Ehrlich to Propose Full Funding Of Land Preservation Initiatives

The governor in the past has diverted much of the money earmarked for land preservation to other programs.
The governor in the past has diverted much of the money earmarked for land preservation to other programs. (By Marvin Joseph -- The Washington Post)
By John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 16, 2006

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. today will propose restoring Maryland's commitment to land preservation in the coming fiscal year, a move that aides said would earmark more than $373 million for those efforts -- about three times what the state is spending this year.

Since he took office in 2003, Ehrlich (R) has diverted a significant portion of state revenue mandated for preservation efforts such as Program Open Space, instead using the money to shore up other programs during lean budget years.

His decision to fully fund Program Open Space in the next year was welcomed by environmentalists yesterday but branded yet another election-year conversion by leading Democrats, who said Ehrlich is finally complying with a funding formula required by the legislature.

"This is the first time in his four years he'll actually use the dedicated tax for its purpose," said House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel). "All he's doing is following the law. . . . Here, in an election year, he's following the law."

State law requires portions of a tax on real estate transfers to be used for several preservation initiatives, unless an exception is made by the legislature. The initiatives include Program Open Space, which was established in 1969 to accelerate park acquisition and preserve other environmentally sensitive tracts. Last year, Ehrlich proposed using all but $56.3 million of the money earmarked for land preservation for other purposes. The legislature bumped up spending to $124.6 million, but that was still $90 million short of the total required by the funding formula.

Ehrlich, who has received mixed marks from environmentalists, is scheduled to announce his commitment for the coming fiscal year at a state park in Baltimore County, where this morning he will also detail other environmental priorities. Those include continued spending on a project to clean up the Corsica River, an Eastern Shore tributary that Ehrlich has said could be a model for efforts related to the health of the Chesapeake Bay.

He will also announce an expanded commitment to using renewable energy.

"While I am very proud of our accomplishments to date, this budget accelerates our efforts to restore the Bay, to protect our open space and farmland, and to reduce our energy consumption," Ehrlich says in remarks prepared for delivery today.

The money for land preservation is almost certain to draw the most attention.

Ehrlich's fiscal 2007 budget proposal, aides said, includes $258 million for Program Open Space, which in part provides money for state and county governments and other qualified groups to buy and preserve land as open space. Of the $258 million, $90.5 million would be earmarked for state land acquisition, $138.5 million would help pay for local projects and $29 million would be used for improvements to parks, trails and beaches.

An additional $115 million in Ehrlich's budget proposal is earmarked for other land preservation programs, including one focused on farmland and another that would protect rural areas vulnerable to development.

"Polls show that land conservation is important to Maryland's citizens, and we applaud the governor for responding to this call," said Marcia Verploegen Lewis, campaign director for Partners for Open Space, a coalition of 130 advocacy groups. "Now it's up to the General Assembly to follow the governor's lead and protect full funding for the program."

Ehrlich won kudos from environmentalists early in his tenure for championing a sewer fee, dubbed the "flush tax," to pay for upgrading sewage treatment plants polluting the Chesapeake Bay and other waterways.

But environmentalists say his shortchanging of land preservation efforts has been a source of frustration.

Ehrlich's environmental credentials were questioned in 2004 when it was disclosed that his administration had been privately negotiating with a Baltimore construction executive to sell him 836 acres of pristine St. Mary's County woodlands. The outcry prompted the legislature to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot for this fall that would curtail the ability of the governor to sell state parkland.

Staff writer Elizabeth Williamson contributed to this report.

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