maryland Public Interest Research Group.

Among the report's proposals:

Ending a $3-per-ton tax credit given to public utilities for purchasing Maryland-mined coal, saving $12 million to $15 million a year.

Repealing a sales tax exemption for pesticides purchased for agricultural use, generating at least $2.2 million in additional revenue each year.

Creating fees and increasing existing charges for such Department of the Environment regulatory programs as wetland development permits, groundwater and surface water withdrawal permits, toxic chemical storage oversight, and wastewater discharge permits.

The report said higher fees would raise $13.1 million a year, and in many instances generate enough money to pay for permit programs without using general tax revenues. "The general taxpayer has been subsidizing the polluting companies by paying for the oversight of these programs," Heavner said.

Charging companies $85 per ton of emissions of such pollutants as oxides of nitrogen and sulfur dioxide, and adding a $5 per ton "tipping fee" to garbage landfills. The pair of proposals would raise $67 million a year.

Amending a state fuel-efficiency law to bring it into compliance with federal regulations, enabling the state to give tax credits to fuel efficient vehicles and add tax surcharges for inefficient vehicles.

Eliminating a law used by corporations to avoid paying real estate transfer taxes. Environmental advocates and other critics say the loophole allows businesses to avoid the taxes through the use of shell companies. But business groups such as the Maryland Chamber of Commerce argue that the proposal would unfairly tax legitimate transactions.

The environmental activists who prepared the report say they don't expect all of their recommendations to be adopted in a single year. Instead, they're seeking lawmakers to sponsor the ideas individually, hoping some will be picked up as the legislature struggles with the budget.

`Used for good'

"These are all great ideas to consider," said Dru Schmidt-Perkins, executive director of 1000 Friends of Maryland. "It is important to get the concept out there that the budget can be used for good or for pollution."

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