WASHINGTON -- With the Maryland primary less than six weeks away, President Bush began courting state voters yesterday with the announcement of $45 million in new federal money that would advance the cleanup of the Chesapeake Bay.
The spending proposals, which are part of the fiscal 1993 budget Mr. Bush will send to Congress next week, feature a $40 million grant to upgrade the performance of the Back River sewage treatment plant in order to remove nitrates that harm aquatic life in the bay.
Also included is a $5 million increase -- 25 percent over last year's $21 million -- for the Chesapeake Bay program run by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to help monitor pollution levels, enforce pollution controls and increase public education about the giant estuary.
Mr. Bush specifically touted these "significant increases" for both Baltimore and the Chesapeake Bay in an Oval Office statement to reporters intended to highlight new spending on the environment that White House officials feared might get lost in next week's budget coverage.
Maryland was not the only beneficiary of election-year treats. Mr. Bush said his budget was loaded with new money for popular programs in some of the most voter-rich parts of the country, including New York, California and Texas.
A spokesman for Patrick J. Buchanan, the conservative columnist who is challenging Mr. Bush in Maryland's March 3 primary, quickly attributed the president's largess to the election-year "pork barrel."
"That's the power of incumbency, no doubt about it," said Seth Stein, coordinator of the Buchanan campaign in Maryland. He said Mr. Bush's penchant for using such tactics to win support is the kind of thing some people find distasteful about the president.
"We're not sending people to Washington to fill the pork barrel," Mr. Stein said.
Rep. Helen Delich Bentley, R-Md.-2nd, who was formally named yesterday to head the Bush-Quayle re-election effort in Maryland, said she was told by the White House last week that "there would be things in the budget that make me happy."
The $40 million grant for the Back River treatment plant was definitely an election-year "goodie," according to a senior EPA official.
It is being provided to Baltimore at Mr. Bush's discretion to help defray the costs of an improvement project that could run as high as $120 million. Without federal help, the entire cost would likely have to be borne by city and Baltimore County users.
Baltimore is among the last six of the 25 largest cities still bringing their sewage treatment facilities up to the level required by the 1972 Clean Water Act. But Baltimore, further ahead than the other five, was denied a grant last year, even though Mr. Bush requested federal aid for the others.
Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md., who heads the Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the EPA budget, made up for the deficiency earlier by putting a $40 million grant for Back River in last year's budget through the congressional process.
Senator Mikulski said she was pleased the president "agrees with her and sees the wisdom of putting money like this into public works projects," according to her spokesman, John Steele.
The additional $40 million will help take the Back River plant beyond the level now required by the Clean Water Act, according to George G. Balog, director of the public works for Baltimore.
He said the improvement project is designed to make the plant comply with the goals of the Chesapeake Bay cleanup program in removing nitrates from effluent. Nitrates, a byproduct of the treatment process, are unwanted nutrients for algae on the bay and its tributaries.
"We certainly didn't expect this," Mr. Balog said of the grant. "It's a very pleasant surprise."
The Bush-Buchanan matchup in Maryland is not likely to be as much of a high-profile contest as the race in New Hampshire, where the first primary in the nation comes Feb. 18.
Mr. Buchanan may have trouble faring well in Maryland because of state GOP rules that award convention delegates on a winner-take-all basis in each congressional districts.
But Mrs. Bentley, now scrambling to put together a Bush organization, says there are enough right-wing forces in the Maryland party to make the Buchanan threat worrisome.
Mr. Bush's pitch on the environment is aimed at a broader audience than the Maryland Republicans, though. He also hopes to appeal to the state's majority-party Democrats, who gave him a victory in the general election contest in 1988. He is also trying to spruce up his record as the "environmental president."
EPA Administrator William K. Reilly acknowledged as much at a briefing called by the White House.
"We're in a year when the ordinary rules of logic are suspended, and, obviously, all of us are very sensitive to the economics we confront and to the politics as well," Mr. Reilly said.