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I Dedicate This Song To You: Don't Cut "Dedicated" Green Funds

Blackwater What does the word “dedicated” mean to you? I’m dedicated to my wife and kids. I’m dedicated to fighting for the environment. To me, the word means I’m wholly committed and won't weasel out of my obligations. 

So why does my government have a different definition of the word "dedicated?"  In 1969, the Maryland General Assembly created a “dedicated” revenue stream for protecting forests and fields from development, called Program Open Space.  Over the last four decades, by law, a tax of a half of one percent  has been imposed on every real estate transaction. The money is directed into a fund that is supposed to be "dedicated" to create outdoor spaces for the public to enjoy, protect farmland from sprawl, and help Baltimore maintain its parks.

Yet I read recently that Maryland Senate President Mike Miller (among others) is considering raiding this dedicated fund to pay for the general operations of government, and help fill a gap created by the recession.  Some are predicting a “bloodbath” during the General Assembly session starting now in Annapolis, with deep cuts threatened to a variety of environmental programs designed to protect the Chesapeake Bay and other natural resources. This is an election year, and there is "no stomach" among lawmakers to raise taxes or fees, the Annapolis Capital reports.

Other "dedicated" funds that are threatened include the Chesapeake Bay 2010 Trust Fund (which pays for pollution control projects on farms), and the Chesapeake Bay Restoration Fund (which pays for improvements to sewage plants).

This is not the first time “dedicated” green funds have suddenly become optional. In fact, treating Program Open Space like a cookie jar has been practiced by several administrations going back decades.  Nor is Maryland by any means the only state that is looking to cut environmental programs and agencies – both Virginia and Pennsylvania spring to mind --  in an attempt to balance their budgets.

During the General Assembly session that started this week in Richmond, debate is also expected to be dominated by that state’s severe state budget shortfall.  Advocates will be fighting to continue Virginia’s agricultural conservation programs, and stop expected raids on the state’s Water Quality Improvement Fund for purposes other than what it’s intended for. That is, pollution reduction, management of the menhaden fishery, and funding for environmental education.

But being a Maryland resident, the cuts here hit me close to home.  The shady green park down the street from my home in Baltimore was purchased (you guessed it) with Program Open Space money.  And the new playground equipment that my daughters and other children from across the city play on would not be there if it were not for Program Open Space.

This is a perfect time to use land conservation funds to preserve the Chesapeake’s landscape. Real estate prices are down, and land conservation money will go a long way.

I remember when Governor O’Malley ran for office in 2006, he repeatedly promised he would fully-fund Program Open Space, and he bashed his predecessor for not doing so.  Between 2003 and 2006, more than $400 million was diverted from the program, according to The Baltimore Sun. Those funds could have preserved more than 100,000 acres.  Last year, the Maryland Senate proposed drastic cuts in Program Open Space. But O'Malley lobbied hard to keep the funding, and in the end prevailed, although much of the money for this fiscal year was borrowed against the program's future spending. Not a perfect outcome, but a good one.

The Washington Post reports this morning that O'Malley is proposing $20 million this year for the Chesapeake Bay 2010 Trust Fund, to reduce pollution from farms. This "dedicated" fund is supposed to receive $50 million a year from state taxes on rental cars and fuels, but it only received $8 million last year because of cuts caused by the economic downturn. O'Malley had tried to appropriate $25 million for the fund last year, but the General Assembly cut it to $10 million before it was cut again by the governor and the Board of Public Works to $8 million, according to the Post. 

It is great news that Governor O'Malley -- despite the state deficit -- cares enough about the Chesapeake Bay to try to put $20 million into the Bay Trust Fund this year. That money is critical for Maryland to meet its goals for reducing pollution in the Bay.

Now I hope that the General Assembly is as dedicated to the word "dedicated."

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(Photo at top by Richard Weiblinger of the Blackwater Wildlife Refuge on Maryland's Eastern Shore. Program Open Space in 2007 funded the preservation of farmland and wetlands near the refuge's entrance, to protect it from a large development project.)

Comments

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BOOOOO. No raiding!

Our government needs to get a grip on spendiing to balance the budget instead of taking monies away from dedicatied land preservation funds and green programs.

I never understand how some states get away with no income tax or sales tax (or both!) and we are so highly taxed .. for what!?

NO!!!!!!!

Who gives them the right to raid funds from ANY program????
This practice is absurd..................................!

I insist that the only way to stop these maurauders is to let the BAY become a national /heritage program..nobody steals from the National Park Serices..you must have dedicated funds. Look to Biscayne Bay, Cape Cod National seashore..or across the country..Yellowstone etc.

Obviously the Assembly isn't interested in preservation or leaving a legacy for the future of the Bay. The Bay is their "sloppy seconds." It is our responsibility to remember these "raids" at election time.

Campain to "Save the Bay" but take the fundiung away from MDE, DNE, Open Space. Sound like any elected officlas we know in Maryland?

You have made a very powerful point regarding the meaning of dedicated and done so in a manner (and with a choice of words) very palatable to legislators. Tough choices are ahead but a steady and rational voice from the environmental profession is just what we need to prevail. Keep up your good work.

Maryland should consider changing how it funds open space to replicate what New Jersey has done for the past 40 years. In New Jersey all open space funds are guaranteed by the issuance of bonds (debt). Over the past 40 years, whenever funding was required, the legislature authorized a voters’ referendum asking the electorate to decide via a non-binding referendum whether they would approve debt (i.e., tax themselves) dedicated to preserving and conserving open space. Each and every voter’s referendum since the beginning of NJ’s Green Acres Program has been approved, including last November’s $400 million public question. And every time, over the past four decades, the legislature has passed bills authorizing the debt (a dedicated source of funds) and the sitting governor has signed the bills.

If Maryland were to follow New Jersey’s lead, the funding for open space would become a dedicated source of money that is independent of economic conditions and untouchable by the legislature to close budget shortfalls. Under Maryland’s current approach, funding is highly variable and dependent upon the real estate transfer tax and the whims of the legislature. So when economic conditions are bad, such as now, the open space cash falls off considerably (bad enough) and then the legislature reduces its budgetary shortfall by robbing the already depleted fund.

With a dedicated source of untouchable funding a la the successful New Jersey model, Maryland could use available moneys to fund more open space during periods of depressed real estate market conditions. In other words, Maryland could preserve and conserve more natural lands, forests, agriculture, wildlife management areas and add parkland and/or facilities. Likewise, more money could be allocated toward counties and municipalities to accomplish more than from the current reduced and “raidable” funding source.

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