ANNAPOLIS – Maryland’s environmental programs face at least a year of cutbacks as lawmakers decide to direct funds to human services instead of land conservation in a year dominated by budget problems.
The House Appropriations Committee increased Gov. Robert Ehrlich’s budget by $20 million, to $742 million, but reduced environmental programs by $11 million by deepening cuts and reducing a handful of proposed funding increases.
The changes reflect the tension between two priorities — human services and land conservation — said Delegate Norman Conway, D-Wicomico, chairman of the House Appropriations Capital Budget Subcommittee.
“I think as each of the subcommittees made reviews of programs, there was a need to assist with some of the services that really help people,” Conway said.
But he dismissed the notion that the cuts marked any fundamental change in the state’s priorities, and said they were just the result of hard choices imposed by the budget deficit.
The House budget deepened cuts on Green Print and the Tobacco Transfer Program, and reduced flat budgets or increases for Program Open Space, the Agricultural Cost Share Program, Smart Growth, a small creek water cleanup program and storm water runoff pollution control.
One program — Rural Legacy — was held flat at $5 million between the two budgets, down from $15 million in fiscal 2003.
Land conservation was the environmental area hit hardest by the proposed cuts, accounting for $9.1 million of the additional decreases.
Even the tobacco transfer program falls into this category, as support programs such as agricultural land preservation, rather than payments to farmers, will be cut, said Don Vandrey, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Agriculture.
The Department of Natural Resources hasn’t had a chance yet to evaluate the House’s budget proposal, and couldn’t say where the cuts would actually fall, said John Surrick, department spokesman.
Although the proposed budget does maintain a certain level of funding, “the environment takes a hit,” among all the competing interests in these tough times, said Theresa Pierno, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s executive director for Maryland.
It also doesn’t resolve the question of how much of the transfer tax revenue — intended to fund Program Open Space — actually gets to that program, rather than being diverted to other projects, she said.
How much of an effect the cuts would have is unclear, Ehrlich said, although he reiterated his commitment to wastewater treatment projects, and said he was still hoping to work with the Legislature as “partners” on a “sensible and moderate environmental agenda.”
The wastewater treatment plant program fared very well in the House budget, where it received the full $11.5 million for plant improvements.
Other water quality programs didn’t do as well, as a pair of programs for small creek cleanups and storm water runoff pollution controls were held to $1 million, a $50,000 increase over 2003, but less than half of Ehrlich’s requested $2.25 million.
Hospitals, schools, parks and cultural centers received a large boost in the House’s version of the budget, as the committee amended the bill to include 62 new projects at a cost of $17.7 million.
No one debated the Appropriations Committee’s version of the budget bill when it was presented to the House Friday morning.
The Senate’s version of the capital budget, which does not contain these changes, had not yet passed out of the Budget and Taxation Committee by Friday afternoon. Any differences between the two versions would need to be resolved before the bill goes to the governor’s desk.