WASHINGTON – Lawmakers from Chesapeake Bay-area states said Tuesday they will try to increase funding for the bay, but agreed to focus on short-term priorities and not push now for the billions that some have said are needed.
Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich said that securing $1 billion to $2 billion “is not how we think” right now in terms of restoring bay funding, but that lawmakers will focus more on making sure existing programs are alive and remain funded.
That was echoed by Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., who said that the short-range goal is to “go for the money” that’s available at this moment.
Ehrlich, a Republican, said after Tuesday’s meeting on Capitol Hill that he would lead efforts to win more money from the White House through his ties to the Bush administration.
The meetings for the first time brought together governors and congressional representatives from Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Washington, D.C., for face-to-face discussions on how the bay can meet the 2010 clean water goals set by the Environmental Protection Agency.
The meetings came just weeks after President Bush released his proposed fiscal 2006 budget, which called for an overall cut for the bay. While his budget would increase funding for the Chesapeake Bay Program from $20.8 million to $20.9 million, it would eliminate $10 million in watershed grants as well as funding for research on Asian oysters, striped bass and blue crabs.
Sen. Paul Sarbanes, D-Md., who last year led a bipartisan group that asked the president to budget $1 billion to “Save the Bay” conceded Tuesday that a top priority now is to get funding back for ongoing programs that were cut in Bush’s fiscal 2006 budget.
Ehrlich said the $1 billion to $2 billion goals remain important, but are not part of short-term priorities for the bay, which depend on “reaching benchmarks” like oyster restoration, reducing agricultural run-off — and “having a plan.”
“It’s not just the money, it’s how the money is spent,” Ehrlich said.
Rep. Wayne Gilchrest, R-Kennedyville, said one of the key elements standing in the way of bay restoration is the lack of coordination between local, state and federal powers. He said that a study conducted by the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Blue Ribbon Panel found that $800 million is spent annually on the bay, from all sources, but the money is not used as efficiently as it should be.
Will Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, agreed with the need for more collaboration, and called for “the establishment of a regional financing authority to coordinate spending to the highest priorities first.”
But bay restoration goes beyond just getting the money, said Baker, who was not at the Tuesday meetings.
“Clearly, the states and federal government need to spend considerable sums to save the bay, but we also want to underscore the importance of enforcing existing laws starting with the federal Clean Water Act,” he said.
The governors met first with senators in a 30-minute closed-door meeting and next with House members in an open meeting that lasted about 25 minutes. While it was the first time all the officials had been together, Gilchrest said it should not be the last.
“This should be the first of a series of meetings,” Gilchrest said. “What we need to do next is a day meeting to kick-off some ideas, a full eight hours.”
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