By KENNETH R. FLETCHER, Capital News Service
ANNAPOLIS - A House committee Friday approved a bill (HB 23) that would pay for waterway restoration programs, but stripped out a plan to fund the measure with a development tax.
In fact, the Environmental Matters Committee removed all mention of how the "Chesapeake Bay 2010 Trust Fund" would be funded, specifying instead where money would go: to reduce runoff, fund municipal park projects and cut nutrient pollution.
The bill would originally have raised an estimated $68 million by taxing homeowners a small fee based on home size and charged businesses 1 cent per square foot of impervious surfaces, which includes roofs and parking lots.
But the committee voted 16-6 Friday to remove that language, after the Senate this week voted to dedicate about $50 million from a car titling tax and from Program Open Space funds to a Chesapeake Bay fund. The House committee also renamed its bill, formerly the Green Fund, to match the Senate program.
"I'm proud of this legislation," said Delegate Maggie McIntosh, D-Baltimore, the bill's sponsor. "A lot of the people working on these programs have never had sufficient funding."
But some delegates worried about rising spending during a state budget crisis.
A Chesapeake fund "may be laudable, it may have lofty goals, but we can't afford it right now," Delegate Anthony O'Donnell, R-Calvert, told the committee before the vote.
"In an extraordinary special session, we must find a way to pay our past due bills," he said. "Yet here we are with more spending promises."
But Beth Lefebvre of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation said that "cleaning up the bay is more than past due."
The fund aims to address the Chesapeake 2000 Agreement, a pledge by Maryland and other governments to reduce nutrient pollution entering the bay by 2010. The bay foundation said current funding only provides for half of those goals.
Following testimony last week from administration officials, the committee voted Friday to link funding to recommendations by BayStat, a new government program that tracks nutrient reduction programs. This would allow departments to target needs that could come up in emergencies like disease or pest epidemics and droughts.
"BayStat will add a dimension of oversight that is so important," McIntosh said.
Under the bill, at least 30 percent of the funds would go to the Department of Agriculture for cover crops and other farm programs that reduce runoff and at least another 30 percent would go to local government grants for reducing nutrient pollution. No more than 10 percent would go to the Department of Natural Resources for municipal parks.
The revised House bill also adds Atlantic coastal bays and the Patuxent River as targeted waterways, in addition to the Chesapeake Bay.