Top lawmakers and environmentalists stepped up their push for the state's land-preservation efforts yesterday, prompted by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s draining of a land purchase fund and his consideration of parkland sales.
Three of four Senate committee chairmen and several House of Delegates leaders lent their support to legislation that would restrict the use of real estate transfer-tax proceeds that are supposed to be used to buy parks and build playgrounds and ball fields.
Ehrlich's budget proposes to use 75 percent of the transfer-tax fund - about $160 million - for general state operations. But top lawmakers who came out in favor of a package of environmental bills yesterday say they want a law requiring that the money be spent for its intended purposes unless the state is suffering a severe economic downturn.
Those lawmakers also are backing several bills to restrict the sale of publicly owned land, an outgrowth of a secretive deal to sell 836 acres of protected forest in St. Mary's County to a prominent Baltimore contracting company owner.
Environmentalists, meanwhile, released poll numbers yesterday that they say demonstrate widespread approval for tighter control of the state's land-preservation programs.
"We know the public support is out there," said Sen. Paula C. Hollinger, a Baltimore County Democrat and chairwoman of the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee.
Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, a Charles County Democrat and chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, is the lead sponsor of a bill that would allow the use of land-preservation money for budget-balancing only if analysts determined that state spending was exceeding revenues in a particular year.
The land-buying program has been used for three consecutive years to help balance the state budget, Middleton said. But he said the governor had little need to transfer the money this year because the economy is growing and Maryland's budget reserve account contains about $230 million more than is needed.
"I believe the economy is hot," Middleton said. "It's time to stop taking the money."
Leading lawmakers also said they support several bills that would give the General Assembly veto power over when parkland can be sold.
Last summer and fall, news accounts of the planned sale of a protected forest in Southern Maryland to contracting company magnate Willard Hackerman drew the scrutiny of legislators. He was to buy the land at the same price the state paid for it and had promised to preserve it, a pledge that could have resulted in a multimillion-dollar tax break. But state documents released later show that Hackerman planned to build several estate homes there.
Other documents showed that the state Department of Natural Resources had identified 3,000 acres in and around state parks that it was considering declaring excess property, meaning the land could eventually be transferred or sold.
A Hollinger bill would prohibit the sale of park property without legislative approval, two independent appraisals and a public auction.
Ehrlich does not think such restrictions are necessary.
"He would be concerned about legislation that would diminish gubernatorial power or the power of the Board of Public Works," Shareese DeLeaver, a spokeswoman for the governor, told the Associated Press. The board can sell land without Assembly approval.
Yesterday, a coalition called Partners for Open Space released the results of a poll finding that more than 70 percent of voters support a law to protect open-space funding, with 22 percent opposed.