O’Malley sweetens Md. wind farm plan for minority businesses

Stephan Savoia/AP - A large wind turbine generates power near Boston. Gov. Martin O'Malley has tried twice to pass an offshore wind bill, and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr (D-Calvert) has made a committee change to ensure the measure reaches the Senate floor.

Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley on Tuesday launched his third straight effort to pass legislation requiring ratepayers subsidize development of an offshore wind farm.

For a change, however, lawmakers’ misgivings about raising residents’ electricity bills seemed less important to the measure’s chances of success than the growing coalition of support that O’Malley (D) appeared to have built.

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The governor’s latest version of the legislation includes millions in grant money intended to help small and minority-owned businesses compete for offshore wind contracts. With that change, several African American lawmakers and the head of the state’s NAACP joined environmentalists and union workers on Tuesday in backing the measure.

As O’Malley’s administration envisions it, a field of giant turbines about 11 miles off the coast of Ocean City would produce as much electricity as a small power plant. To offset the higher cost of producing the wind energy, an average of $1.50 a month would be added to residential electricity bills. The impact on commercial and industrial users would be capped at 1.5 percent of their total monthly bills.

A day after President Obama called for collective action in his second inauguration speech, O’Malley cast his proposal in the same light, saying that development of offshore wind energy is a necessary endeavor that only government can help accomplish.

“President Obama said we must act, and act knowing that nothing we do will be perfect or complete,” O’Malley said. “But we have a responsibility to do everything that we can to make tomorrow safer and better, especially when it comes to jobs and this big threat of climate change.”

No East Coast state has successfully spurred construction of an offshore wind farm. To make the industry viable, industry analysts say, long-term, federal tax incentives are also needed. As part of the fiscal cliff deal early this month, Congress extended for one year a federal tax credit, a precedent advocates took as a hopeful sign for future extensions that could benefit efforts in Maryland and other states.

The Maryland Offshore Wind Energy Act of 2013 largely resembles the bill that passed the state’s House of Delegates last year but failed to pass the Senate Finance Committee after a trio of African American lawmakers voted against the plan.

After O’Malley’s supported a ballot measure to expand casino gambling last year, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) said this month that he wanted the governor’s plan to finally get an up or down vote on the Senate floor. He removed Sen. C. Anthony Muse (D-Prince George’s), one of the three African American lawmakers on the committee, and replaced him with Sen. Victor R. Ramirez (D-Prince George’s), who has said he would vote for offshore wind.

One of the remaining two African American lawmakers who had opposed the governor’s plan, Sen. Catherine E. Pugh (D-Baltimore) ,helped negotiate $10 million in aid to minority-owned businesses that made the proposal palatable to the NAACP, said Maryland state conference president Gerald Stansbury.

O’Malley invited Pugh’s counterpart in the House, Del. Aisha Braveboy (D-Prince George’s), to speak at Tuesday’s news conference, and she noted the changes to the bill aiding minority businesses.

“Governor, I want to thank you and your very able staff for providing the legislative black caucus with an opportunity to influence the language of the bill to provide equity opportunities for minorities” Braveboy said.

“Let’s face it: This is going to be a pocketbook issue for a number of households and people in our great state. It doesn’t mean we won’t move forward, but we need to move forward in a way that is comprehensive and takes into consideration of all of Marylanders.”

With the support from African American lawmakers, as well as Miller and some of his Senate leadership team, the governor’s wind bill now has 24 co-sponsors. If all of those lawmakers vote for the plan on the Senate floor, it will pass. It is also expected to pass the House again.

It would mark a far different conclusion than the failure of O’Malley’s first proposal, which became mired in concerns about costs and whether it would also benefit the governor’s former chief of staff.

That proposal died. O’Malley returned to the issue last year with a another proposal, modeled after a plan that passed in New Jersey in 2010, but that remains mired in bureaucratic problems.

Over those three years, the coalition of environmentalists who support offshore wind has expanded. On Tuesday, O’Malley was flanked by not only environmentalists, but union workers and religious leaders.

 
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