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Bill preserves open space funds

Op-ed: Now is the time for Md. voters to get the open space funding that was promised to them decades ago.

There is an old saying that you get what you pay for. Now is the time for Baltimore voters and those throughout our state to get the open space funding that was promised to them decades ago. Recently, the House Appropriations Committee, which I chair, held a hearing on a bill that will restore full funding for Maryland's premier green infrastructure program. I am proud to be one of the sponsors of House Bill 1464, the Program Open Space Trust Fund of 2016, along with our Vice-Chair, Delegate Tawanna Gaines, and 35 of our colleagues.

The original intent of Program Open Space was to allow the state and its local governments to purchase lands for public access and recreation. Funded through a one half of one percent (0.05 percent) fee on real estate transactions, the program pays for preservation so that those who live here have access to open space.

Since the program's inception in 1969, the transfer tax has generated millions of dollars annually that has supported many of this state's greatest land acquisitions, public parks and playgrounds, and farmland conservation. It is so popular that a 2016 poll revealed that 87 percent of the citizens of Maryland support Program Open Space, and 73 percent want the funds to be used only for its intent.

Unfortunately, since Program Open Space was established, its revenues have been diverted to help balance the budget and address other critical shortfalls. In fact, well over $1 billion has been taken from the program and has never been replenished. That should not continue.

We cannot be certain that revenues from the program will not be needed in the future when the state's other revenues are in sharp decline. But we can ensure that, when and if those circumstances happen again, the revenues will be repaid.

HB 1464 does just that. It creates a "lock box" for the Program Open Space Trust Fund where all revenue from the transfer tax would be deposited. As of July 2017, if a governor needs to borrow from the fund during lean times, the money would be repaid from general funds in one-third increments over the next three years. And before the borrowing begins, the governor must present a plan for repayment.

Back in 1969, when our population was just under four million people and growing rapidly, the state realized that development of land was gobbling up our vast open space areas. Today we are home to six million people and are likely to add another 600,000 residents in the next 15 years. The most recent U.S. Census placed our state as the seventh most densely populated in the nation. In the face of increasing population and development pressures, we need to continue to conserve lands for future agriculture, open space and public use.

To this end, Program Open Space has shared its revenues with other land protection programs that help preserve our working farms and forests, our important historic, cultural and heritage areas, and our trail networks. Forests and the forest products industry contribute $4 billion a year to our economy, and agriculture — our largest industry sector — contributes $8 billion a year to our economy. Preserving these valuable lands is good for our economy and our environment.

It is good for our personal well-being too. An important and growing body of research confirms our intuition that we humans need to replenish our minds, emotions, bodies, spirits and imaginations by spending more time in green spaces. In January 2016, National Geographic released an issue dedicated to the centennial of our national park system, called The Power of Parks. One article described research on the brain which showed the remarkable benefits that occur when we spend time in nature. Access to nature and recreation is especially important in places like Baltimore, where parks play a critical role in elevating the quality of urban life.

In the political shuffle of budgets, it becomes easy to believe that other spending takes priority over land preservation. It doesn't. If our role as legislators is to improve and maintain the quality of life for our citizens, we must recognize the importance of open space to those we represent. Let's not fail to see the forest for the trees.

Del. Maggie McIntosh, a Democrat, is chair of the House Appropriations Committee. She is also a member and the former chair of the tri-state Chesapeake Bay Commission which works on conservation policy across Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia. Her email is maggie.mcintosh@house.state.md.us.

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