IT'S BAD form to mock the newly converted, no matter how self-serving their motivations. So we are just happy to hear that Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and his fellow Republicans in Annapolis have seen the light. They now support a constitutional amendment to limit the Board of Public Works' power to sell state-owned parkland. Well, hallelujah. Anything that can prevent another debacle like the Ehrlich administration's attempt to sell 836 acres of environmentally sensitive land in St. Mary's County to developer Willard Hackerman is good news.
But our joy is not unbounded. The Republicans simply recognized their political plight in 2006. Whether they liked it or not, the issue is headed to next year's ballot and plenty of Maryland voters are displeased by the administration's real estate liquidation mentality. They want a governor who is a good steward of the land, not a real estate broker trying to earn his blazer. Mr. Ehrlich can read polls, too. He knows he's going to get pounded on the issue by Democrats.
Voters are apt to remain suspicious, too. If they show up motivated to vote for land conservation, are they likely to tap the screen for Mr. Ehrlich, too? Maybe not. The governor's conservation credentials could be improved further. And there's a relatively simple way he can do it.
Over the last four years, nearly $400 million has been taken out of Program Open Space, Maryland's fund for the government purchase of parks and conservation areas. Open Space has become the state's Christmas Club account, with Mr. Ehrlich dipping in annually with no promise of a future payback. Granted, a year or two of this may be reasonable when the economy is in recession and tax revenue is down. But four straight years is not a short-term fix, it's verging on long-term public policy.
This year, the governor has proposed diverting another $163 million from the Program Open Space account. That's simply too much. Fortunately, the House and Senate are moving to restore $60 million to $83 million of that cut. But there's no guarantee that Mr. Ehrlich won't be back next year doing the same thing.
Here's the solution. The governor must promise to leave Program Open Space whole in the future. And he needs to go one step further: Repay the past diversions. A bill that would require just that (and cap future diversions) is pending in the legislature, and he should endorse it. The measure calls for the governor to set aside $50 million each year for repayments.
That's a sensible idea. The goals of Program Open Space are supported by 88 percent of Maryland voters, according to a recent poll. Restoring its funding would go a long way to preserving farmland, protecting drinking water, creating parks and restoring the Chesapeake Bay.