ANNAPOLIS – Gov. Robert Ehrlich’s “flush tax” topped a list of environmental victories in a legislative session lawmakers and environmentalists dubbed a triumph for the environment.
With only a few hours left before the adjournment of the Maryland General Assembly 2004 session Monday, lawmakers passed a modified version of the governor’s premier environmental initiative.
The final version has Marylanders on sewer and septic systems paying $30 per year to upgrade wastewater treatment plants, repair failing septic tanks and fund a cover crop program. The improvements are designed to reduce direct nitrogen and phosphorous loading to the Chesapeake Bay and restore the ecologically damaged waterway.
Though Ehrlich opposed charging septic users the same as sewer customers, he said, “The bill is too important to veto.”
“We have a year to convince some of the folks downstairs that our view is the best one,” he added. The administration may introduce an emergency bill to tweak the legislation next year. “It certainly is a monumental step towards controlling nitrogen pollution of the Chesapeake Bay.”
The first-term Republican governor has reason to be pleased as three out of his four environmental initiatives, which would ultimately improve the bay’s health and revamp a program geared to clean and redevelop industrial sites, were successful.
This success could go a long way in lessening the ill feeling between the governor and environmentalists that erupted during the Lynn Buhl debacle last year. Environmentalists said Buhl, a Michigan environmental regulator and Ehrlich’s first choice to head the environment department, was too lenient to big polluters and was unqualified. The Senate’s rejection of the nominee angered Ehrlich and clouded relations between the governor and the environmental community.
“I think it’s very helpful for him,” said Baltimore lawmaker Maggie McIntosh, chairwoman of the House Environmental Matters Committee, who also won praise for her shepherding the legislation.
“Delegate McIntosh and Senator (Paula) Hollinger worked tirelessly with the administration and the environmental community to craft a bill that met everyone’s needs,” said Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Kim Coble. “The sewage bill is a terrific example of the Bay coming before partisanship to achieve real results.”
Hollinger, D-Baltimore County, heads the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee.
This near-camaraderie between Ehrlich and the environmental community was not apparent in January when conservationists pushed for and gained a veto override on an energy efficiency standards bill Ehrlich rejected last year.
The victory raised hopes that other major environmental initiatives would receive safe passage through the Legislature this year.
“We went into this session thinking, ‘This will be the green year,'” said Brad Heavner, state director of Maryland Public Interest Research Group.
It was certainly a good year for green energy.
The Legislature passed a solar energy grant bill, a net metering bill allowing electricity meters to run backward when solar panels generate excess power and a renewable energy standards bill, sponsored by House Speaker Michael Busch, D-Anne Arundel.
Busch’s bill requires 7.5 percent of Maryland’s electricity to come from renewable energy sources by 2014. Non-compliant utilities would pay a penalty to finance loans and grants for the development of solar, wind, biomass, geothermal and other renewable energy sources.
“The renewable portfolio standard would bring Maryland significantly forward” in reducing air pollution, Heavner said.
Other major environmental successes were: a bill to protect critical buffer zones along state waterways from development by increasing penalties for violations; legislation increasing criminal penalties on intentional water polluters; a bill to regulate labeling and disposal of mercury-containing products, and bills geared to make land conservation easements perpetual and offer tax credits to farmers who enroll in the program.
There were some environmental losses, however.
“There were a lot of good policies,” said Susan Brown, executive director of Maryland League of Conservation Voters, “but if you look at environmental funding, the environment lost.”
Ehrlich slashed $110 million from Program Open Space funding for fiscal year 2005, endangering a program that has reclaimed 265,000 acres of green space from urban sprawl.
And a bill to give officials the right to fine major air polluters died in the House Environmental Matters Committee. The administration needed this authority to complete its air quality compliance plan mandated by the federal Clean Air Act.
It gives everyone something to work for next year, Heavner said.
“There’s always more that can be done,” he said, but “different legislators and different interests are challenging each other to do good work.”