Restore balance in state government, land policy

December 14, 2004|By Roland E. English III

GOOD GOVERNMENT is balanced government. Branches of government, various levels of government and all of their laws, budgets, policies, plans, programs and administrative units can work only when they are balanced to achieve the collective good of the people.

The would-be deal in which Baltimore contractor and philanthropist Willard Hackerman proposed to buy 836 acres of preservation land from the state in St. Mary's County has become a lightning rod for criticism and explanation. Simply put, what concerns other Marylanders and me about the proposed purchase is that it failed the balancing test of good government.

Mr. Hackerman, who was identified in the purchase plan only as a "benefactor," sought to buy the 836 acres, known as the Salem Tract, for the same $2.5 million price that the state paid for it. He promised to donate the development rights to the Maryland Environmental Trust, and said he planned to give some of the land to the county for a school and to build "a relatively few farms" on about 50 acres.

Maryland-owned forests, parks and environment areas are carefully selected using the state's land preservation and open space plan. The Salem Tract is a sensitive river and wetland ecosystem, therefore a high-priority area for state acquisition for permanent protection.

The state bought the land in November 2003 after review and comments by state and local government agencies and the public. To undo this protection would violate the balance between government and its citizens. The governor and the Board of Public Works should not use their significant powers to quietly undo what was so carefully acquired with taxpayer money. The General Assembly is correct in trying to open the process of reviewing and disposing of "excess" land holdings.

The reason the state created a convoluted plan for the acquisition of the Salem Tract is that Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has raided Program Open Space funds to help balance the state budget. This, in turn, has unbalanced the rate of state and local land preservation compared with the increasing rate of land consumed by development. The balance must be restored before other sensitive lands are lost forever to the spread of houses and shopping malls.

Maryland's governor has too much budget power. The General Assembly must correct this imbalance. One way is to put the capital budget back within its proper context, the Department of Planning. (Gov. William Donald Schaefer moved it to the Department of the Budget in the late 1980s.)

Why was only Mr. Hackerman singled out for purchase of the Salem Tract? Because he has the interest, the money and the connections to two of the three members of the Board of Public Works -- Mr. Ehrlich and Mr. Schaefer. This board, with the governor as chair, is basically the fourth branch of state government because it can conduct business autonomously. Checks and balances must be implemented and board meetings should be more open to the public, with citizens having easy access to testifying before it on all issues.

The way to prevent future Hackerman-like would-be land deals is to return to honestly balanced state budgets and to restore full funding to the state's renowned land preservation and open space programs. New fees, land sales or even the introduction of slot machines cannot close Maryland's future budget deficits. Something has to give. Future mandated expenses, such as the Thornton education program, must be delayed or spread out. Tax increases must be considered, and business loopholes closed.

Our past was so bright. Maryland's successful efforts to balance land development with land preservation and fiscal responsibility date to the 1960s. Maryland's efforts to coordinate state and local plans and policies date to the 1930s. The state was considered at the forefront of such issues. "Smart Growth" was the fancy name for coordinating and balancing these development, preservation and fiscal programs at the state and local levels of government.

Governor Ehrlich has tried to separate his administration from past administrations.

Maryland's 5 million citizens deserve and expect excellence in land management. We must go back to rescue our future. If Mr. Ehrlich needs to stamp his identity on this needed balancing, he can simply rename it "Smart Government."

Roland E. English III was director of the Maryland Office of Comprehensive State Planning from 1985 to 1992.

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