Friday, April 24, 2009

Environmental Legislative Wrap-Up

The Maryland General Assembly adjourned April 13 with a balanced budget, but not at the expense of our natural resources as lawmakers passed several landmark environmental bills, including a measure designed to impact climate change.

The biggest victory was the passage of the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Act, which requires the state to reduce its global warming pollution to 25 percent below 2006 levels by 2020. Maryland is now a national leader in climate change with this measure, becoming one of only seven states to pass a strong global warming bill. A similar bill failed last year after business and labor organizations decried that it would hurt manufacturing jobs, but this version was changed to ensure no these jobs were not threatened. The Maryland Department of the Environment must finalize the new regulations by 2012.

State lawmakers also deserve high praise for passing a bill that help with water quality protection by requiring advanced nitrogen removal technology for new and replacement septic systems built in the critical areas, and also requiring the removal of nitrogen from septic systems installed on properties along tidal waterways. Though it was narrowly approved in the senate with a one vote margin, it is now considered one of the strongest septic bills in the country.

Program Open Space, which as recently as last week seemed headed for major cuts, remains largely intact for the next fiscal year. A last-minute grassroots campaign effort was mobilized after the Senate proposed drastic cuts to the Program. Most of the funds were converted into bonds to be used to buy land instead of cash. The nationally recognized and highly regarded program uses part of the state's real estate transfer tax to buy land for preservation and recreation. Established in 1969 under the Department of Natural Resources, Program Open Space has provided for more than 5,000 individual county and municipal parks and conservation areas, including Worcester County. Nearly all of the land bought by the DNR in Maryland in the past 40 years was funded, at least in part, by Program Open Space.

Other environmental victories include a bill that will strengthen building codes to make them more energy efficient, as well as another bill mandating that all public schools and state facilities recycle paper, aluminum, glass and plastic. An innovative pilot program that uses federal funds to encourage organic farming practices was also passed in this session.

Of course, it wasn’t all good news, particularly in the area of growth. Lawmakers failed to pass a bill that would have required counties to gear future development to priority growth areas. It had passed the House as an amendment to another bill, but did not come to a vote in the Senate Committee. Such a measure could have had an impact in Worcester County as officials propose zoning changes regarding growth areas here. However, one important growth bill did pass that clarifies the importance of local growth plans as legal documents to ensure development proposals are consistent with plans.

In the end, the Maryland General Assembly gave final approval to the state's $13.8 billion operating budget without significant cuts to environmental programs. Environmentalists did not get everything they wanted, but it could have been a lot worse. State lawmakers have proven that our state can remain an environmental leader and tackle major issues such as climate change even in a tough economic climate.

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