Legislative leaders and members of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s administration pledged yesterday to put aside their party differences to pass major initiatives during this year's General Assembly session to help the Chesapeake Bay and the environment.
Speaking in Annapolis to more than 350 environmental advocates, the lawmakers and administration officials laid out an ambitious agenda that includes Ehrlich's $2.50 monthly sewage fee to fund wastewater treatment plant upgrades and legislators' efforts to overturn a recent court decision that weakened protection of critical wetlands areas along the bay.
Most speakers at the 10th annual Environmental Legislative Summit insisted that this year's proposals can be tackled in a bipartisan manner -- a sharp contrast from last year's partisan rancor that led the Democratic-controlled Senate to reject the Republican governor's nominee for environmental secretary.
"We are looking forward to working with the initiative we understand Governor Ehrlich is going to bring forward to restore the Chesapeake Bay," promised House Speaker Michael E. Busch, an Anne Arundel County Democrat. "There is no need to wait another year. The environment should be a nonpartisan issue."
The main exception to the bipartisan pledges of cooperation came from Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, who sounded a sharp warning to environmentalists about Republican motives.
"It's the third rail of Republican politics, not to be kind to the environment," Miller said. "We're going to have a tough row to hoe with this administration."
Nevertheless, Miller conceded that Ehrlich's acting environmental secretary, Kendl P. Philbrick, "has been engaged in the dialogue with us." The governor has said he intends to nominate Philbrick for the permanent position, and it appears likely the Senate will approve the pick sometime next month.
Referring to the legacy of Ehrlich's predecessor, Gov. Parris N. Glendening, Miller told environmental activists that Ehrlich's administration is "not going to be the Glendening administration, but I'm confident with your help we can help to move them along the way."
Advocates spent some time during yesterday's summit celebrating the impending override of Ehrlich's veto of a measure that would set energy-efficiency standards for nine types of appliances sold in Maryland.
The Senate voted last week, and the House veto override vote could take place as early as today. Busch promised that he will push this year for stronger energy legislation to require more renewable clean sources, such as wind power.
Philbrick -- who has spent months wooing lawmakers and environmental groups in his quest to win Senate support -- urged activists yesterday to throw their support behind the governor's bay cleanup proposals.
"Rather than pick each other apart, let's work together to try to clean up the Chesapeake Bay," Philbrick said. "Never in the last 30 years has the opportunity been so apparent. With this governor, with this administration ... we have a great opportunity to work with you and move this along."
Ehrlich's bay proposal would raise $66 million a year through a surcharge on users of municipal sewer systems, paying for upgrades to Maryland's 66 largest sewage treatment plants and making significant reductions to harmful nitrogen pollution discharges into the bay.
"Nothing could please me more than Governor Ehrlich's announcement," said former Sen. Bernie Fowler, a longtime Southern Maryland environmentalist who opened the summit. "That's one of the greatest things that has happened to the state of Maryland in a long time. Believe me, it will make a big difference."
Del. Maggie L. McIntosh, a Baltimore Democrat and chairman of the House Environmental Matters Committee, strongly endorsed the sewage fee concept, and said she hopes to push forward an administration bill to encourage the cleanup and redevelopment of more abandoned, polluted industrial sites known as brownfields.
"I want to see the state working in cooperation with these developers," said McIntosh, who led a task force last summer examining the issue. "I don't want to reduce the very high standards we have for cleanup."
Another major bay-related initiative is expected from Sen. Roy P. Dyson, a Southern Maryland Democrat, and Del. Barbara Frush, a Prince George's Democrat. They aim to undo a court decision that undercut protection of sensitive waterfront areas and toughen penalties for violations of state and local laws.
During yesterday's summit, environmental groups also unveiled a $145 million plan to help close the state's budget gap in an environmentally friendly way -- suggesting such measures as higher fees on companies for pollution-related programs.
"I think they're all worthy of consideration," said Sen. Paula C. Hollinger, a Baltimore County Democrat and chairman of the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee.
Hollinger endorsed the group's recommendation to save money by delaying construction of the Intercounty Connector across Montgomery County. "It's hard to imagine people are trying to delay putting money to Thornton for education, but are in a rush to pour concrete," she said. "My mantra this year: I will not vote for pavement over people."
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