By Chris Gosier and Patrice Pascual
ANNAPOLIS – Eastern Shore lawmakers said there was much to like in Gov. Parris Glendening’s State of the State Address, but they almost unanimously denounced his proposal to penalize farmers in an effort to halt pfiesteria.
Shore lawmakers said farmers care about the environment and should not be fined for failing to control fertilizer runoff from their lands in the next four years, as they would be under a plan unveiled by Glendening.
“Are we going to make criminals out of our farmers?” asked Sen. Richard Colburn, R-Dorchester, after Wednesday’s address.
To stop the growth of the toxic bacteria Pfiesteria piscicida, Glendening wants to force farmers to implement controls on nutrient runoff by 2002 or face civil penalties, farm restrictions or a possible loss of state funding.
But most Eastern Shore farmers participate in voluntary programs to control runoff from nutrient-rich chicken manure, and will eventually address the problem if left alone, said Del. Don Hughes, R-Wicomico.
“We have 70 percent of the farmers doing it now” and the rest are filling out the paperwork, he said.
Glendening knew of their concerns but maintained that the timetable and penalties were necessary incentives for dealing with the pfiesteria problem.
“I think there’s going to be some resistance but this is the right thing to do,” he said after his address.
Glendening later released details of his pfiesteria plan. It includes $4.5 million over three years to plant nutrient- absorbing cover crops, a three-year tax credit for any commercial fertilizers required by nutrient management plans, and a $5.9 million cost-sharing fund to help farmers construct manure storage sheds and dead-bird composters.
He also promised funding to upgrade all sewage treatment plants in the state within five years.
The governor’s plan also calls for controlling fertilizer on large tracts of land, such as golf courses, and educating homeowners in the use of fertilizer.
“I’m glad that the governor is recognizing some of these areas,” said Del. Norman H. Conway, D-Wicomico.
But the penalty provisions remain a sticking point.
Del. Ronald A. Guns, chairman of the Environmental Matters Committee, said his committee is working on its own pfiesteria proposal, which will have no penalties and give farmers more time to establish runoff controls.
“99.5 percent of this I agree with, but I think it’s unrealistic to impose those time frames and penalties on farmers,” said Guns.
The governor was interrupted by applause 20 times during his 37-minute address, which was peppered with historic references to Maryland as a place of “liberty and opportunity.”
With a flush treasury and a re-election campaign ahead, he said spending on children, jobs and his pfiesteria program would be at the top of his 1998 legislative agenda.
He noted Maryland’s $283 million budget surplus and proposed that $100 million of it be used to pay for the income tax reductions enacted last year.
Glendening pledged the most dollars for public education, including $222 million in capital improvements to schools, and an additional $181 million for “additional teachers, textbooks, and to support science and arts programs.”
He also pledged an additional $64 million for higher education, the first installment on a promised $635 million for colleges over the next four years, and an extra $119 million for capital improvements on state campuses.
Republicans said the speech promised too much to too many.
Del. Robert L. Flanagan, R-Howard, charged that “the governor is using the $283 million as a campaign fund. When he was Prince George’s County executive, he made promises that couldn’t be kept. …He’s setting up the next governor for the same thing.”
But supporters like Del. Clarence Davis, D-Baltimore, called it his “finest speech ever,” and cited the “warm” response.
Glendening touched on the importance of education in his own life, saying, “My family was financially very poor. Education took me out of poverty. As a result, education has been the passion of my life.”
That “passion” includes school libraries. Glendening got a laugh by telling legislators about the “huge computer” on the cover of “Computers in Your Life,” a 1981 book in the University Park Elementary School library, where he volunteers, and said he would increase funding for school libraries statewide.
He shared the credit for a healthy economy, with 50,000 jobs created in the state in 1997. Glendening also praised legislators for enacting “historic” cuts in welfare in 1996. Since then, the governor says, the welfare caseload has dropped by nearly 90,000 people, “a 40 percent reduction in just two years.”
Glendening used a prop to underscore his plan to fund regular health care for 60,000 of Maryland’s uninsured children. Holding up what looked to be a used bottle of pink antibiotic, familiar to most parents, he said such low-cost treatments under his plan would save the state costly payments for treatment of serious problems later. That line earned sustained applause.
Glendening’s most well-received proposal was a 50 percent increase in the fund for fire protection and rescue services, a tribute to the late Sen. Bill Amoss, D-Harford, a longtime legislator who died last year.
The governor also advocated increased spending for the 5,300 citizens with disabilities whom he said are waiting for state services.