Environmental spin

April 18, 2005

THE EHRLICH administration no longer wants to designate certain waterways as "limited use," or, in actual English, too polluted to be bothered with. This is welcome news, a small victory for the environmental community and another example of how Maryland's governor perceives these issues mostly as matters of public relations.

One year ago, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. seemed to have turned a corner. His "flush tax" -- a surcharge on sewage bills to upgrade treatment plants -- had just passed the General Assembly. He earned a lot of praise for that measure, including from this page. It was hoped that he had belatedly discovered the Chesapeake Bay and the strong feelings voters have for its welfare and for conservation issues generally.

Alas, it was not to be. In the 2005 session that wrapped up last week, Mr. Ehrlich's true leanings were made clear. The administration fought hard against proposals to impose stricter standards on vehicle emissions and to limit the noxious pollutants spewing out of aging coal-burning power plants. And by "fought hard," we mean his dispatching of a veritable army of loyalists to testify at hearings (no fewer than three Cabinet secretaries spoke out against cleaner cars) and twist the arms of legislators. It was a demonstration of the kind of lobbying muscle Mr. Ehrlich rarely flexes for his own bills.

Meanwhile, his budget diverted the majority of funding for Program Open Space, the state's land preservation program (rescued, fortunately, by lawmakers), and his flip-flop on a constitutional amendment to restrict the sale of public lands -- a bill spawned by his failed St. Mary's County land deal -- looked like an embarrassed politician cutting his losses.

The Maryland League of Conservation Voters graded the governor's performance as a D-plus at midterm. That seemed harsh at the time. Now it looks generous.

Environmentalists are particularly alarmed by what's happening at the agency level, where Mr. Ehrlich has trimmed budgets and blunted enforcement. They note, for instance, that a growing number of waterways are being dropped from regulatory oversight. Maryland has been slow to join surrounding states' lawsuits aimed at reducing air pollution that blows into the region from the Midwest. And the administration has done pitifully little to curb farm runoff, a leading contributor to the bay's excess nitrogen.

Will voters notice? Mr. Ehrlich may tout his flush tax as the salvation of the Chesapeake, but that doesn't make it so. The governor may have the advantage of all those cheery taxpayer-funded TV ads in which he endorses Earth Day and energy conservation. But a little "greenstanding" won't make his actual record any less abysmal.

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