ANNAPOLIS – Senate and House committees rejected Gov. Robert Ehrlich’s proposal to solicit private funds for bay cleanup, snagging the otherwise smooth flow of the governor’s environmental initiatives through the General Assembly.
“This is a loss for the Chesapeake Bay,” said Ehrlich spokesman Henry Fawell. “The governor put together a sensible, bipartisan bill and the Legislature killed it.”
The bill had been a source of conflict to some environmentalists who welcomed a plan to revive the ecologically damaged estuary but wondered about corporate influence and unfair competition between the government and private nonprofit organizations.
Lawmakers were also torn and this indecision was reflected in the close votes taken during sessions last week.
“It was a good idea, but not well thought out,” said Sen. Paula Hollinger, D-Baltimore County, chairwoman of the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee.
The Department of Natural Resources would not have sufficient oversight, said House Environmental Matters Committee Chairwoman Maggie McIntosh, and holding events in which corporations kowtowed to the governor seemed wrong.
“Having the state act as a fund-raiser does not sound, smell or taste right,” she said.
The administration had offered two amendments as precautions against conflicts of interest and to increase department accountability: one preventing donor paybacks and the other requiring the department to report to the General Assembly and governor on donor contributions and fund distribution.
But in the end, the amendments were not enough to satisfy committee members’ concern that the donations would become “another slush fund” to buy the governor’s support, said Sen. Paul Pinsky, D-Prince George’s.
Pinsky pointed to the controversy of University System of Maryland Regent Richard Hug, whose solicitation of funds from racing interests to support Ehrlich’s slots bill incited calls for his resignation from several Democratic lawmakers.
“It’s dangerous for the government to depend on private funds that may not always be there,” Pinsky added, saying government should make budgetary provisions for environmental projects.
But Ehrlich spokesman Henry Fawell said the bay fund was “anything but controversial” and concerns about corporate influence were “hardly insurmountable challenges” that could be easily fixed through the amendment process.
“There has been 30 years of rhetoric about cleaning up the bay. Here was a tangible solution to do it and the Legislature killed it,” he said.
Department of Natural Resources Secretary C. Ronald Franks said the fund was meant to finance large-scale oyster restocking, bay grass plantings and other projects to radically improve the impaired watershed.
The Senate and House committees may examine the issue during the interim, Hollinger and McIntosh said.