ANNAPOLIS – The Department of the Environment’s budget took a 22 percent bite under the budget released Friday by Gov. Robert Ehrlich – a far cry from the environmental commitment of his predecessor, former Gov. Paris N. Glendening.
In addition, the Department of Natural Resources’ operating budget was trimmed 4.4 percent.
And, in contrast to the environmental rhetoric of Glendening, Ehrlich failed to mention the environment during his hourlong presentation of the budget at the State House Friday morning.
The proposed budget also eliminated 143 jobs between the two departments – 82 from DNR and 61 from MDE.
All the positions cut were vacant, a fact that pleased Sen. Richard Colburn, R-Dorchester.
“One of the main goals was not to lay off anybody in any department, and that objective has been met,” he said.
Members of the House and Senate environmental committees declined discuss the budget specifics until they had had a chance to examine the governor’s proposal.
“I’m going to do whatever it takes to protect the environment,” said Delegate Barbara Frush, D-Prince George’s. “(But) it’s going to be a while before I’m going to be able to tell you anything.”
At first glance, said House Majority Leader Kumar P. Barve, D-Montgomery, the budget met his expectations.
“Obviously, the environment isn’t a top priority for the governor, and he’s going to make cuts which are reflective of his political philosophy,” Barve said.
The Department of the Environment’s budget was set at $169.4 million for fiscal year 2004, a 4.9 percent increase over 2003. However, state funding for the Department was cut 22 percent, from $136 million to $107.4 million. The increase relies on more than $30 million in federal loans for the Maryland Water Quality and Drinking Water revolving loan fund programs.
These two programs provide funds to local governments for water quality and drinking water improvement projects.
The Waste Management Administration, which deals with lead paint, recycling and the restoration of contaminated areas, took the biggest single dollar loss in the department, at $2.8 million.
The Fisheries Services budget within DNR was reduced by 12.5 percent, down $2.4 million from 2003.
Also, the department’s Chesapeake and Coastal Watershed Service, which manages the bay and Maryland’s part of the surrounding watershed, lost $2.5 million.
Public interest groups expected some budget struggles, given how tight things are right now, said Gigi Kellett, a public interest advocate with the Maryland Public Interest Research Group.
“Obviously we are very concerned about the availability of funding for environmental enforcement,” Kellett said. “We will be watching to make sure we can get full funding for these programs.”
Ehrlich had talked of combining the two environmental departments, but passed on the idea this year. Looking at this budget suggests that thought might still be on Ehrlich’s mind, said Sen. Janet Greenip, R-Anne Arundel.
If the two departments were combined, Greenip said, the level of funding would be “pretty darn good.” The amount of funding for some programs, such as the federal environmental Superfund, which pays to restore extremely contaminated areas, hasn’t been announced yet, said Neil Bergsman, budget director with the Office of Budget Analysis. The governor, he said, folded funding for several programs into the capital budget, which should be released next week.