The Ehrlich administration moved yesterday to allay opposition to its plan for a voluntary Chesapeake Bay restoration fund by proposing to require that donations to the program be disclosed.
The Department of Natural Resources moved to amend its bill, part of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s legislative agenda, in response to concerns that powerful interests could seek favor with the administration by making secret gifts to the fund.
"It's not meant to curry favor with the governor. It's meant, quite frankly, to help clean up our bay," Ehrlich policy adviser Bernie Marczyk told the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee.
The amendments were offered as the panel heard testimony yesterday on Ehrlich's proposal to establish a Chesapeake Bay Recovery Fund financed with voluntary donations.
Charles C.G. Evans, director of development for the Natural Resources Department, said money from the fund would be devoted to Ehrlich's priority programs for cleaning up the bay. They include restoring the bay's oyster population, encouraging restoration of the bay's sub-aquatic vegetation and controlling nutrient pollution.
The administration is betting that it can raise millions of dollars from private individuals, corporations and other groups to make significant progress toward those goals.
"We're trying to think outside the box and come up with innovative ideas for bay restoration," Evans said.
The proposal aroused suspicions among some committee Democrats that it would become a vehicle for big companies to get into Ehrlich's good graces.
Sen. Paul G. Pinsky of Prince George's County pointed to recent reports that Ehrlich campaign finance chief Richard Hug had been raising undisclosed sums to build support for the governor's slot machines bill.
"It seems to be part of the culture, and the culture's not changing," Pinsky said.
The Ehrlich proposal has divided environmental advocacy groups. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation supports the bill, while 1,000 Friends of Maryland and MaryPIRG oppose it.
Jay Charland, coast-keeper for the Assateague Coastal Trust, expressed concern that the fund might soak up a disproportionate share of the private money available for environmental causes.
"If a good deal of money is going to the government, then less money is coming to groups outside the government," said Charland, who was also testifying on behalf of 1,000 Friends and MaryPIRG. "It would be a shame, I think, if this fund were to overwhelm and stamp out these smaller groups."
Evans said he doesn't think the proposed fund, which he said would operate through an existing nonprofit organization, would compete with environmental groups. He was supported by representatives of several industries with a stake in the bay's health, including watermen, charter boat operators and sport fishermen.
Some senators appeared to be skeptical, asking whether money raised for the fund would be used as an excuse to reduce budget appropriations for bay restoration.
"I can assure you in this administration it won't be substituted," said Marczyk. He later said he couldn't guarantee that.