Money woes shouldn't slow action

State eco-activists seek solutions despite budget constraints

By PAMELA WOOD, Staff Writer
The Capital 01/27/10

Pamela Wood ­— The Capital With logos of environmental groups splashed on a screen beside him, U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Baltimore, encourages activists to make their voices heard in Annapolis. He spoke at the annual Maryland Environmental Legislative Summit, held at St. John’s College.

There was plenty of bad news Tuesday night at an annual gathering of eco-activists in Annapolis: no money, budget cuts looming, opposition to environmental regulations.

But as one organizer put it, now's the time for activists to take their lemons and turn them into lemonade - to make the best of a bad situation by promoting cost-effective, well-thought-out laws.

The hundreds of activists who turned out for the 16th annual installment of the Maryland Environmental Legislative Summit were cheered on in their efforts by Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Baltimore.

Cummings, who is pushing Chesapeake Bay legislation on Capitol Hill, fired up the crowd by telling them that their voices matter. The longer the cleanup drags on, the harder and more expensive it gets, he said.

"That, my friends, is why your advocacy is so critical," Cummings said. "The General Assembly needs to hear your voices."

He praised the crowd for coming out on a winter night and shrugging off friends or spouses who might not understand their commitment.

"I appreciate the fact that you care, that you give a damn, that you try to make the world a better place," he said, earning a standing ovation.The event is organized each year by a coalition of more than 20 environmental groups. The coalition each year designates a handful of priorities for the General Assembly session.

This year's priority list was shorter than most. It had just three items: fighting budget cuts, promoting better transportation planning and requiring counties and cities to have a special tax to pay for combating stormwater pollution to the Chesapeake Bay.

Alison Prost of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation said spending money on the environment is important, even when there's not a lot to go around.

In the past year, budget cuts totaled 2.75 percent at the departments of environment, natural resources, agriculture and planning. The rest of the state's agencies were hit with budget cuts of 0.89 percent, she said.

"We can't have this," she said.

Changing the way roads and transit projects are planned also was tied to the money issue. Advocates said their proposed changes - better planning and more documentation - would make sure scarce state transportation dollars are spent well.

And even with everyone's wallets empty, the environmentalists are pushing for a fee that property owners would pay in order to fund projects that reduce stormwater runoff that pollutes the Chesapeake Bay.

Erik Michelsen, director of the South River Federation, said local governments don't have enough money to pay for all the stormwater projects they want to do.

"The money just isn't there," he said.

The bill hasn't yet been introduced, but last year's failed version didn't dictate how much would be charged, just that cities and counties would have to charge some sort of fee.

While the organizers and activists were focused on fighting for the environment, political officials focused their comments squarely on re-electing Gov. Martin O'Malley this fall.

Those who used part of their podium time to stump for the governor included Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Calvert; natural resources Secretary John R. Griffin; and Del. Maggie McIntosh, a Baltimore Democrat who chairs the Environmental Matters Committee.

"We simply cannot go back," Miller said, making a thinly veiled reference to O'Malley's Republican predecessor - and possible 2010 opponent - Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. "We've made so much progress."

In past years, activists capped off their night by visiting lawmakers' offices. This year, they went digital, taking pictures and recording video clips to send to lawmakers instead.

(Revised January 2010)