State Conservation Corps would aid bay, train students

February 20, 2010|By Timothy B. Wheeler

In a year when green initiatives are few in Annapolis, Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. is pushing for creation of a Chesapeake Conservation Corps in the state.

The idea is to enlist students and young adults in community service projects promoting energy conservation and environmental protection while also training them for jobs in those fields. The bill was inspired by a proposal floated last fall in the Obama administration's draft Chesapeake Bay restoration strategy to create a multistate conservation corps along similar lines.

Participants could get paid small stipends or receive college credit while being trained and performing service projects, such as planting bay grasses or oysters, working on reducing runoff from farms, performing energy-saving audits for elderly and low-income households, and working with schools and students.

The bill drew support from environmental groups at a hearing this week in the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee. But there were questions about how it would be financed and run, which have prompted Miller's staff to propose amendments.

As now envisioned, the corps would get "seed" funding of $500,000 a year - down from $1 million. Half the money would come from an electricity surcharge that all state utility customers pay that is now earmarked for researching the environmental impact of power plants. The other half would come from the Chesapeake Bay Trust, which gets funds from state income tax checkoffs and license plate sales. The trust, known for distributing grants for environmental projects, would manage the corps.

It is unclear how big the corps would be. Vicki Gruber, Miller's chief of staff, said he hoped it could start with 25 or 30 members.

Proponents say the state money could eventually be supplemented or supplanted by federal funds if the Obama administration follows through on creating a regional corps to help with bay cleanup. And they hope the corps would draw donations from businesses and foundations.

For Miller, the corps would combine two imperatives - jobs and the environment. "He views this program as training young adults for the future - one of the very important things we have to do in these times," Gruber said.

Prospects for the state corps are good in the Senate - a majority of senators have signed on as co-sponsors. House approval is less sure, though the chief sponsor in the chamber is Del. Maggie L. McIntosh, a Baltimore Democrat who chairs the Environmental Matters Committee.

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