- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 3, 2008

ANNAPOLIS (AP) — Saying Maryland can’t wait to try to address global warming, state lawmakers predict that a menu of environmental proposals could dominate this year’s session.

Several lawmakers say a proposal to cap carbon emissions — possibly the nation’s toughest plan to reduce greenhouse gases — stands to become the most ambitious bill of the General Assembly session. The environment could be a main topic of debate because the state’s looming budget problems were largely addressed in last fall’s special session.

The carbon bill, endorsed by a task force set up by Gov. Martin O'Malley, would call for carbon reductions of 25 percent by 2020 and 90 percent by 2050. If approved, the goals would be the nation’s strongest carbon-reduction plans.

The caps could headline a long list of environmental proposals. Lawmakers may also consider reforms to a state law limiting development near waterways and debate anew how to spend a new $50 million fund to clean up the Chesapeake Bay.

“I think the environment’s going to loom large in this session,” said House Majority Leader Kumar P. Barve, Montgomery Democrat, who worked on Mr. O'Malley’s global-warming task force and plans to back the carbon caps.

A carbon-cap bill was considered last year by lawmakers, but they didn’t approve it. This year, environmentalists and several lawmakers say the cap should pass, likely with a backing from the governor.

“If you talked to me three or four years ago, anything about climate-change solutions, I’d say it’s tooth and nail. But now, I’m very, very optimistic this bill is going to pass,” said Mike Tidwell, director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, a Takoma Park-based group that focuses on global warming.

Mr. O'Malley, a Democrat, has not said whether he plans to make carbon caps part of his legislative proposals, but several top lawmakers predicted that the governor would back the plan. He has said he wants Maryland to be a national leader on climate-change legislation and alternative energy.

Senate Minority Leader David R. Brinkley, Frederick Republican, said opposition to the carbon caps will likely resurface. He said the carbon caps sound good but would be expensive and complicated to implement. Mr. Brinkley compared the proposal to a 2007 law calling for cleaner emissions from cars; that law has since been blocked by President Bush.

Talking about Democrats’ plans on the environment, Mr. Brinkley said, “They pound their chests and act like they accomplished a lot, when in fact nothing really has been done.”

He said Maryland can’t solve global warming alone, and Democrats are foolish to try.

“They act like we’re going to save the world here in Maryland,” he said.

Environmental groups, though, applaud what they call a stronger resolve on the part of Maryland lawmakers to address global warming.

“There’s a real desire to make a mark and do something,” said Cindy Schwartz, executive director of the Maryland League of Conservation Voters.

As always, the Chesapeake will also be a prime topic of discussion for lawmakers. They recently set aside $50 million a year to clean up the Bay, but they couldn’t agree on how that money should be spent. Those details will have to be worked out in the coming term.

“Money has been spent for years and years and years with no corresponding improvement in the Bay,” said Sen. Paul G. Pinsky, Prince George’s Democrat, who opposed a House-backed plan to spend the $50 million. Mr. Pinsky said he expects lawmakers to haggle over where to spend the money, especially about how much farmers should get to reduce polluting runoff.

“There has to be some kind of nexus between the investments and the reductions,” Mr. Pinsky said.

Lawmakers are also likely to consider an overhaul of the 1970s-era “Critical Areas” law. The law was set up to protect land closest to the Chesapeake and its tributaries, but environmental groups complain that it is too easily ignored by local governments.

“It has done a lot of things, but over time, developers have figured out how to get around it,” Miss Schwartz said of Critical Areas law. Miss Schwartz and others would like to see the law reformed to prevent governments from allowing “variances,” or exceptions to the rules, especially after a development has already been started.

Sen. E.J. Pipkin predicted that the Critical Areas reform could prove the “sleeper fight” of the session if local governments feel the legislature is moving to take away their control over land use and zoning.

“The state should be in supporting role, but counties and municipalities know best how their land should be used,” said Mr. Pipkin, Eastern Shore Republican.

Along with those pieces of legislation are likely to be several smaller environmental attempts, including a proposal to require new schools to use green building technology and incentives for consumers to buy energy-efficient appliances and light bulbs.

“If we can get significant progress on climate change and Bay cleanup, we’ll feel pretty good about the session,” Mr. Pinsky said.

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