Republican former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. made a campaign stop Wednesday on the shores of Back River in Essex to champion his administration's Chesapeake Bay Restoration Act — and to criticize Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley for using money from the act's bay fund to help balance the state budget.
Ehrlich's criticism and O'Malley's response marked the first time the two candidates have sparred over the environment, a diversion in a gubernatorial race that has focused primarily on the economy, jobs and how government taxes and spends.
But taxation and spending still loomed over the event because the Chesapeake Bay Restoration Act is more commonly known as the "flush tax." Ever since Ehrlich signed the act into law in 2004, homeowners have paid a $30 annual fee into a fund used for sewage treatment upgrades that reduce bay nitrogen levels.
The campaign event, held near the modernized Back River Treatment Plant, was not tied to any specific time element, Ehrlich said. Rather, he said, it was "to remind everybody of this historic achievement."
He noted that once all of the bay restoration act's sewage treatment plant upgrades have been made, they are expected to reduce pollution in waterways by 7.5 million pounds per year.
Ehrlich, who is trying to win his old job back from O'Malley, said that because of his bay restoration work "these waters will be cleaner for the future of our kids." He said O'Malley should not have raided such an important fund.
This year, O'Malley used $200 million earmarked for bay cleanup to shore up the state's general operating expenses. He then backfilled the bay fund with $125 million from the capital budget — which is mostly funded by borrowing. His aides said the bay fund will be fully restored next fiscal year, though it is unclear whether the money will come from the flush tax or from more state-issued debt.
Such fund transfers are common: Ehrlich also used them. The O'Malley campaign issued a statement calling Ehrlich "out of touch" and changing the subject to another environmental topic: Program Open Space.
"It was actually Bob Ehrlich who diverted $420 million in Program Open Space funds and tried to sell off publicly-owned lands to the lowest bidder after imposing his flush tax on every Maryland family," the O'Malley campaign said in a statement.
Ehrlich accused the governor of "whining" and "making stuff up." He did not say what O'Malley was making up.
"We're not going to get into the 'he said, she said,'" Ehrlich said. He said his administration "restructured" Program Open Space to focus on strategic land purchases that help the bay.
"Just buying land for the sake of buying land doesn't make sense," Ehrlich said.
Asked which governor has the better record on the environment, Ehrlich replied, "I would put our environmental record against anyone's, anytime."
The Maryland League of Conservation Voters issued a statement saying that O'Malley "has done a better job of addressing environmental needs during his four years as governor."