Five of the six major announced candidates for governor in 2014 -- along with the running mate of the sixth -- told a group of environmentalists in Annapolis Tuesday that they are devoted to preserving the Chesapeake Bay but split on strategies for paying for its cleanup.
At an environmental forum jointly sponsored by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and 1,000 Friends of Maryland, the three Democrats said they generally support enforcement of the heavily debated law requiring fees in 10 large jurisdictions to pay for storm water mediation -- a charge derided by opponents as a "rain tax."
Two of the Republicans, who had previously opposed the fees, were silent on the issue Tuesday in front of an audience that strongly supported the law. Harford County Executive David R. Craig and Del. Ron George of Anne Arundel County primarily used their time to talk about the environmental initiatives they had supported in the past.
Charles County business executive Charles Lollar was the only Republican to directly address the issue in his remarks, complaining that Maryland was the only state in the Chesapeake Bay watershed moving to impose fees on its residents -- a contention disputed by Chesapeake Bay Foundation President Will Baker.
Howard County Executive Ken Ulman. Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown's choice for lieutenant governor, filled in for Brown and reminded the environmental groups that his county had fully implemented the storm water law. Ulman was a late replacement for Brown, who was out of town because his father was ill.
Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler declined to say whether he categorically supported or rejected the storm water fee, but said he thought there were a lot of other ways to pay for cleaning up the bay.
“Right now, we're enforcing, for example, the counties that haven't implemented it,” he said. “It's our job as attorneys general to enforce the law as it is.”
Another Democrat, Del. Heather Mizeur of Montgomery County, expressed general support for storm water remediation in her remarks. Afterward she specifically endorsed measures the state is taking to enforce the fee requirement in recalcitrant counties.
“We can’t just pass laws. We have to enforce them,” she said, adding that the only way the state will be able to meet its commitments to the federal government is to require local jurisdictions to comply with the law.
Baker gave credit to the Democrats and Lollar for addressing this issue -- even if he disagreed with Lollar's position -- but expressed disappointment with the other two Republicans.
"I didn't hear Mr. Craig or Mr. George address storm water," he said. Baker added that it was untrue that Maryland was alone in the storm water effort, saying almost two dozen Virginia jurisdictions are considering ways to pay cleanup costs.
In an interview afterward, George expressed opposition to the fee, contending it would hurt a fragile economy and infringe on local autonomy.
“There has to be a way to soften it. I don’t agree with how heavy-handed it is,” he said.
On another sensitive issue, each of the Democrats expressed varying degrees of reservations about the practice known as "fracking" -- hydraulic fracturing to extract natural gas deposits. The Republicans did not comment on the practice, which has raised concerns among environmentalists about ground water contamination.
While Ulman praised the accomplishments of Gov. Martin O'Malley and Brown on the environment, Gansler pointed to what he saw as shortcomings -- including a reduction in the number of environmental enforcement inspectors. While throwing a bone to Mizeur, whose staunch opposition to fracking and a liquid natural gas terminal at Cove Point has made her a favorite of environmentalists, Gansler took a poke at Brown's environmental record.
Except for Mizeur, Gansler said, "there's only one true environmentalist in this race for governor" -- claiming that mantle for himself.
Asked whether she agreed with Gansler's count of true environmentalists, Mizeur balked.
"I think every Democrat in this race cares about the environment, but I stand head and shoulders above the others in the fights I've taken on," she said.