Environmental leaders came to Annapolis this year with one overarching goal: Hold the line on the controversial stormwater fee passed two years ago.
They largely succeeded, battling 20 bills that sought to gut the landmark law requiring the state’s 10 largest jurisdictions to set up an authority that collects funds from property owners to pay for stormwater improvements.
Some lawmakers sought to delay the law’s implementation. Others wanted to exempt certain counties, and others tried to slip language into the budget that said counties and cities didn’t have to comply with the stormwater fee.
In the end, the budget language allows only Carroll and Frederick counties to use a portion of their residents’ property tax to pay the costs of stormwater controls, rather than institute a new fee.
Dawn Stoltzfus, a manager with The Hatcher Group, a communications firm that was in the thick of the stormwater battles, said none of the environmental advocates were happy about the practice of making policy in the budget negotiations. While bills get hearings and extensive public feedback, there is no opportunity for such debate in a budget amendment.
Advocates working on stormwater did not like the practice of being able to use property tax revenues to pay for stormwater, because the fee was supposed to be based on the amount of impervious surface, not on the value of property.
But considering the challenges the stormwater effort has endured in the past two years, Stoltzfus considered the Carroll and Frederick provisions minor.
“It’s not like they’re actually exempt from the law,” she said. “They will still need to fund these projects.”
Dru Schmidt-Perkins, director of 1000 Friends of Maryland, agreed.
“We came out very, very strong on stormwater. It wasn’t even close on any of the votes,” she said. “It was clear that the General Assembly stood up and stood up boldly to reduce pollution.”
Increasingly, legislators in Maryland are using the budget process to advance policies that either didn’t pass when the bills came up or likely wouldn’t have if a bill had been introduced. Sen. Jim Mathias, a Democrat who represents Somerset, Worcester and Wicomico counties on the lower Eastern Shore, introduced a bill that would require the Maryland Department of Agriculture to conduct an economic impact study before it required farmers to follow a new and more restrictive phosphorus application law. The bill didn’t seem to be going anywhere, so the Eastern Shore Democrat put the provision in the budget, where it was one of many items being voted on at once.
“You’re not supposed to be doing policy in the budget,” Stoltzfus said. “There’s no public input, there’s no votes, and there’s no transparency. Often, people aren’t sure what they voted for. Legislators get confused.”
The news could have been worse for both stormwater and phosphorus. The economic study on the impact of the phosphorus application law passed in the budget amendment, and will delay implementing this tool to reduce phosphorus from manure on Eastern Shore fields, but the tool remains intact and Gov. Martin O’Malley has vowed to implement it before he leaves office next year.
Still, environmentalists concede some disappointments. They failed to pass a bill that removed black liquor from the renewable standards portfolio. Black liquor is a tarry waste byproduct from making paper, and paper companies have been burning it to make energy for decades. The fact that it is considered a renewable energy means that power companies are spending their renewable-fuel budget on black liquor instead of wind or solar. Environmentalists didn’t want to ban the practice of burning the paper-waste product; they just didn’t want the companies to take all of the credits for the practice. The only paper company in Maryland would be grandfathered in, so the provision only affected out-of-state paper companies. Labor unions persuaded legislators not to pass the bill, just as they had done last year. Its failure surprised many, because O’Malley supported the bill, and because many people believe that the intent of a “renewable” portfolio standard is to encourage innovations in clean energy.
“It’s fiscally irresponsible and it doesn’t make much sense,” said Tommy Landers of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, who has been fighting the black liquor bill since he was a community organizer at Environment Maryland several years ago. “It’s such a glaring loophole. It clearly needs to be closed.”
Landers was also unhappy about a bill that will delay an Eastern Shore wind farm. A wind-development company had spent four years and $4 million to put a wind farm in Somerset County. Many farmers there were excited about leasing their land to the wind company and putting up the giant turbines.
But commanders at the Patuxent River Naval Air Station had objected, contending the project would interfere with radar signals. The wind farm had worked out a deal with the base’s top leaders, but then Steny Hoyer, the powerful House minority whip who represents the base in Congress, came to Annapolis to urge lawmakers to pass the bill delaying the wind farm.
Hoyer said he was acting on behalf of constituents who work at the base, and who would be devastated if the Navy decided to close it and move elsewhere. Though he is in the state capital often, the wind farm bill marked the first time in 35 years that he came to Annapolis to testify. Hoyer, who spent 12 years as a legislator in Annapolis , said he was worried the Navy would close the base and relocate if it couldn’t use its radar free of obstructions.
“It’s really discouraging,” Landers said. “It was hard to tell exactly who was behind killing it.”
For land preservation, the 2014 session was a mixed bag. Open-space advocates cheered legislation that would add more than 20,000 acres to the already 44,000 in Maryland’s wildlands network. The 20,000 acres are already state-owned, but the designation will offer them protection from resource-extraction industries, such as logging, mining and drilling.
But the Open Space program itself was in danger again, its cash-rich coffers too tempting to a state struggling with multiple obligations. Open space in Maryland is funded through a half percent tax on the transfer of real property, called the transfer tax, which is to be dedicated to the Program Open Space fund. When development pressure is up and a lot of properties are changing hands, the fund is flush. When demand and pressure are less, the money is lower. But for the last several years, the state government has taken the program’s cash and replaced it with bond funds, which are less flexible. Still, advocates said that was OK, until the state decided it would not pay back in a timely manner.
Program Open Space managed to get back the $57 million owed to it from previous years, but not the $100 million the state took more recently. Advocates fought back a bill to cap the fund at $100 million.
“What’s so frustrating is that the support (for the program) is massive, and yet, every year, it’s a nail-biter as to whether we are going to preserve these funds,” Schmidt-Perkins said.
Schmidt-Perkins was also unhappy that a bill passed that will allow farmers who have sold conservation easements on their land to site a renewable energy resource, such as a digester or a wind turbine, on the easement. Her opposition had nothing to do with clean energy, she said, but about the concept of the farmer being paid twice — and about the best lands in Maryland being ruined with incursions from utility lines and cell phone towers.
“We have already had cell phone towers and power lines stopped because of easements. Now, those who want to put them in have a case — and that is a very, very serious problem,” she said. “We’re very concerned about it. Now that we’ve lost, we have to make sure we keep a close eye on things so they don’t spin out of control.”