Gov.-elect Martin O'Malley will include full funding for a key land-preservation program in his budget for next year, keeping a major campaign promise to the state's environmentalists, his administration announced yesterday.
Money from Program Open Space, which is funded through transfer taxes on real estate transactions, was shifted to other programs in recent years to help balance the budget.
Although O'Malley faces a small revenue shortfall this year and larger ones in the near future, he said in a letter to environmental groups that he will fully fund the preservation program in the fiscal year that starts July 1.
"The structural deficit will force us to make difficult decisions together and require structural reforms to make our government more efficient, but we must also continue to make the critical investments necessary to move our state forward - investments in programs like Program Open Space," O'Malley wrote.
Environmental advocates, who had made funding open space programs their top priority in the legislative session that began this week, cheered the news.
"Happy days are here again," Del. Maggie L. McIntosh, the Environmental Matters Committee chairwoman, crooned upon hearing the news.
Govs. Parris N. Glendening, a Democrat, and Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, diverted $480 million from the state's nationally recognized open space programs over several years to balance the budget. Environmental groups estimated that the money could have preserved 100,000 acres.
"I'm very happy about it," Sen. Joan Carter Conway, chairwoman of the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, said of O'Malley's announcement. "I do understand the condition of the budget, but I would be even happier if we could put that $480 million that has been diverted over the last three years back. But at least it's a running start."
Cindy Schwartz, director of the Maryland League of Conservation Voters, said preserving land is crucial to maintaining the quality of life people expect in the state and to maintaining water and air quality. More sprawl development means more cars on the road, more pollution in the air, more impervious surfaces and more contaminated storm water running into streams, she said.
"If you develop all of the Eastern Shore, you are losing not only precious, lovely, beautiful acreage, but you are also adding more pollution to the Chesapeake Bay," Schwartz said.
Land use and preservation are expected to be hot topics in the years ahead because of the federal military base realignment and closure process. Tens of thousands of military jobs and civilian spin-offs are expected to come to the state in the decade ahead, and planners expect the employment surge to result in more than 100,000 additional residents, mostly in Central Maryland.
McIntosh said the state needs to prepare for the influx by preserving land and rededicating itself to the Smart Growth principles Glendening espoused.
O'Malley said this week that he will nominate Shari T. Wilson, who helped run Glendening's Smart Growth program, as environment secretary.