Environmental Wins and Losses in Assembly Session Dominated by Budget Woes
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by David O'Leary |
This years General Assembly session was once again a whirlwind of activity, dominated even more than usual by discussions of the state budget. Fortunately, environmental issues received some attention, and at least some elected leaders recognize that investing now to protect the environment will save money in the long run, and in many cases, create jobs. It is quite clear that we still have a lot of work to do in Annapolis in 2010 and beyond.
By David O’Leary—This year’s General Assembly session was once again a whirlwind of activity, dominated even more than usual by discussions of the state budget. Fortunately, environmental issues received some attention, and at least some elected leaders recognize that investing now to protect the environment will save money in the long run, and in many cases, create jobs. It is quite clear that we still have a lot of work to do in Annapolis in 2010 and beyond.
The chapter’s two highest legislative priorities were to pass a bill setting a target for reductions in greenhouse gas emissions in the state, and to reverse the plans for funding for the Intercounty Connector (ICC). Both of these were multi-year efforts. We succeeded in the first effort, but not the second.
In both cases, we worked with other statewide organizations as part of the Citizens’ Campaign for the Environment (CCE), an informal group for coordination of environmental lobbying efforts in Annapolis. Both of our top issues were among this year’s four designated priorities for CCE, which also included working toward improved “smart growth” legislation and advocating for important environmental budget priorities.
Maryland Chapter Priority Legislation
The Greenhouse Gas Emissions Reduction Act (SB 278/ HB 315), which was supported by Governor O’Malley and passed through both chambers, requires Maryland to reduce statewide greenhouse gas emissions 25% below 2006 levels by 2020. It does not take the state as far as the 2008 failed proposal, but still adds Maryland to the list of only a handful of states that have passed strong global warming bills. Through negotiations during the fall of 2008, coordinated by the Maryland Department of the Environment and supported by legislators such as Delegate Brian McHale of Baltimore, many changes were included in this year’s bill that brought labor and manufacturers together with the environmental community to support the bill.
The next step is to watch and participate in the ongoing development of the state’s specific plan for emissions reductions between now and the due date of 2012. In some sectors, it should be relatively easy to achieve reductions, especially since laws passed in previous years have set us on the right track. An example is electricity generation, which is covered by the Healthy Air Act. We have an especially good opportunity to reduce emissions through energy efficiency in our homes and other buildings. It will be more difficult to achieve substantial, lasting reductions in other areas, like transportation. Since the new Maryland law includes a “sunset clause” requiring the General Assembly to re-visit and re-approve the state’s goal and plan in 2016, it is very important that we work toward a clear plan for Maryland, and also for passage of a strong federal global warming law. Conversations about a federal level bill are already well underway. Watch for separate information about how you can help throughout this year.
Removing the funding for the Intercounty Connector, a proposed highway cutting across more than 18 miles of Montgomery and northern Prince George’s Counties, was another of the high-priority efforts by the Sierra Club and CCE. To achieve this goal, HB 27 was sponsored by Delegate Barbara Frush from Prince George’s County, and SB 753 was sponsored by Senator E.J. Pipken in the Senate. Hearings were held in both the House Appropriations Committee and in the Senate Budget & Taxation Committee after many lobbying visits with the appropriate sub-committee and committee members. A lobby night with dozens of Marylanders from across the state was held the week of the bill hearings. Although we recognized that this was an uphill battle, we thought there might be a window of opportunity, given the state’s challenging budget situation. Unfortunately, the bill was voted down in the House Appropriations Committee, and no vote was held in the Senate committee. In addition to the bill sponsors, we received great support from Delegate Pena-Melnyk (District 21) and Delegate Mizeur (District 20), who helped us by requesting documents from the less-than-cooperative Maryland Department of Transportation, and by negotiating the legislative process. Unfortunately, no champions for the bill emerged within the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, although Senator Pipken and his staff were very supportive. We also advocated for cutting funds for the ICC through the budget process, which could have slowed but not stopped the construction. Some funding for the road was shifted further into the future, but it does not appear that the construction (or destruction?) is slowing at all.
Greg Smith and Suchitra Balachandran spent countless hours throughout the past few years conducting research and attending meetings with residents and elected officials from across the areas directly impacted by the ICC and other parts of Maryland. They deserve our thanks.
Other Legislation and Budget Items
Besides our two priority bills, many other discussions across the breadth of the chapter’s various conservation initiatives took place in Annapolis this session, as part of both the regular legislative process and the budget process.
Some of the issues of interest to Sierra Club members which inspired legislative proposals included protection of natural places; continuing the transition to a clean-energy economy; improving land-use practices; reducing waste and toxic materials; environmental justice; and green jobs.
The General Assembly approved an operating budget of $13.8 billion. Most of the environmental programs retained some funding, but none survived without some cuts. We should continue to be concerned about the state agencies which face budget cuts when they are already struggling to implement and enforce existing laws.
Protecting Natural Places
Senator Pinsky and Delegate Bobo successfully introduced a “No Net Loss of Forests” bill (SB 666/ HB 1291), in an attempt to maintain the amount of forest cover in Maryland. Although there are a few notable loopholes, this new law should make a big difference in our efforts to protect the forests that help clean our air and water. The “Sustainable Forestry Act of 2009 (HB 771/ SB 549) was proposed to address private forest management plans and a wide variety of other forest-related issues. Because it was a mixed bag and unlikely to be strengthened enough to provide across-the-board benefits, the chapter did not take a position on this bill, which passed with many amendments. Both of these new laws require additional action by the Department of Natural Resources for establishing detailed plans and regulations for their implementation, and we should remain involved to strive for effective protection of forests.
he governor’s proposed budget protected Program Open Space funding. Although the House budget also protected this important funding, some senators preferred other uses for this money. Many grassroots organizations, including the Sierra Club, strongly objected, and most of the funding was preserved, but in the form of bonds to be used to buy land instead of cash. The program now depends on the recovery of the real estate market to repay these bonds and fund the program. For more information about Program Open Space, you can review the article in the previous issue of Chesapeake.
Once again the Chesapeake Bay Trust Fund was not fully funded. Each of the components of this important program received some money in the 2010 budget, but in the future we will need to raise visibility of the shortfalls so the underfunding does not remain a habit.
Also concerning the Chesapeake Bay and water quality, several bills dealing with septic systems were introduced. One of the bills that passed, SB 554 / HB 176, sponsored by Senator Lenett, requires advanced nitrogen-removal technology for new and replacement septic systems built in Maryland’s Critical Areas. This is likely one of the strongest septic bills in the country.
As stormwater runoff is increasingly recognized as one of the most important sources of water pollution, regulations were instituted in recent years to manage it. However, local jurisdictions do not have funds to effectively implement the regulations. A proposal by Senator Raskin (SB 672/ HB 1457) would have required each county to establish a “stormwater utility” to assess fees on commercial and residential property to pay for retrofits of streets and communities to manage stormwater runoff. The stormwater utility approach is used in Montgomery County and in many other places around the country to provide this important funding source. The Sierra Club actively lobbied on behalf of this bill along with several local watershed groups. Unfortunately, this bill was killed in the Senate in a close vote.
Global Warming and Clean Energy
In addition to the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Act described earlier in this article, several other issues related to global warming and clean energy were considered.
A bill sponsored by Senator Frosh, SB 625, requires counties to strengthen building codes to reflect recent best practices. This bill, which the chapter lobbied for, also passed after a few weakening amendments. Buildings, a major source of greenhouse gas emissions during both construction and ongoing use, will be required to be more energy efficient. It was great to have another success, especially one which helps to set the stage for federal legislation regulating building codes.
Electricity market re-regulation was a major topic which received attention during the session. One proposal was introduced by multiple legislators, and an administration alternative was proposed. Our chapter did not take a position on these bills, since both of the initial proposals and the proposal which emerged had negative components. The electricity market re-litigation issue will likely continue to attract attention.
A disappointment in the budget was the two-year diversion of $70 million from the Strategic Energy Investment Fund. Money that comes into the fund from Maryland’s participation in Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) allowance auctions is designated for particular programs to promote energy efficiency. The governor’s budget proposal accurately anticipated stimulus funding from the federal government to use for the designated programs, so the programs were not cut. However, the federal stimulus funding is only for one year, and the state funding diversion is for two years. In 2010, we will need to work again toward restoring this program to its designated funding level.
Land Use and Transportation
Lack of “smart growth” is an ongoing challenge in our state. Beginning in the summer of 2008, the Maryland Chapter participated in meetings with representatives of a wide variety of groups from across the state, discussing how to improve our laws dealing with planning and growth. The conversations revolved around issues of effectiveness, fairness, and accountability. Besides environmental organizations, the meetings included representatives of affordable-housing groups, economic development organizations, transit supporters, and many others. A multifaceted proposal was developed with various components addressing aspects of “Smart and Fair Growth,”including not only environmental measures, but also metrics for job-housing balance, transportation, and others. Parallel to this process, the Maryland Department of Planning (MDP) was conducting “listening sessions” throughout the state to gather opinions of residents regarding issues of planning and growth. As the General Assembly session began, Governor O’Malley introduced a series of bills based on the listening sessions and other work conducted by MDP in conjunction with various stakeholders.
Those of us who were also discussing Smart and Fair Growth thought that the governor’s proposals, while valuable, did not provide a means for accountability. So Senator Harrington and Delegate Lafferty were recruited to sponsor additional legislation to address more completely our recommendations.
The governor’s bills included an update of the state’s “Visions” for planning; a bill to measure progress toward achieving the visions (using a series of “indicators”); a bill to close a loophole which allowed Allegheny County to permit a sprawling “dumb growth” development, called Terrapin Run, without inclusion in the county master plan; and a Historic Tax Credit bill. After many meetings and very long hearings with lots of testimony, the Harrington/ Lafferty bill died, but all of the governor’s bills passed.
We anticipate a multi-year process to achieve more accountability in Maryland’s planning and growth laws, but we hoped to make more than incremental progress this year. Unfortunately, many county governments continue to insist that they are effectively managing growth, despite ongoing loss of forests and farmland, a dying Chesapeake Bay, and longer commutes and decreasing quality of life for Maryland’s families.
Reduction of Waste and Toxics
Various bills to deal with waste reduction and handling and reducing toxic chemicals from the environment were introduced. Bills were passed to increase recycling for a variety of materials in state facilities and to require counties to include public schools in their recycling plans. These are positive but small steps forward.
The third time was the charm for a bill once again sponsored by Delegate Hucker, which requires removal of mercury switches from older vehicles being scrapped. This bill, HB 1263, provides training and compensation for automobile recyclers to remove these switches and reduce the likelihood of the mercury escaping into the environment.
The Maryland Organic Farming Pilot Program (SB 516/ HB 449), which passed, creates a pilot program using federal funds to encourage farmers to transition toward organic farming practices.
Unfortunately, two other bills that would help to remove toxics from the home, specifically Deca, a a type of poly-brominated diethyl ether added to plastic as a flame retardant, and bisphenol-A (BPA),a plastic conditioner commonly used in baby bottles, did not pass out of the Senate committees. Both passed on the House floor. HB 1156, which would have allowed Baltimore residents who suffered from the effects of lead poisoning to hold the manufacturers accountable, also did not pass.
Environmental Justice and Green Jobs
In addition to his work on legislation for smart and fair growth, Senator Harrington, along with Delegates Neimann and Ivey, sponsored a series of bills to provide additional protection for communities threatened by construction or expansion of dangerous or polluting facilities. The chapter testified in favor of all three bills, but the only bill which passed was one requiring broader notification of residents when one of these facilities is proposed. This new notification requirement is a big step forward, but it does not go far enough to protect communities. Another bill requiring notification of local governments of applications for sewage sludge permits also passed.
“Green Jobs” were a hot topic as we sought a path toward both economic and environmental recovery. A bill titled “Green Jobs / Welfare to Work: SB 992/ HB 268” was passed. It provides a mechanism to help people on welfare get jobs which protect and restore the environment.
A compromise bill, titled “Standing - Miscellaneous Environmental Protection Proceedings and Judicial Review” (SB 1065/HB 1569,) after extensive negotiations, passed overwhelmingly in both the House and Senate. Standing is the legal term for the rules that govern access to the court system. Under the U.S. Constitution, a person or entity cannot sue without a “case or controversy,” i.e., without a legally protected interest in the dispute for which redress is sought. Before passage of this standing bill, Maryland had a very restrictive interpretation of standing, which sometimes prohibited associations, such as the Sierra Club, and certain individuals not directly harmed, from challenging violations of environmental laws. The new standing law allows associations and individuals to challenge certain environmental permits, especially those granted in the designated Critical Areas along the Maryland shore, provided that they meet the federal law test for standing, and provided they were involved in the public participation process. This welcome expansion will allow increased enforcement of Maryland’s environmental laws.
A high-profile campaign finance reform bill was introduced again this session by Senator Pinsky. A carefully crafted agreement unfortunately unraveled on the Senate floor, so this important government reform bill failed once again. Thanks to Cliff Terry for his ongoing work as issue chair for campaign finance reform.
Planning for 2010
The chapter took important steps toward establishing a Legislative Committee over the past year. I personally learned a lot, had opportunities to meet many elected officials and staff members, and gained a more detailed understanding of the process. And, I found many places to park throughout Annapolis.
Thanks are due to many who provide important insights and ideas, including Jan Graham, who served as the Maryland Chapter Legislative Chair for several years. Alana Wase and Laurel Imlay, the chapter staff, and our legislative intern, Kristen Warn, made phone calls and copied legislation, wrote and sent alerts, arranged for meetings with legislators, and completed countless other tasks.
Also critical to our effectiveness was the support of various issue chairs who reviewed bill language, suggested amendments, wrote testimony, and provided guidance on whether the chapter should support various bills. Erin Barnes, Legal Chair, contributed throughout the session, including writing text for this article.
Special thanks are due to all those to visited Annapolis, wrote letters or email to your delegates and senators, made phone calls to legislators, or participated in phone banks to generate even more calls. It really made a difference in passing important bills and protecting important environmental priorities.
As we begin the cycle again of planning for the 2010 General Assembly session, assistance is needed in many areas. It is important for us to align our state legislative efforts with chapter and national conservation priorities. We should be more proactive in developing relationships with delegates and senators and their staff members over the coming months when there is less time pressure. Meeting with elected officials can be instructive and fun. There are plenty of opportunities for people to get involved in the process of reviewing proposals and bills. Expertise on a particular issue is helpful, but the only requirement is some time and enthusiasm. If you would like to find out how you can help with these efforts throughout the year or during the next session, please contact Alana Wase in the chapter office on 301-277-7111.
David O’Leary serves as Conservation Chair for the Maryland Chapter.
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