Wearing of the green

Our view: State legislature adopts an environmental ethos

April 06, 2008

With so much focus on doing less (and taxing a bit more), state lawmakers have not had the feel-good 90-day gathering many had hoped for. After last fall's budget-balancing special session, much of the attention has been on corrective matters - reversing last year's ill-considered decision to apply the state's sales tax to computer services, for instance.

But for the environmental community, it's been such a good several months that they'll likely hate to see the session end tomorrow night. On all major fronts - water, land and air - environmental causes have made significant gains this year despite the emphasis on budget-cutting.

That's not to say lawmakers have solved Maryland's pollution problems. Recent reports on the health of the Chesapeake Bay (and even the condition of the rivers a stone's throw from the State House) provide ample proof that there's a long way to go.

Rather, environmental causes have become such good politics that advancing the agenda draws reliable bipartisan support. A decade ago, this wasn't the case. And even during Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s term, once the so-called flush tax to upgrade wastewater treatment plants was approved, the administration generally regarded anti-pollution measures as anti-business.

Some of the more notable legislation that's been approved or is likely to pass by tomorrow include:

An update of the Chesapeake Bay Critical Area law that should result in greater protection of land within 1,000 feet of tidal waters.

Standards for a new trust fund to finance stormwater runoff projects. It appears the fund will have $25 million next year (half of what was originally planned), but supporters consider it a big victory to have resisted a larger cut.

A required 25 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions - with millions of dollars in related fees directed to promote energy conservation.

Gov. Martin O'Malley deserves credit for promoting a green agenda that also included setting transit-oriented development as a high priority and increased homeowner tax credits for solar and geothermal projects. His decision not to divert tens of millions of dollars from Program Open Space, the state's fund for land preservation, to help balance the state budget (as his predecessor did) is notable, too.

But the environmental sensibility shouldn't stop there. Next year, Mr. O'Malley needs to push further on land-use issues to discourage sprawl and encourage Smart Growth-style redevelopment of failed urban and suburban tracts into livable towns and neighborhoods. Such policies improve not only the health of the environment but the health of the people who live here, too. And they even give politicians something to feel genuinely good about.

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