House passes bay cleanup effort at $50 million a year

Fees dropped, but both chambers must settle funding plan

General Assembly -- Special Session

November 16, 2007|By Laura Smitherman | Laura Smitherman,SUN REPORTER

The Maryland House of Delegates yesterday approved a plan for spending $50 million a year to clean up the Chesapeake Bay after legislators dropped a proposal to assess controversial fees on homeowners and developers to pay for the effort.

But the House and Senate must resolve differences over which revenue streams to tap for the cleanup effort.

The two chambers have set aside money from various taxes for the Chesapeake Bay 2010 Trust Fund, formerly called the Green Fund. The House action would create the fund and govern how it would work; the chamber voted 103-30 to approve the bill and send it to the Senate, which has not approved a governing bill.

Environmentalists hailed the Chesapeake fund as a partial fulfillment of commitments to improve the bay's water quality. Under an agreement with federal officials and neighboring states, Maryland has pledged to reduce contaminants and improve aquatic vegetation and marine life by 2010.

"They have had a plan, but for years and years and years they didn't have the funding," said Beth Lefebvre of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, a conservation watchdog group. "This gives them the funding."

The House bill would direct funding to state and local agencies to pay for projects such as farm fertilizer runoff control, improvements to storm-water management systems, stream reconstruction and municipal parks. The governor's office would oversee funding of projects through BayStat, a computerized data analysis.

Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat, did not include a separate Chesapeake fund in his proposals for the current special session that he called to close a projected $1.7 billion budget shortfall, but he supports the concept, spokesman Rick Abbruzzese said.

"It's a huge step forward in our efforts to clean and restore the Chesapeake Bay," Abbruzzese said. "The House and Senate will go to a conference committee, and at that point hopefully they can agree on how best to fund this critical program."

Cindy Schwartz, executive director of the Maryland League of Conservation Voters, said that if residents are asked to pay more in taxes, they expect more from government. "Cleaning up the bay is something our legislators can be proud of when they go home to their districts," she said.

Republicans have objected to any new spending.

"We are here to pay past-due bills and not create new spending bills," said House Minority Leader Anthony J. O'Donnell.

Del. Maggie L. McIntosh, a Baltimore Democrat and chairwoman of the Environmental Matters Committee, said opposition among legislators and the public scuttled previous funding proposals such as a $20-a-year assessment on every homeowner, an annual fee of 1 cent per square foot on parking lots, and a fee on commercial space depending on the square footage.

The House bill approved yesterday does not include a specific funding mechanism. That would come through another bill, approved last weekend by the House, that takes revenue from gas and car rental taxes.

Under a tax bill approved last week, the Senate would direct $30 million from vehicle titling taxes and $20 million from Program Open Space, a state effort to preserve forests and fields and build playgrounds in urban areas, to the Chesapeake fund.

The Senate's plan has drawn criticism from environmentalists, who favor the House's funding sources.

Dru-Schmidt Perkins, executive director of a preservation group 1000 Friends of Maryland, said that shifting Open Space monies would undermine a successful program that has a backlog of proposals to purchase land that needs to be protected.

"The problem with the Senate plan is it takes money out of a very important existing environmental program," Perkins said. "There's no way that could be called a gain for the environment."

laura.smitherman@baltsun.com

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