- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 15, 2007

ANNAPOLIS — From the soap used to wash dishes to the cars driven to work, Marylanders will feel large and small effects from the recent legislative session some have called the most environmental in years.

Democrats this year celebrated their stronger grip on state government and their return to the governor’s mansion with a spate of earth-friendly bills that became the dominant theme of the session.

Lawmakers tightened emissions standards on new cars. They slashed the amount of water-polluting phosphorus allowed in dishwashing detergent. They ended the commercial harvest of diamondback terrapins and set new goals for solar energy. Oysters got some new protections, and developers were given new rules to prevent runoff pollution into the Chesapeake Bay.

“We have a real confluence of events we’ve never had before,” said Attorney General Douglas Gansler, a Democrat who billed himself as an environmental watchdog during last year’s campaign. “We’ve got the governor, the [House] speaker, the [Senate] president, the legislature, the comptroller, the attorney general all on the same page. We’re all thinking, ‘What do we need to do to make the environment better in the 21st century?’ ”

Observers say the lawmaking session that wrapped up last week was chock-full of environmental efforts. Often mentioned was the difference after four years under Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, who appeared to some Democrats to be hostile to environmental interests.

“It’s a different ballgame,” said Sen. Nathaniel McFadden, Baltimore Democrat. “Greens did pretty well. I think that they got the majority of what they wanted. It’s definitely a departure from the last four years.”

Three major environmental bills were commonly cited as the most important of the session. The first was a bill to require cars sold in Maryland to meet California emissions standards after model year 2011. Though it won’t affect cars currently sold, the bill means Maryland will become the 11th state to require tougher emissions than allowed by federal regulators.

Another piece of legislation that topped environmentalists’ to-do list this year was a requirement that developers take new steps to reduce harmful runoff.

“Sometimes, they build huge developments and put a stormwater pond in the middle and consider it done,” said Brad Heavner, director of Environment Maryland. “This says developers will have to use low-impact design.”

The third is a bill requiring Maryland to get 2 percent of its electricity from solar energy by 2022. The change will take effect gradually, starting next year.

“We’re clearly at the forefront with respect to solar energy,” said Sen. Rob Garagiola, Montgomery Democrat, sponsor of the solar-energy bill.

However, the session wasn’t all easy going for environmentalists. Despite ardent lobbying efforts — including the delivery of hundreds of green piggy banks — lawmakers did not agree to set a development fee to raise an estimated $130 million a year for Chesapeake Bay restoration. The House passed the bill, but senators resisted, lumping it in with other new programs considered laudable but too expensive this year.

Some Republicans felt that instead of stalling, the legislature largely pulled the trigger on most environmental bills, even moving more quickly than prudent.

“Some of the bills were far too ambitious,” said Delegate Christopher B. Shank of Washington County, the House’s second-ranking Republican. He called the development fee “yet another tax for yet another program” and praised the Senate for not passing it.

Another Republican, Delegate Richard K. Impallaria of Baltimore County, said predictions of dire fiscal times in future years rightly trumped the environment. He pointed out that of all the varied environmental bills that passed this year, few will cost the state.

“All of the projects were very worthy, but we had to hold the spending,” he said.

For Gov. Martin O’Malley, however, wrapping up his first term with largely glowing remarks from environmentalists gave him a political win from a constituency that worked hard to get him elected. In Mr. O’Malley’s first after-session bill signing, the environment was one of his first crowing points.

“We really made some phenomenal progress,” Mr. O’Malley said.

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