Marylanders need to speak up for open space

When I have a hard time understanding government spending — the construction and tinkering that goes into, say, Maryland's multibillion-dollar annual budget — I just imagine the whole thing as a kitchen-table conversation with members of a household declaring and negotiating priorities. (Pardon the time-worn metaphor, but it works for me.)

After we cover the big-ticket items (health, education, roads, public safety, the mandatory areas of spending), we get around to the other pieces of the budget that need to be maintained — public employee pensions, for instance — and arguments break out about obligations, fiscal discipline and not "kicking the can down the road." It can get rough, even ugly.

But after the dust settles and everyone's exhausted, someone at the far end of the table, who has waited her turn to speak, reminds us about a certain obligation: One half of one percent of all transfer taxes paid at real estate closings must be set aside for protection of land against future development; that's state law.

In Maryland, it's called Program Open Space. It was established in 1969 with bipartisan support, and for good reason: The legislators of that time saw massive development coming to the state's suburbs, and they wanted to preserve farms and acquire land for public parks and playgrounds to keep things in balance — Maryland as "the land of pleasant living" even as it became a huge bedroom for Washington and Baltimore.

With white flight from the cities, the construction of the interstate highway system and two beltways, environmentalists and lawmakers saw Maryland's potential to become an utter mess as population grew and development spread.

Forty-five years along, we pride ourselves on being a state that still boasts postcard vistas from the Eastern Shore and the Chesapeake to the mountains of Garrett County, with a lot of nice spots in between.

The $2 billion that went into Program Open Space has a lot to do with that. It's a smart program, a legacy of Maryland's progressive approach to conservation, built on a simple idea:

Take a tiny piece of the revenue from each real estate transaction and fund a program to save open space — buy development rights from Maryland's family farmers so they can keep farming, acquire land for state parks, and send money to Baltimore and our smaller cities and the counties so they can build playgrounds, bike trails and lacrosse and soccer fields.

The logic is beautiful.

Because Program Open Space is tied to real estate transactions — only 0.5 percent of transfer taxes go into the fund — it tracks with the economy. If development and house sales slow, so does Program Open Space. In better times, when there's more action in commercial and residential real estate, more money goes into land preservation.

But the wise lawmakers who established the program are gone, and their political descendants have raided the fund countless times — to the tune of about $1.5 billion, according to calculations by the nonprofit Partners for Open Space — and they did this most famously during the savings-and-loan mess of the mid-1980s.

Annapolis has scoffed repeatedly at the spirit of the law that established Program Open Space with little worry about political fallout.

That last part is what gets me. That's why I'm writing about this today. The muldoons in Annapolis are messing with Program Open Space again. In his new budget, Gov. Martin O'Malley designates no cash for the program, using instead a more complicated system of bonds to finance specific projects, while some in the General Assembly want to cap the fund at $100 million. (Yeah, baby, time to rein in all that wild spending going on for open space!)

In the program's original form, there was never supposed to be a cap; Porogram Open Space was supposed to try and balance land gobbled up for development with land conserved for farms, forests and local parks and playing fields, all through a tiny fraction of the revenue from each real estate transaction.

Partners for Open Space says there are 150 Maryland farm families lined up for the state's agricultural preservation program, but not enough money to handle the demand because of Annapolis's constant raiding of Program Open Space.

Doing a budget — in a household or for the entire state — requires many skills, discipline and adherence to principles, including respect for an established rule.

In this case, here's the rule: We will devote 0.5 percent to a fund to acquire land, and it will be tied to income from a specific source; we won't be obligated to put any additional money into that fund but, at the same time, we won't raid it for the general budget, either.

In violating the spirit of Program Open Space, Annapolis counts on Marylanders not caring enough about grass and trees to bother them with phone calls and emails. And if that happens, then in time maybe they'll think it's OK to just end the program altogether.

We can't let that happen. We need to take a stand for open space, and now.

Dan Rodricks' column appears each Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. He is the host of "Midday" on WYPR-FM.

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