Fate of 'green fund' for bay cleanup uncertain; debate continues

By PAMELA WOOD, Staff Writer
Published November 03, 2007, The Capital

The fate of a proposal to create a "green fund" for Chesapeake Bay cleanup remains uncertain as lawmakers forge ahead with their special legislative session. Following more than four hours of hearings yesterday, the House Environmental Matters Committee is poised to tweak the bill and move it to the full House of Delegates early next week.

A similar bill passed the House easily last session, but it tanked in the Senate at the hands of powerful Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Calvert.

And Mr. Miller further muddied the waters yesterday by announcing his own plan for raising money for bay cleanup.

Mr. Miller advocated for some sort of "lockbox" or "trust fund" for the bay with $30 million to $50 million in it. He couldn't say where the money would come from - maybe slots, maybe taxes, but not a property fee. And he couldn't say how the money would be spent, either.

"What we hope to do is have the governor, the speaker and myself come up with a plan," he said.

That compares to the green fund bill, which would levy a fee on all property owners to raise $85 million a year for the bay.

Homeowners would pay based on the size of their home, either $5, $20 or $40. Commercial and industrial property owners would pay based on the amount of impervious surfaces, such as rooftops and parking lots.

When pressed whether some sort of bay funding bill would pass during this fast-paced special session, Mr. Miller said: "We could, but it's very difficult to agree on something of that nature."

Environmental advocates, however, painted Mr. Miller's proposal as a step forward.

Before, they couldn't even get him to agree that more money needs to be raised for the bay, said Kim Coble, Maryland executive director for the nonprofit Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

"We're really pleased he acknowledges the importance of this," she said. "The question has shifted from 'Do we need a dedicated funding source or not?' to 'How do we do this?'"

Cindy Schwartz, director of the Maryland League of Conservation Voters, said Mr. Miller is "moving the ball down the court."

Whether the green fund moves forward or the trust fund moves forward, there remain wrinkles to be ironed out.

The governor's top environmental officials said they support the green fund, so long as changes are made that give them more flexibility in spending the money.

As written, the green fund bill would divvy up the money among local governments and state agencies.

The governor's representatives said they'd rather set spending plans year by year based on what's needed most, using the BayStat tracking process.

And while there was a long line of supporters testifying at yesterday's hearing, there also are detractors.

Representatives for apartment complex owners, office building owners, business associations and industrial corporations all said they'd be unfairly overtaxed by the green fund.

They gave examples such as the W.R. Grace facility in Curtis Bay, which would pay $20,000, and the steel mill at Sparrows Point in Baltimore County, which would pay $500,000.

Lobbyist Bruce Bereano, who was representing Safeway grocery stores, said: "Businesses aren't bottomless pits that you can continue to heap on taxes."

The House Environmental Matters Committee will continue working on the bill Monday morning. It's not clear when Mr. Miller will release more details of his plan.

(Revised Nov 2007)