Maryland House wants to protect Open Space funds from budget raids

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By Bryan Renbaum

The House of Delegates is moving forward on a proposal by Gov. Larry Hogan to keep transfer tax funds collected during real estate transactions for their intended purpose — preserving open space, agricultural land and operating parks and state forests.

The bill, HB462, which enjoys overwhelming Republican support, as well as several other Democratic co-sponsors, was amended and approved for a final House vote on Tuesday. It is designed to prevent these funds from being raided to balance the budget and instead keeps them in the Project Open Space fund, which is distributed in a specific formula to different types of open space initiatives.

If passed, general fund revenues would decrease $20 million in FY 2017 and by $40 million in FY 2018.  But spending for open space would increase as those funds stay available, instead of going to the general fund.

The bill was amended in the House Appropriations Committee to aid a number of park projects in Baltimore.

More funds to Program Open Space

During the February hearing, Secretary of Natural Resources Mark Belton told the Appropriations Committee that the bill would increase revenues for conservation programs and gave specific examples of how those programs like local Program Open Space grants, the Maryland Rural Legacy Program and the Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Foundation, would benefit.

“For the Rural Legacy Program, this bill would allow $4.8 million more dollars 2017 and $9 million more dollars in 2018, preserving approximately 1,300 and 2,500 additional acres in those years respectively. And similar increases would impact those programs in similar ways,” Belton said.

Mathew Palmer, who is the Hogan administration’s Deputy Legislative Officer, spoke briefly, but also stressed increased conservation revenues.

“The bill sets out that we give back $20 million to Program Open Space in the coming fiscal year and $40 million in the next fiscal year,” Palmer told the committee.

                                         Committee chair skeptical

Del. Maggie McIntosh, D-Baltimore City, the committee chair, questioned the accuracy of Palmer’s estimates and suggested funds might still be diverted from Program Open Space.

“You’re saying that this bill basically says that you’re putting back $20 million into Program Open Space to be distributed by formula and that $40 million will be distributed by formula,” McIntosh asked.

Palmer denied that was the case and said the bill only deals with repayment and that funds would not be put back in the formula. The bill identifies specific funding amounts for each program within Program Open Space for the $20 million and $40 million. For instance, in fiscal 2017 it would give $4 million to Program Open Space state, which the budget bill said would go toward a grant for Eager Park in Baltimore City. It calls for $5 million for local open space projects and $4.9 million for Rural Legacy, among other planned allocations.

But McIntosh was still skeptical.

“I just want to make it very clear that the comprehensive bill repays Program Open Space and it goes through the formula, am I correct?  This is something different, in fact I could almost look at it as if they’re taking money out of the formula, $20 million and 40 million, so just know that this is gonna be the discussion we have when we work together on this.”

(Feature photo by Doug Christian.)