Maryland Senate Debates How to Fund Omnibus Climate Bill

Sen. Paul G. Pinsky (D-Prince George's). Photo by Danielle E. Gaines.

Maryland Senate Republicans tried Tuesday to change how a sweeping climate action bill would be paid for by offering two amendments with alternative funding strategies, but both efforts failed in votes on the Senate floor.

The Climate Solutions Now Act of 2021 aims to cut pollution in Maryland which contributes to global warming to a level that is 60% lower than it was in 2006, within the next decade. To help achieve that, it sets a goal of planting 5 million trees by 2030, mandates electrifying the state government’s vehicle fleet, requires constructing more energy efficient school buildings, and other efforts. Current law requires the state to set detailed plans and strategies to reduce that kind of pollution to a level 40% lower than in 2006.

The measure also would create a just transition workgroup for displaced fossil fuel workers and would add new responsibilities for the state’s environmental justice commission.

Legislative analysts say it is difficult to calculate the overall cost of the bill’s far-reaching proposals, but according to the bill’s fiscal note, $36.25 million would be transferred from existing funds every year from fiscal year 2022 through 2030 to support the bill’s programs.

The measure would take no more than $20 million from the Strategic Energy Investment Fund each year to help pay for replacing the state fleet with electric cars and for school buildings to become carbon neutral or solar-ready. For planting trees, $15 million would be taken from the Bay Restoration Fund (BRF) annually and $1.25 million from the Chesapeake Bay Trust Fund.

Republicans took issue with reallocating money from the Bay Restoration Fund, established in 2004 to support upgrades in Maryland’s 67 wastewater treatment plants and in septic tank systems, which are widely used in rural areas without central sewer systems.

The Clean Water Commerce Act of 2021, sponsored by Sen. Guy Guzzone (D-Howard), also seeks to transfer $20 million annually from the Bay Restoration Fund to support cost-effective projects to help Maryland reach the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL), or pollution reduction targets established by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Republican leaders argued that the money transferred out of the Bay Restoration Fund for the Clean Water Commerce Act, and for the tree planting program under the Climate Solutions Now Act of 2021, would jeopardize local wastewater and sewer projects that smaller towns need to address sewage overflows and “brown” drinking water. It pushes such local projects down the “priority list,” they contended.

“We want a clean environment, we want to reduce greenhouse gases, but the debate comes on what is the best way to accomplish our shared goals,” Sen. Bryan Simonaire (R-Anne Arundel) said. “One of the main concerns I have is the diversion of the Bay Restoration Fund — it takes, with [the Clean Water Commerce Act of 2021], about $35 million dollars.”

“They’re going to take away from local projects,” he continued.

Sen. Paul Pinsky (D-Prince George’s), lead sponsor of the Climate Solutions Now Act of 2021, contended that three-quarters of Bay Restoration Fund (BRF) projects already do not get approved for funding. He also pointed out that Valley Proteins was awarded $13 million recently from the fund to upgrade its wastewater treatment plant, making it the fund’s second largest project.

Tree planting projects have been pushed aside in favor of a privately owned for-profit company, Pinsky said. “That wasn’t mentioned.”

For fiscal year 2022, the Maryland Department of the Environment appropriated $75 million to the BRF to support 14 projects in 11 jurisdictions, most of which are in Western Maryland and on the Eastern Shore, according to the MDE’s capital budget summary. But, for that budget year, MDE received applications for 99 projects.

In order not to compromise projects under consideration, Pinsky offered an amendment to postpone taking any money from the Bay Restoration Fund for one year. The amendment was adopted.

Still, Republicans warned that delaying the drain from the fund does not solve the problem. 

Sen. Jason Gallion (R-Harford and Cecil) proposed limiting what could be used for personnel and administrative costs to ensure that money does not run short and delay projects already underway.

Gallion said that the Bay Restoration Fund is for capital projects, so most funding should go directly to implementing the projects.

Gallion’s amendment was rejected in a 31-16 vote with all Republicans and Sen. Katie Fry Hester (D-Carroll and Howard) supporting the amendment.

“Flood levels are rising, agricultural lands are becoming salty, there’s going to be more flash floods. This is an issue we need to come together on,” Hester said.

“This is not a partisan issue,” she continued.

Sen. Guzzone, the chair of the Budget and Taxation committee, reassured lawmakers that funding for wastewater treatment plant projects would not be undermined by this bill.

“Wastewater treatment plants —let’s hear this loud and clear — both major and minor, are the first in line before any other funding. There is no chance that they will not get funded,” Guzzone said. “Septics are also going to get funded; it’s got a separate component of this fund.”

In another effort to preserve Bay Restoration Fund projects, Sen. Michael Hough (R-Carroll and Frederick) proposed requiring the governor to appropriate $15 million from the general fund to pay for tree planting under the Climate Solutions Now Act of 2021.

Under Hough’s amendment, “we can keep the money in the Bay Restoration Fund and also plant trees,” Simonaire said. “I think that’s a win-win situation.” He said he would vote for the bill if this amendment passes.

That amendment failed 30-16, with all Republicans and Hester supporting the amendment.

Hough offered another amendment that would require the governor to earmark funding in the annual budget bill for the tree planting programs, but Senate President Bill Ferguson (D) moved to recess the Senate before the debate could continue.

The Senate will continue discussing the Climate Solutions Now Act of 2021 Wednesday morning. The House Environment Subcommittee is slated to continue working on the House version of the bill Wednesday.

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