Senators tentatively agreed yesterday on how to spend a new $50 million fund to help clean up the Chesapeake Bay, though lawmakers cautioned that the state's budget crisis might force them to slash the money this year.
Senators voted down efforts to allow some of the fund to be spent on tackling pollution problems in the state's Atlantic coastal bays or preserving the state's scenic and wild rivers. But they adopted an amendment offered by Sen. E.J. Pipkin to prevent any of the money from being spent to enforce pollution laws.
Sen. Paul G. Pinsky, the Prince George's County Democrat who presented the bill on the Senate floor, argued that allowing the $50 million fund to be spent on other worthy environmental causes would dilute its effectiveness in cleaning up the Chesapeake. But he agreed to Pipkin's amendment.
Pipkin, a Republican from the Eastern Shore, said even including pollution enforcement among the list of potential uses of the fund upset farmers, who fear that the money could be used to target agricultural pollution.
"Lets leave this fund with the carrots and not put in the stick," Pipkin said.
The measure is due for a final Senate vote tomorrow, though the fund's prospects are clouded by anxiety over today's expected announcement of new state revenue projections.
The General Assembly approved Gov. Martin O'Malley's request to set aside $50 million for the bay cleanup effort during last fall's special legislative session. Lawmakers couldn't agree at the time on how to spend the money, leading to the bill this year that would focus the fund on combating polluted runoff.
Because of indications that the slumping economy is hurting state revenue collections, legislators have been warning that they might reduce or delay several of O'Malley's initiatives, including the bay fund.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said yesterday that lawmakers are bracing to cut O'Malley's proposed $15.2 billion operating fund budget by as much as $300 million.
The bay fund was among several of the governor's initiatives that face possible reduction or delay to bring spending in line with the drop in revenues, Miller said.
"We'll leave increments in place," Miller said, "but maybe fund them over two years, maybe three years."
After speaking at an environmental rally yesterday in Annapolis, O'Malley said he still hopes to persuade lawmakers not to cut the bay fund too much.
"We're looking at a likely revenue write-down because of the downturn in the economy in the neighborhood of $300 million," O'Malley said, referring to revised revenue estimates scheduled for release tomorrow. "We saw the stem cell investment take a hit the other day, and I'm sure there will be pressure on the Chesapeake Bay fund. ... We're doing all that we can to protect it."
Sun reporter Gadi Dechter contributed to this article.