$50M extra annually earmarked for bay

By PAMELA WOOD, Staff Writer
The Capitol, Published November 19, 2007

The Chesapeake Bay emerged as a winner from the General Assembly special session that ended in the early hours of this morning, advocates said. While much of the focus of the session was on slots and taxes, lawmakers also compromised on a plan to spend $50 million extra each year for the bay.

"Without a doubt it's a huge success for the bay," said Kim Coble, Maryland executive director of the nonprofit Chesapeake Bay Foundation. "This is $50 million we did not have and if we use it efficiently and effectively, there's no doubt this will help improve the health of the bay."

Added Cindy Schwartz, director of the Maryland League of Conservation Voters: "We're really happy. To come out of the session with money for the bay is a victory."

The money will come from a portion of the gas tax and car-rental taxes.

But the extra money doesn't come with any directions on how exactly it should be spent. Environmental advocates said they expect to work on that during the regular 2008 session of the General Assembly.

Ms. Coble, whose foundation was one of the main backers of the bay money, said she doesn't expect that to be a problem. She said it's important that a spending plan to be written up, though, to make sure the $50 million goes to "on the ground" programs that will make tangible improvements in water quality.

Spending more money on the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries is crucial if there's any hope of meeting the goal of getting the bay off the list of the nation's "dirty waters" by 2010, advocates said.

The plan that finally passed was a far cry from the plan environmentalists started with. They wanted to levy a fee on all property owners to raise $85 million a year for a "Green Fund."

Commercial, industrial and institutional property owners would have paid based on their square footage of impervious surfaces that can't absorb rainwater, such as rooftops and parking lots. Homeowners would have paid either $5, $20 or $40, based on the size of their house.

But State Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. threw cold water on the Green Fund plan and offered his own plan instead.

He pushed instead for a bay "trust fund" that wouldn't be tied to a new tax. His chamber passed $51 million funded by the car titling tax and Program Open Space, a land-preservation program.

Environmentalists were happy that Mr. Miller agreed to more bay funding, but they bristled at the idea of shuffling money from one environmental program to another.

Ultimately, the House and Senate agreed on spending $50 million per year from the gas tax and car-rental tax.

Ms. Coble commended lawmakers for finding the bay money amid the many difficult financial decisions they faced during the session.

"Even in this time of repairing a structural deficit, what the legislature said is restoring the bay is a top priority in the state of Maryland," she said.

(Revised Nov 2007)