Preservation priorities

July 12, 2006

Efforts to preserve Maryland's open spaces - to protect environmentally sensitive land, create parks or keep farmland economically viable - have been under assault these last four years. No less than $480 million has been diverted from the state's Program Open Space over that time, and the prospects for repayment aren't particularly good. Last year, the General Assembly mandated that about $70 million taken in 2005 and any future diversions be repaid - but not for another six years, and even then future leaders can change their minds.

Such a lax approach to land conservation is intolerable. And balancing the state budget by repeatedly robbing a special fund is an equally poor approach to accounting. When lawmakers approved Program Open Space in 1969, they set it up as a kind of automatic savings account for the environment. It works like this: When property is sold, a tax of one-half percent of its value is paid specifically to finance this conservation program. Taking money out of that fund has turned a special-purpose fee into just another general fund tax, something Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. promised not to create.

Mr. Ehrlich isn't the first governor to tap into the fund, but he makes all his predecessors look like small-timers. The $480 million total includes $22 million taken by Gov. Parris N. Glendening (who, incidentally, added an extra $52 million to the program the year before). The rest is Mr. Ehrlich's - under multibillion-dollar budgets that were all approved by the Democrat-controlled General Assembly.

Enough is enough. Candidates for state office need to have their feet held to the fire. Environmental advocates are asking Mr. Ehrlich and Mayor Martin O'Malley - and anyone seeking to become a delegate or state senator - to sign a pledge promising to leave Program Open Space alone. The timing is particularly critical. Analysts are warning that Maryland faces a billion-dollar deficit in two years. The temptation to once again break open the Program Open Space piggy bank will be as great as ever.

Public opinion surveys show Maryland voters overwhelmingly support taxpayer-financed land conservation. Yet environmentalists fear countless opportunities to preserve critical real estate have been lost because the money wasn't there. This year, Mr. Ehrlich and the legislature fully funded the program, but will they do it when an election isn't looming? Not unless voters demand it.

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