By KATE ELIZABETH QUERAM
ANNAPOLIS (April 10, 2008) - The 2008 Maryland legislative session kicked off with optimistic rallies and press conferences to support a slew of bills designed to help the state's environment, including addressing climate change and allocating money to clean up the Chesapeake Bay, among other things.
Though some of the bills passed, the session ended up being a mixed bag for environmentalists, who saw the climate change legislation die in committee on the last day and the language of other bills weakened in the face of tough economic times and concerns from businesses and citizens alike.
The Global Warming Solutions Act would have taken one of the nation's most aggressive stances on climate change, requiring Maryland to cut 2006 levels of carbon emissions by 25 percent by 2020. But lobbyists and industrial workers argued that high-emission steel mills and power plants would be targeted for closure as a result - concerns that activists failed to assuage in the final hours of the session.
"It just ticks me off," said Brad Heavner, state director of Environment Maryland. "The global warming bill was a very reasonable thing. It was made into a lot of stuff that it wasn't. The bottom line is that the lobbyists pounced on that bill like an infestation of rats."
In spite of such setbacks, activists said this session might be the best on record for the environment. Previously, 2007's session was heralded as the "year of the environment," due to the passage of the Clean Cars Act, Program Open Space, and stormwater management legislation.
But more bills succeeded this year than in 2007, including a measure requiring certain public school and state-funded buildings to be constructed using environmentally-friendly practices, one that increases critical area buffer zones, and a piece of legislation that allocates a $25 million Chesapeake Bay Trust Fund.
Though supporters lauded the passage of the bills, the majority of the legislation changed shape during the session as a result of amendments and cuts to the budget.
The bay trust fund, for example, was established during November's special session as a $50 million annual payout to help reduce non-point source pollution in the bay - that is, the type of runoff that can't be traced to one source, like a drain or power plant.
But mid-session, the state's projected revenue dropped by $333 million and the budget suffered severe cuts, including halving the annual trust fund for its first two years.
Still, political analysts said that passing any environmental legislation in times of financial strife is an accomplishment.
"I think it was a good session for the environment, considering the fact that the revenue projections were about $333 million too high, and especially considering the fact that we're in a period of financial stringency where environmental issues don't typically flourish," said Matthew Crenson, professor emeritus of political science at Johns Hopkins University.
Environmental activists agreed, saying that legislation always changes throughout the course of the session and such shifts should not be interpreted as hits against the environment.
"I think it's pretty normal in a legislative session to start off with a bill you think is perfect and, you know, the art of compromise is coming out with a strong bill," said Cindy Schwartz, executive director of the Maryland League of Conservation Voters. "If the bills were not strong we would not be supporting them."
A spokesman for Gov. Martin O'Malley concurred.
"What's important to remember is whatever dollars are allocated to the Chesapeake Bay Trust Fund are dollars that were not there last year," said Rick Abbruzzese. "We're making progress."
Other bills underwent cuts that fell outside the reach of budgetary concerns, including a measure that increased the amount of undeveloped space necessary between construction projects and Chesapeake Bay waters. The bill had little or no fiscal impact and instead changed after debate between legislators, activists and citizens.
"On one hand, it's the first update of the critical areas law in 25 years," said Delegate Tom Hucker, D-Montgomery, who expressed frustration about the tendency for lawmakers to want to please everyone before going forward with legislation. "But the culture on things like the global warming bill and the critical areas bill is that everybody has to be at the table or we can't pass the bill."
The critical areas bill originally tripled the current 100-foot buffer, which is designed to drain pollution runoff from construction sites before it hits the water, but sponsors and supporters eventually settled for a 200-foot buffer after protests from area homeowners.
"We believe in things like property rights on the Eastern Shore," said Sen. Richard F. Colburn, R-Dorchester, who opposed the bill in its original form. "We believe that they're guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution, so when you increase the buffer zone from 100 to 300 feet, you're taking people's lands away."
Despite the changes made to their bills, the environmental community maintained that for them, the session could be the most successful in Maryland's history. This is partly attributed to O'Malley's reputation as a green politician.
"He's proving himself to be an environmental activist," said Crenson. "What he's doing in the process is sort of shifting attention from budget and expenditure reductions, which are never popular, to environmental issues, which are more popular. And I think he was successful in doing so."
Capital News Service contributed to this report.