ANNAPOLIS – Maryland’s Program Open Space will be able to save funds for future land conservation by time-stamping dollars and using the oldest ones first. This prevents the deficit-stricken state from reclaiming funds unspent by the program after seven years.
The Board of Public Works Wednesday approved the accounting procedure unanimously, although Comptroller William Donald Schaefer demanded the program surrender funds to help resolve the state’s budget deficit. He, along with Gov. Robert Ehrlich and Treasurer Nancy Kopp make up the board.
Ehrlich said his administration will sharply scrutinize the program, which allows Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources to purchase land by using half of 1 percent of real estate transfer taxes generated in Maryland.
Every time a person buys a home or land in Maryland, Program Open Space receives funds. In fiscal 2004, this amounted to $116 million intended for conservation purchases.
The program estimates that 19 percent of Maryland is protected open or park land and 20 percent is developed. The program, which has helped purchase almost 280,000 acres, promotes this balance of conservation and development.
Maryland closed an estimated $1.2 billion deficit this year, and projections of next year’s shortfall range from $400 million to $800 million, according to recent reports.
The program returned more than $180 million to the state’s general fund over the last two years to help close the deficit. The General Assembly offset this loss by issuing the program $102 million in bonds. As a result, the program can still spend $80 million on conservation this fiscal year.
Some conservationists protested this reduction.
“Program Open Space has had severe cuts to its budget,? said Susan O?Brien, spokeswoman for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. The money is needed because protected areas strengthen communities and control sprawl, she said.
But Schaefer pointed to the state deficit as a higher priority.
“All these land preservation measures could wait until next year,” or when the state is out of debt, Schaefer said after the meeting. “We’re spending money we don’t have.”
Despite his protests, Schaefer voted for the program’s proposal to keep money by time-stamping it.
Former Gov. Parris Glendening received Schaefer’s most pointed criticism.
“He bought land that was of no value at all,” Schaefer said.
Program Open Space became a major priority under Glendening. He billed it as one of his administration’s flagship programs.
Ehrlich said he supports the program’s conservation efforts, but cited a “philosophical difference” between his administration and the program.
The governor’s philosophy encourages collaboration, seeking input from businesses as well as conservationists, Ehrlich spokeswoman Shareese DeLeaver said.
The program has changed since Glendening led the state, said Frank Oslislo of Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources, particularly with funding reductions.
“The previous administration had land preservation as a dominant part of conservation,” Oslislo said. “In this administration it’s an element.”