April 8, 2010

Bay program spared, but environmental disappointments linger

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By Andy Rosen
Andy@MarylandReporter.com

Environmentalists earned one of their rare victories this session Thursday, as lawmakers pulled back on cuts to Chesapeake Bay preservation programs, but some advocates are already calling the 2010 legislature a bust for the green movement.

At the same time that delegates and senators agreed to spare $20 million for Chesapeake Bay cleanup that both chambers had decided to cut, lawmakers also finalized a diversion of greenhouse gas tax receipts from energy efficiency programs to utility bill assistance.

Some enviros remained bitter over a number of issues: A compromise with developers on regulating stormwater runoff from development projects, legislative threats to withhold money from the University of Maryland’s environmental law clinic, and the failure of several favored pieces of legislation.

A key element that is still on the table is how much lawmakers will cut from the budget for Program Open Space, the state’s land preservation initiative. The House and Senate put off negotiation over differences on the program. The Senate wants to cut money for the program for next year, while the House wants to keep it.

“We got shafted,” said Tommy Landers, an advocate for Environment Maryland. Landers said there’s been some progress, including a bill that would make the state accelerate mandates for solar energy use. But overall, bills his group favors have either been scaled back or killed.

In some issues, he said environmental causes have been pitted against business interests.

“There’s still this inaccurate misconception that protecting the environment and protecting the economy are mutually exclusive,” said Landers. Though lawmakers decided not to withhold funding for the law clinic, many were worried about the message threats over a suit against a chicken producer had sent.

Fielding Huseth, advocate for Maryland PIRG (Public Interest Research Group), sent out an e-mail expressing his dismay after the decision to divert the money to ratepayers. Half of the proceeds from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, which taxes power producers on carbon emissions, are supposed to be devoted to home efficiency programs.

“Energy-efficiency programs are the best way to lower energy bills, create good quality jobs, and reduce demand for electricity statewide,” Huseth said.

House Environmental Matters Chair Maggie McIntosh, D-Baltimore City, said she doesn’t think environmental priorities have gotten unfair treatment this year. The budget is lean for everybody, she said.

“I think this year has been rough on environmental advocates, housing advocates, safety advocates, public school advocates. I’m telling you, it’s been a rough year,” she said. “And it’s because of the budget. There’s no other motive.”

Similarly, Sen. James “Ed” Degrange, D-Anne Arundel, said he doesn’t think environmental programs got the axe worse than others.

“Obviously we’re trying to balance the budget. We’re trying to balance the out years. We’re looking at everything,” he said. “There is give and take about that.

Kim Coble, Maryland executive director for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said she “couldn’t be happier” about the restoration of the $20 million in Bay funding. The money is used to manage “nonpoint” sources of nutrient runoff into the bay.

She said maintaining the money was the organization’s top priority this year, though the bay should be getting more than twice that based on the law that created the bay spending program in 2007.