By Keisha Stewart and Patrice Pascual
ANNAPOLIS – Gov. Parris Glendening promised more spending on schools and libraries and better health care for the working poor, but Southern Maryland lawmakers had trouble seeing beyond a tiny bug in Wednesday’s State of the State address.
The bug — Pfiesteria piscicida, which has been linked to fishkills and human ailments — figured heavily in the governor’s address and some Southern Maryland lawmakers worry that he went too far.
“I’m very, very worried about the pfiesteria problem,” said Sen. Roy Dyson, D-St. Mary’s. “I think it’s too fast for the governor to say he has a solution.”
Southern Maryland lawmakers are worried that Glendening’s plans will unduly slap regulations on farmers before research for the cause of pfiesteria is conclusive.
The governor’s sweeping proposals to fight the re-emergence of pfiesteria, include calls for reducing fertilizer runoff from farms as a way to control pfiesteria. Specifically, he called for all farms to have nutrient management plans by 2000 with “strong enforcement mechanisms” for non-compliance.
The governor took pains to point out that “the state is not blaming farmers for the outbreaks” of pfiesteria that led him to order some waterways closed last summer. Farmers would get a transitional tax credit from the state as they adjust to new farming practices, he said.
His plan also calls for state programs to educate suburban homeowners on responsible use of fertilizers and it earmarks $1.6 million for research into the still-mysterious microbe.
In an interview after the speech, the governor stressed that “this will not be the generation that loses the Chesapeake Bay.”
But most lawmakers from rural areas gave Glendening’s pfiesteria and agricultural goals a cool reception.
“I think that people in that legislative body thought that move was not well thought-out,” said Del. Samuel Linton, D- Charles.
Most Southern Maryland legislators said Glendening was already pointing the finger by his suggested regulations on the farming industry.
“I would forgo any burden on the farming industry and poultry industry until we know, based on sound science, what the cause of the problem is,” said Del. Anthony O’Donnell, R- Calvert.
Others were concerned by Glendening’s insistence that the farm run-off controls would be mandatory. The state traditionally has allowed farmers to voluntarily participate in environmental programs, said Del. John F. Slade, D-St. Mary’s.
“I don’t think anyone objects to the goal,” Slade said. “It’s just that we have the tradition of a voluntary program in the state that has been highly successful.”
Supporters said the 37-minute speech, peppered with historic references to Maryland as a place of “liberty and opportunity,” was one of Glendening’s best. He was interrupted by applaused 20 times — although it was noticeably absent during the pfiesteria portion.
With a flush treasury and a re-election campaign ahead, Glendening put spending on children, jobs and pfiesteria at the top of his 1998 legislative agenda.
Citing the state’s $283 million budget surplus, Glendening proposed that $100 million of it be used to pay for the 10- percent income tax cut passed last year, which will be phased in over five years.
But 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.”
Glendening pledged the most dollars for 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.
He pledged an increase in school library funding, saying they are underfunded statewide. 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.
He lauded a healthy economy in the state, where an estimated 50,000 jobs were created in 1997, the fifth-best rate in the nation. He shared the credit with legislators for “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.”
He underscored his plan to fund regular health care for 60,000 of Maryland’s uninsured children by holding up what looked to be a used bottle of pink antibiotic, familiar to most parents. Such low-cost treatments under his plan would save the state costly payments for treatment of serious problems later, he said, to 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.