ANNAPOLIS – Maryland activists and state officials squared off Wednesday over an administration bill to allow the Department of Natural Resources to solicit funds from private donors to clean up the Chesapeake Bay.
The bill is one of Gov. Robert Ehrlich’s major environmental initiatives meant to trim the $8 billion tab for bay cleanup, according to Ehrlich policy adviser Bernie Marczyk.
“We’re trying to think outside the box” in our fund-raising efforts, said Marczyk at a Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs hearing of the bill.
Several fund-raising concepts are already in the works including a concert series and bay-themed bottled water and clothing sales, the department said. Department officials projected $1 million in revenues for fiscal year 2005 based on anticipated contributions.
But government watchdog groups and some environmentalists are concerned about corporate influence, privatization of government and the undercutting of existing conservation programs.
Establishing a fund to help the bay seems like a good idea but “it’s asking for trouble,” said James Browning, executive director of Common Cause Maryland. “It’s a way of privatizing government and having a few people pay instead of everyone.”
“Having a voluntary charitable fund to increase corporate PR is no substitute for a fair tax policy,” said Progressive Maryland Executive Director Tom Hucker.
The cleanup of the environmentally impaired estuary should be funded by penalties on polluting companies, Hucker added, and the state should “do more to crack down on corporate tax cheating.”
Staving off corporate influence is “a legitimate concern for government all the time,” acknowledged department Secretary C. Ronald Franks, but he added the department would retain accountability by being “transparent” in its dealings.
The administration offered two amendments: one preventing donor remuneration, to “ensure the fund is not based on quid pro quo,” said Marczyk, and the other requiring the department to report to the General Assembly and governor on donors’ contributions and fund distribution.
But even committee members echoed fears that the department’s integrity could be compromised.
“If one wanted to curry favor with the governor it might be nice to make a nice contribution to the Chesapeake Bay Fund,” said Sen. Roy Dyson, D-Calvert.
Sen. Paul Pinsky, D-Prince George’s, also said returns could take the form of advertising and questioned whether pollution regulations would be enforced.
“I don’t think we should paint this as totally independent,” he said.
Within the environmental community, opinions were mixed.
“A lot of environmental groups support the goal of this bill but there are concerns about this particular mechanism,” said Susan Brown, executive director of the Maryland League of Conservation Voters.
Some said the fund is redundant, would undermine existing mechanisms like the Chesapeake Bay Trust and present undue competition to smaller private nonprofit organizations, reducing their ability to combat industry lobbyists.
“This bill places the state in unfair competition with private nonprofit groups for limited private funds and reduces the ability of citizen groups to comment upon and influence government policies,” said Jay Charland, coastkeeper of Assateague Coastal Trust Inc. on behalf of several conservation organizations.
But unlike other education-based programs, the recovery fund would finance large-scale production projects, like expansive bay grass planting and oyster restocking, Franks said, and would approach different funding sources to eliminate competition with other bay restoration projects.
Under the proposed legislation, the Department of Natural Resources would contract with nonprofit public charities to solicit and manage contributions, which would retain 3 percent of receipts for administrative costs. Donors also could determine how their contributions are allocated.