Gov. Martin O’Malley fielded skeptical questions from lawmakers about three of his top environmental initiatives Tuesday as he appealed to them to approve bills aimed at promoting offshore wind energy, limiting development and improving water and sewer systems.
O’Malley, a Democrat, ran into some of the day’s fiercest grilling at the Senate Finance Committee, where he took tough questions from senators about the cost, feasibility and employment potential of his wind energy bill. For the governor, it was a return trip to a committee that heard his testimony on a previous version of the bill last year – then decided to shelve it because of the same concerns.
“This bill is the product of your work,” O’Malley said, stressing that his staff has rewritten the legislation over the summer and fall to address those concerns.
But many remained skeptical. Sen. E.J. Pipkin, an Eastern Shore Republican and longtime critic of the plan, pointed out that offshore wind has not taken root in other states. He also noted that federal incentives have been rolled back. He asked why O’Malley thinks he can succeed while efforts in other states have stalled.
“What makes Maryland so different?” Pipkin asked.
O’Malley argued that Maryland has an abundance of wind and said that his legislation is only the first step in a process. “This committee has the ability to put the buoy on the horizon,” he said. He added that it would be “very, very helpful” if the federal government restores some tax credits and incentives for wind.
The governor stressed that his bill is needed for Maryland to be able to meet a goal of using 20 percent renewable energy by 2022.
“What is the better alternative?” O’Malley asked, under questioning from Pipkin. “I don’t see one. Perhaps you do.”
Sen. Barry Glassman, a Harford County Republican, expressed concern about the cost to ratepayers, which O’Malley estimates would be no more than $2 a month. The governor said the cost would not be felt until a project is started, which would be at least five years in the future.
“It sounds good,” Glassman said. “But then you add up the costs for a family, and it is not feasible.”
The reception was no more deferential when O’Malley walked across the hall of the Miller Senate Office Building to persuade another panel of senators to approve his bills that would discourage the spread of large housing developments that aren’t connected to public sewer and water systems and that would increase the so-called “flush tax,” the fee that pays for pollution-reducing improvements to the state’s sewer and water systems.
The governor told the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee that both bills are critical to the future of the Chesapeake Bay. He said science has shown that septic systems connected with sprawling development are an increasingly important contributor to nitrogen pollution. O’Malley also said the state needs to double the revenues from the flush fee, which is levied on all Maryland households and businesses, to raise enough funds to finish upgrading 67 of the state’s largest sewage treatment plants.
The administration is proposing to restructure the fee so that it’s based on a utility customer’s water consumption, enabling households to pay less if they use less. But senators grumbled that the formula would drive up costs for business users.
Sen. Edward R. Reilly, an Anne Arundel County Republican, challenged O’Malley on whether septic systems are such significant polluters in the bay that they merit the regulatory effort the administration wants to put in place.
The governor replied with statistics from rivers in Reilly’s home county, saying septic systems now contribute up to one-third of the pollution flowing into the South, Severn and Magothy – more than sewer systems or farm runoff.
Reilly also questioned why it seemed Maryland was doing more to clean up the bay than other states in the watershed when it contributes only about 20 percent of the pollution.
O’Malley said he shared the senator’s frustration but believes Maryland must take the lead.
“We have more to lose if the bay dies,” he said.
It was an unusually heavy day of legislative inquisition for a governor, but O’Malley took it in stride. “Because the legislature loves our agenda so much, they scheduled a lot of these bills on Valentine’s Day,” he told reporters.
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