By JENNIFER HLAD
ANNAPOLIS (Feb. 17, 2010) - Senate President Thomas V. "Mike" Miller Jr. said his bill to create a Chesapeake Conservation Corps accomplishes the second of the two most important legislative priorities this year: balancing the budget and creating jobs.
But Sen. Andy Harris, R-Baltimore County, says it fails at the first.
Miller, D-Calvert, touted his bill at a Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee hearing Tuesday, saying it is "about creating jobs for young people."
The Chesapeake Conservation Corps was envisioned as an organization similar to AmeriCorps or the Peace Corps, said Vicki Gruber, Miller's chief of staff. Many officials who spoke in favor of the bill focused on the proposed green jobs training for young adults, but it would include environment-related public service opportunities for all ages.
The corps would include a volunteer program, with a stipend, for adults 18 to 25 years old. Other programs would offer incentives like course credit or student loan forgiveness for service, according to the bill.
The Maryland Department of Natural Resources has a conservation corps program, but Gruber said the Chesapeake Conservation Corps would have a broader scope. Volunteers would be trained for many types of green jobs, and would go into schools and communities to help them go green, she said.
The idea is consistent with President Obama's executive order for protecting and restoring the Chesapeake Bay, Gruber said. The order calls on federal agencies to "increase citizen stewardship, with an emphasis on engaging young people."
Harris said he "loves" the idea of a volunteer corps—though he noted that people who are paid stipends are not volunteers. But he worries about the administrative costs of the program.
The original bill called for the conservation corps to receive $1 million each fiscal year from the Environmental Trust Fund. The fund consists of money collected via an environmental surcharge on energy bills, and supports the Maryland Power Plant Research Program.
Harris said the electricity bill surcharge is capped, so he asked where the additional money for the corps would come from.
"Is this $1 million that was just lying around?" he asked, wondering whether funding this program would cut funding for power plant assessments.
Peter Dunbar, director of the Power Plant Research Program for the Department of Natural Resources, told Harris all the money is being used appropriately.
Gruber said the bill has been changed to use $250,000 per year for a limited time from the fund for seed money for the conservation corps, but the bill amendment was not available Tuesday. She said up to $250,000 of the fund each year is used for energy studies, so that money would be reallocated for the conservation corps for a few years.
Miller is also working with the Chesapeake Bay Trust to possibly have that organization perform the administrative functions for the conservation corps, which could save money, Gruber said. The trust may also be able to help with grants, she said.
Harris again brought up the state's deficit and asked if there was money "lying around for this."
"We believed there was enough to use for temporary seed money," Gruber said.
Several environmental groups support the bill. But Nita Settina, superintendent of the Maryland Park Service, said the Department of Natural Resources is working with Miller's office and the Chesapeake Bay Trust to draft some "friendly amendments."
The department supports the idea of the program, she said, but noted that the fund slated to pay for the project is projected to have a $300,000 deficit in fiscal 2012 and a $1 million deficit in fiscal 2013.
The Chesapeake Conservation Corps bill is sponsored by Miller, and co-sponsored by 26 other senators.
Capital News Service contributed to this report.