If the Ehrlich administration gets its way, Marylanders will be able to heal the Chesapeake Bay by buying bay-themed spring water and sportswear and by telling cashiers at their favorite shops to keep the change.
Details of the governor's proposal to raise millions of private dollars for a Chesapeake Bay Recovery Fund emerged yesterday in the plan's first airing before state lawmakers.
Natural Resources Secretary C. Ronald Franks said that the goal was to raise $24 million by 2010 for large-scale projects such as rebuilding oyster populations and planting grasses that boost oxygen for marine life.
The fund would raise money through an annual concert series and the sale of bottled water, shirts, and jackets bearing a bay logo. In addition, cashiers at participating stores and restaurants would ask customers to donate by rounding up their tabs.
The fund would also pursue more conventional sources, such as corporations and philanthropies.
Experts said that though states have sold license plates and duck stamps to help finance restoration programs, they knew of no state delving this far into retail marketing for environmental recovery.
"Giving people an opportunity to vote with their dollars will be a gauge of whether they really want to" support bay cleanup, Jack Greer, an environmental financing specialist at the University of Maryland, College Park, said in an interview.
At a hearing yesterday before the House Environmental Matters Committee, representatives of conservation groups, charter boats, watermen and sportfishing groups praised the fund as a creative financing source in a time of bare budgets.
But a few critics raised the specter of the state competing with nonprofit groups for charitable money and of corporations expecting favors in return for donations.
"It conjures ideas of Budweiser Bay, Viagra Point and Coca Cola Cove," Brian J. O'Hare, of the nonprofit Coastal Conservation Association of Maryland, told lawmakers.
The Chesapeake Bay Recovery Fund is one of two major environmental proposals Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. announced last month.
The other, the Chesapeake Bay Restoration Fund, would charge most households and businesses a $2.50 monthly sewer use fee for the upgrade of 66 large sewage treatment plants that dump harmful nutrients into the bay.
The Department of Natural Resources would manage the recovery fund, with help from a private charity and advice from a 20-member board of state officials and political appointees. The fund would work with private companies to market what officials are calling "Waters to the Bay" drinking water and "Bay-Gear" clothing.
State officials say that the fund would add to - not replace - the limited state and federal dollars already set aside for large-scale bay restoration.
A host of nonprofit organizations also raise money for the bay, and the state already has the Chesapeake Bay Trust, a private group that has awarded more than $14 million in grants in the 19 years since its creation by the General Assembly. The trust receives most of its money from sales of the "Treasure the Chesapeake" license plates and from a check-off on state income tax returns.
But Franks and the bay trust's director, David O'Neill, testified that the new fund would complement existing efforts by appealing to a wider group of Marylanders and focusing on sweeping projects beyond the means of the nonprofits.
Del. Maggie L. McIntosh, a Baltimore Democrat who heads the environmental committee, echoed the fears of some critics that the fund could invite conflicts of interest.
"Let's say we have a deregulation bill right here in this building and Constellation Energy and everyone else lines up to give to the fund," McIntosh said at the end of the 45-minute hearing. "It's something we just need to think about."