`Green' groups pitch tax ideas

Environmentalists say proposals would help reduce Md. deficit, pollution

August 10, 2007|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,Sun reporter

Environmentalists released a plan yesterday they say would help Maryland solve its budget woes while reducing land, air and water pollution.

Hoping to take advantage of a debate in Annapolis on ways to fix the state's projected $1.5 billion budget shortfall, the League of Conservation Voters, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Environment Maryland, Partners for Open Space and other groups are pitching a set of tax measures designed to provide more money for environmental protection while discouraging pollution and sprawl.

"If we taxpayers are asked to sacrifice, we need to make sure we get something for our investment," said Cindy Schwartz, executive director of the League of Conservation Voters. "If these budget decisions are devoid of what Maryland citizens want for clean air, clean land and clean water," the governor and General Assembly "will not be doing their job."

Several of the groups' ideas have faced strong opposition in the past from business groups, who say they would hurt Maryland's economy and make housing more expensive. One proposal, stopping the Intercounty Connector, would reignite a decades-old debate that Montgomery County leaders and Gov. Martin O'Malley insist is settled.

The environmentalists' plans for new taxes and fees and for spending cuts total more than $700 million, but only a fraction of that money would directly affect the $1.5 billion deficit. The majority of the fiscal impact -- $524 million next year -- would come from abandoning the ICC, a move that would have little impact on the state's general fund.

Another major component of the proposal, establishing a "Green Fund" to protect the Chesapeake Bay by assessing fees on new development, would raise $100 million a year but would not help the deficit because the money would go to new programs.

Many of the organizations supporting this plan are part of a broader group called the Alliance for Tax Fairness, which is lobbying for lawmakers to enact more than $1.5 billion in new fees and taxes to create enough revenue to allow greater spending on education, the environment, health care and other programs.

However, some of the proposals likely would whittle down at least a small portion of the deficit.

For example, increasing fees for violations of Maryland air pollution laws would generate $3.6 million a year, money that would relieve taxpayers of the burden of paying regulators' salaries and lead to better enforcement, said Brad Heavner, director of Environment Maryland.

"We're not doing the job, and the polluters know it," Heavner said. "We need more staff on the beat checking permits ... and we should be collecting enough from the sources of pollution to cover those costs."

The environmental groups said polls show Marylanders are willing to pay more taxes to protect the environment, but many of their proposals are likely to face strong opposition.

O'Malley supported the Green Fund when it was proposed this year and continues to back it, said spokesman Rick Abbruzzese. But the governor supports the ICC, Abbruzzese pointed out.

"Governor O'Malley feels that the ICC should move forward to help relieve traffic congestion in Montgomery and Prince George's counties," Abbruzzese said. "The project is moving forward."

The Green Fund attracted significant opposition this year from homebuilders and others who worried it would create a housing crisis in the state just as Maryland is expecting thousands of new residents as part of the federal military base realignment.

Tom Ballentine, government affairs director of the Maryland Home Builders Association, said the state needs a dedicated funding source for Chesapeake Bay cleanup, but putting the entire burden on the real estate sector would be unfair.

"It's a common burden, a common responsibility that everybody shares," Ballentine said.

Ballentine said some of the other proposals, such as increasing the agricultural transfer tax and eliminating a provision that allows certain corporations to avoid transfer taxes when they sell property, would also wind up increasing the cost of homes.

andy.green@baltsun.com

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