Legislation designed to ensure full funding of Maryland’s open land preservation program over the long term has cleared the General Assembly and is on its way to Gov. Larry Hogan.

Program Open Space has preserved 1.6 million acres of land since its inception in 1969, supported chiefly by a 0.5 percent state tax on real estate transactions. During that time, though, governors and legislators have taken more than $1 billion from the fund to balance state budgets, and never repaid it, said Ann Jones, director of Partners for Program Open Space, a coalition of organizations that advocate on behalf of the land preservation program.

The bill would still allow lawmakers to temporarily raid the fund, but requires that money be repaid within a set period of time.

It would require that funds raided since 2006 be repaid by 2025. Any funds diverted over the next three years would have to be repaid by 2029. Beginning in 2020, any funds diverted to balance state budgets would have to be repaid within three years.

With its dedicated funding stream, Program Open Space is unique among the Bay states and the “envy of the nation,” Chesapeake Bay Commission Executive Director Ann Swanson said.

The transfer tax generates between $110 million and $115 million in a typical year, Jones said.

Swanson and Jones praised Sen. Thomas “Mac” Middleton and Del. Tawanna Gaines for shepherding what began as three bills into a single comprehensive bill that won unanimous approval in both houses.

Joel Dunn, president and chief executive officer of the Chesapeake Conservancy, said he has hopes that the governor will sign the measure because, as a candidate, Hogan pledged to restore money to the fund and refrain from raiding it to balance budgets.

Jones also praised the legislators for adding a revolving loan program for young farmers to the bill. The Next Generation Farmer Program allows them to purchase land to produce food and help preserve rural communites.

In addition to preserving agricultural land through perpetual conservation easements, Program Open Space acquires land for state parks, and protects environmentally essential habitats and historic properties. It also pays for park maintenance, Jones said.