Environmental activists are bracing for a rough time in Annapolis as Maryland's General Assembly begins its annual 90-day session.
After seeing major bills passed on global warming and Chesapeake Bay cleanup the past couple years, green groups are expecting to be fighting mostly to keep from having cherished programs and efforts slashed or rolled back. They're not kidding themselves about emerging unscathed, either.
"It's going to be a bloodbath," predicted Brad Heavner of Environment Maryland.
With the state needing to close a $2 billion gap in its $13 billion budget, everything is under scrutiny for cutting - including environmental programs. One already in the crosshairs - as it seems to be in every down economy - is the state's effort to buy parkland and preserve sensitve natural areas from development. Another is the historic tax credit, which has provided a major boost to redevelopment of Baltimore over the years.
Though Gov. Martin O'Malley has repeatedly pledged his support for full funding of the state's land preservation efforts, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. said Wednesday he'd rather stop saving ecologically sensitive land from development than lay off any more state employees.
Speaking on Marc Steiner's "Annapolis Summit" radio show, Miller said "anything that's not a core service" should be subject to cutting, including Program Open Space, which acquires land for parks, recreation and natural areas. He also mentioned the historic tax credit, which expires this year if it is not reauthorized.
"I consider myself an environmentalist," said Miller, who represents Calvert and Prince George's counties. "I have the Patuxent River on one side of my district and the Chesapeake Bay on the other .. But when you compare Program Open Space and protecting land versus laying off state employes, I opt to cut Program Open Space."
Miller contended that Maryland has "preserved more land than any state in the Union," but said he's really just suggesting the effort be put on hold for a year or two, not eliminated altogether.
Still, those are fighting words to some conservationists, who note that the transfer tax revenue that's earmarked for land preservation has been repeatedly raided by lawmakers over the years whenever the state gets in a budget pinch.
House Speaker Michael E. Busch, who joined Miller on Steiner's show, suggested that lawmakers might decide to essentially borrow against the program's dedicated source of funding. It gets property tax transfer revenues each year - though not much in recent years because of the real estate slump.
Last year, lawmakers took the available tax revenue to help balance the state budget, but authorized the administration to finance parkland purchases by issuing up to $70 million in bonds, to be paid back with future transer tax revenues. Busch said he foresaw mortgaging the program again this year, while taking the available tax revenues for the operating budget. But echoing O'Malley, the speaker pointed out that now is a relatively good time to be in the market for land, because with development slowed the state ought to be able to get tracts at bargain prices.
A similar struggle is likely over the historic tax credit, which has provided a key incentive to developers to recycle old buildings in Baltimore and elsewhere in the state. O'Malley tried last year without success to get the General Assembly to extend the credit for another five years and expand it. He's trying again this year, but proposing this time to extend it for three years, for a total of $50 million. The credit expires this year if not renewed. Another potential budget victim could be the Chesapeake Bay 2010 Trust Fund, a pot of money earmarked to combat polluted runoff, which has never been fully funded since its launch in 2008.
Developers, meanwhile, are pushing back against new state regulations that haven't even taken effect yet requiring them to do more to control storm water pollution. Though no legislation has been introduced so far, activists say they expect an effort will be made to delay or roll back some of the rules hammered out over the past two years to enforce a storm-water pollution control law passed in 2007.
Even if the omens are not good for new environmental initiatives this year, activists are pushing a few. They're planning to seek legislation requiring cities, towns and counties to impose a storm-water "user fee" on all residential and business properties to help pay for retrofitting existing storm drains and capturing polluted runoff from urban and suburban lands. State law already authorizes localities to do that, but few have, as landowners often object to what they view as a new tax.
Another bill in the works would revamp transportation planning, with an eye to shifting funds away from sprawl-enabling road and highway projects.
And Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler plans to introduce a bill this year designating the Maryland portion of the bay as a "no discharge" zone for boaters.
Only a handfull of environmental bills have been introduced to date, but more are sure to come - even in this lean year. Greens plan to rally for their causes on Jan. 26 in Annapolis. For more info, go here.
(Baltimore Sun photos: Miller, by Barbara Haddock Taylor; Busch, 2009, by Glenn Fawcett)