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O'Malley shifts funds from land preservation

ConservationNatural ResourcesFinance

Gov. Martin O'Malley's proposed state budget is balanced in part with funds shifted from programs meant to buy parkland and protect farmland from development, according to highlights of the plan released by the governor's office.

Conservationists say the move short-changes land preservation, which they note has been a priority of the O'Malley administration.

While O'Malley's fiscal 2015 spending plan would increase funding for natural resources and the environment by 1 percent overall, land preservation programs face cuts as tax revenues designated for that purpose are taken to help balance the state's budget.

The governor proposes to use $69 million in real-estate transfer taxes to make up revenue shortfalls in the overall state budget.  In documents provided to environmental advocates, the administration is proposing to spend $61.7 million on programs in the Department of Natural Resources dedicated to preserving lands for parks and outdoor recreation.  That's down from $71.8 million lawmakers approved for those programs this year. 

"This Administration still remains committed to fully funding land preservation," wrote Emily Wilson, DNR's director of land acquisition and planning, in an email to environmental advocates. But she acknowledged that the proposed funding is "not as robust as planned.

"The economy still hasn’t picked up to where it was projected at this point, and great pressures remain on both the State’s Operating and Capital Budgets," she said.

As have previous governors in hard economic times, O'Malley has dipped into the transfer-tax pot in prior years to fill in budget gaps. He has pledged to pay back those transferred funds with money from bond sales, something his predecesors did not do.

Joel Dunn, chairman of Partners for Open Space, a coalition of groups dedicated to land preservation, said he was disappointed by the governor's latest budget.

"We are grateful for the governor’s prior leadership and support for Program Open Space," Dunn said, "and we are concerned about water quality, energy, climate, all of those things.  But I don’t think you should rob Peter to pay Paul. You shouldn’t take money from land conservation to deal with other environmental issues. There’s got to be a balance."

Nina Smith, O'Malley's press secretary, said that even with the transfer there would still be enough money to handle the land acquisition "pipeline" through funds appropriated in past years and what's proposed in next year's budget.

"Land conservation efforts will continue in Maryland without skipping a beat," she said.

Administration officials told advocates that the funds being transferred this year would be replaced with bond sales over the following three years. While Dunn said O'Malley has made good on replacing land preservation funds taken in prior years, he's worried about whether his successor will follow through.

"Once you put a parking lot on top of that forest or wetland or special place, it’s gone forever." Dunn said.

About 20 percent of the state's land is already developed and nearly as much is protected, either bought by state and local government or preserved with conservation easements.  Program Open Space, begun in 1969 with funds from real estate transfer taxes, has acquired 363,000 acres of land, according to DNR's web site.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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