An open space 'lock box'

When will Maryland stop stealing from state land preservation funds?

Like a less bristly Santa Claus, Gov. Larry Hogan has been traveling around the state in recent months handing out goodies to those he finds deserving. At a recent meeting of the Maryland Association of Counties, he pledged to restore local highway aid; for Carroll County, he offered millions to delay school closings; and in November, he even found money to reopen the previously closed Maryland State Police barracks in Annapolis.

But when it comes to restoring full funding to Maryland's nationally-recognized program for land preservation, Mr. Hogan has not been nearly so generous. In early December, a work group featuring representatives of four of his state agencies recommended full funding of the program. The administration's reaction (added as a two-page addendum to the report): Not this year. It didn't endorse restoring the money at any future date either.

That's unfortunate, particularly given how Mr. Hogan, as a candidate for governor, was so critical of his predecessor's pattern of transferring money out of land preservation (which funds such diverse programs as developing parks, preserving farmland and acquiring "heritage" areas that boost tourism) to balance the state's general fund. We were as well. Long after the recession was over, then-Gov. Martin O'Malley and the legislature were still transferring money out of Program Open Space and other land preservation programs and backfilling with the proceeds of bond sales, raising the state's debt load. It was a bad policy, and Mr. Hogan was right to call him on it.

Supporters aren't looking for more tax dollars for the pioneering program, they just want Program Open Space not to be used as a piggy bank. Established more than 40 years ago, Maryland's land preservation program collects its money at real estate closings through the state's transfer tax. The genius of that system is how it guarantees more money is set aside for land preservation in an active real estate market — in other words, as more land gets developed, more land is preserved from development, with the majority going for parks and other recreational uses.

The gap between what the state takes in and what is spent to preserve land has already grown substantially, however. In the current budget year, the state is collecting $213 million from the transfer tax while spending $135 million on land preservation, a $78 million deficit. Over the next two years, the shortfall is only expected to widen.

What can be done about it? Advocates like Partners for Open Space, Preservation Maryland, the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy and others say they want the General Assembly to approve "lock box" legislation setting strict criteria for future diversions, including a pledge that such transfers will ultimately be repaid. Technically, the legal effect might be modest and nonbinding (lawmakers can always rewrite such mandates through the budget bills each year), but it would at least take on a symbolic importance as a renewed pledge to fund land preservation.

It's a reasonable idea and echoes what the legislature has done through restrictions on what Mr. Hogan has called "thefts" out of the Transportation Trust Fund, which finances highway and transit construction. But even this modest effort may face a veto from Governor Hogan as the administration, in its reaction to the land preservation work group's report, observes that a lock box "will hamper the ability of the General Assembly and the Governor to address the State's fiscal problems in periods of economic distress and removes options for balancing future budgets." That clearly overstates reality — as does a further suggestion that bond rating agencies might look askance.

The problem is all these shortfalls in land preservation are adding up. Advocates say at least $1 billion has been diverted over the history of Program Open Space. How many potential bike lanes, ballfields, greenways, historic buildings or ecologically important waterfront sites have been lost because preservation programs weren't fully funded? How many farmers will end up selling out to developers because easements weren't available?

Governor Hogan faces tough budget decisions, but ultimately, they come down to setting priorities. Yet while most people recognize the importance of land preservation, it lacks the vocal and politically powerful constituencies that schools, local governments and businesses enjoy. Despite its designated funding source, it has too easily been shortchanged or deferred, and that could prove costly for future generations of Marylanders and not just to their quality of life. Given the value of tourism in this state already exceeds $15.4 billion annually, there's a substantial economic risk involved as well.

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